The seminary never taught me how to handle this.
I once sat through a couponing lecture during a pastoral ministry class because the professor assumed we would all be poor and, therefore, would need to learn how to maximize coupons at grocery stores.
Still, I don’t remember a single discussion about if you should cancel a corporate worship service because of social distancing or how to keep paying bills without a Sunday morning offering because of a global pandemic.
As Covid-19 spreads around the world, the church faces a unique challenge of how to carry out its mission without its most common tools: corporate worship, community group gatherings, youth groups, moms’ ministries, and other get-togethers.
It’s Okay to Have Fear
Fear is an expected response to these moments.
Being a pastor, leader, or key volunteer of a church doesn’t free us from fearing the uncertainty of the day. As a matter of fact, we might have more reasons to worry.
Not only do we face the personal difficulty that every other person faces—job insecurity, uncertain incomes, kids stuck at home, possible illness, and loved ones in danger—but we also face decisions which can impact a good number of people.
Others are looking to us for answers and faith, with the probability of ministry needs increasing even while ministry funds are nonexistent.
It’s okay to be afraid.
Name your fears.
Write them down.
Voice them to a friend.
Tell your spouse.
Feel every doubt that you have. Denying them won’t be useful. Pretending as though your faith is unshakeable and stoically ignoring the uncertainty will not be helpful.
Feel your fears, but don’t be ruled by them. Refuse to make decisions based on them.
It’s Not Okay to Be Led by Fear
Fear is an understandable emotion, but it is a horrible decision-maker. Rarely, if ever, will we make wise choices when fear is the driving factor. In most cases, fear of one outcome will cause us to make a mistake in the opposite direction.
If I’m interviewing for a job and I’m afraid of looking too rigid, I might come across as too loose. While playing golf, if I’m scared of hitting the putt too hard, I often hit it way too short. Fear does not lead to the outcomes we want.
Instead of fear, we must always make decisions based on love.
How can we best love others during a time of national suffering or best express the love of Jesus even when we can’t publicly gather? How can we properly love our neighbors even though we can’t physically be with them? These are the questions that drive sound decisions.
Notice that the main difference between love and fear is focus. Fear is focused on what might happen to us; love is fixed on how we might serve others. This is the perspective we must have, even as we are rightly afraid of what might happen to our churches, our families, and ourselves.
The Church of the Afraid
The danger for the church is that in a time of great trial, we might become the Church of the Afraid. Rather than boldly attempting to accomplish our mission during trying times, we may be overcome by fear and start making decisions based on what scares us rather than how we might serve others.
I experienced it last weekend.
Despite not having a confirmed case in our area, I knew we should not gather in a corporate setting on Sunday morning. We have too many people with compromised immune systems or who are elderly, two groups that are most at risk. I knew those faithful saints would come to church if our doors were open.
To love them well meant we should close.
Yet fear whispered another story. How would we endure a weekend without an offering? What would the critics say about my lack of faith? How loud would the Pharisees shout if I forsook the assembling of the body?
Fear tempted us to stick our heads in the sand and keep doing what we were doing as though nothing around us were happening. Love compelled us in another direction.
The Church of the Afraid is ruled by fear. When fear leads us, we are driven to focus on four idols:
We aren’t so much worried about the safety of others as we are about our own personal safety.
What’s going to keep the membership most happy? How can I keep my job? What will my critics say if I get this decision wrong?
Fear rules in the survival-of-the-fittest world. Not wanting to seem like victims, we pretend to be strong. Rather than dealing with reality, we attempt to project a persona of having it all together.
When fear motivates us, money becomes a primary concern.
While financial needs should always be considered, rarely should we determine a course based solely on money. Yet fear tells us that without the money, we won’t survive. So churches are willing to bend to the big givers or cater to the potential donors, even if it means making decisions that ultimately aren’t loving toward others.
In a culture of fear, power is a tempting seducer. It promises to save us from pain and suffering. We think the powerful will be less fearful. Yet power never produces what it promises.
When fear is present, safety, appearances, money, and power become the things we turn to as we chase after some semblance of control.
Jesus never told us to worry about our jobs or reputations. He never said to project a strength we do not have, He never commanded us to trust in money or power, and He never told us to fear tomorrow.
But He did command us to love.
Remember when you first felt called to ministry? For me, I was a junior high kid assuming that every Baptist boy wrestled with whether or not he was supposed preach one day. It wasn’t until years later that I learned none of my friends even considered it.
But when that calling first came, obedience was the only thing that mattered. I knew God never promised worldly success. My goal was to obey God’s call, proclaim His kingdom, and accept whatever results might occur.
That calling mimics the feeling many have experienced when starting a church, developing new campuses, or beginning a new ministry. We hope for great outcomes, but the more significant force driving us is not outward signs of success. It is a singular devotion to God and a desire to do His will.
How does a pandemic change your calling?
How does a quarantine impact your church’s mission?
Your call to preach the gospel is the same—in season or out of season.
Your church’s command to make disciples is the same—church gathered or church scattered.
One potential upside of these times—and there are several—is that we will quickly be shown our church’s actual mission. Forget the mission statements in the bulletin or the graphics on the website. What is your church really about?
If a church’s mission has devolved into just providing a Sunday morning worship service or hosting a Sunday School class, that mission will disappear during a mandated quarantine. The people won’t know what to do.
If pandemic has you paralyzed, that’s a mission problem.
The church’s mission was never simply to hold a service or a small group. These are usually tools for carrying out the mission, but they aren’t the mission.
If our task is to make disciples, today’s events don’t change that mission. As a matter of fact, it may create a greater climate to accomplish the mission.
During tranquil times, people push aside eternal things for the “cares of this world.” However, when life and death are on the news every night, people may be more likely to consider eternal things. What better than a pandemic to get the attention of people who are often too busy with today to think about tomorrow?
The Church of the Brave
What the world needs now is not the Church of the Afraid but the Church of the Brave. We need congregations who are so focused on loving their neighbors that they are willing to make any decision necessary to express that love.
If it means physically distancing ourselves from each other, we will do so. If it means buying gift cards from restaurants to keep those businesses open, we will do so. And, if it means larger churches helping small churches pay their church staff, we will do so.
While fear is understandable, we must face our fears and courageously act in love. When love inspires us, we turn to a different set of values than the safety, appearances, money, and power that fear propels us toward. Love values:
We trust God, and we learn to trust others.
We know that nothing happens without at least God’s divine permission, if not His divine direction. If He is allowing a pandemic to take place, then He is calling us to minister during an epidemic. We trust His plan, we believe in His goodness, and we expect His Presence.
Rather than attempting to project an appearance of strength, we will focus on the heart of the matter.
We will tell the truth—even if that means admitting we don’t know what to do. We will reveal our failures and insecurities. And, we will meet people where they are, expecting fallen human beings to frequently act like fallen human beings.
This isn’t the time for churchy hypocrisy. This is the time for genuine concern and bold efforts to help others.
Even as we need to physically distance ourselves from one another to slow the spread of the virus, we must recommit ourselves to the belief that connection to others profoundly matters.
God made us for relationships. We were created to be in a relationship with Him and with others. Love compels us to make connections.
This crisis removes our usual avenues for relationships—weekly worship, community groups, serving opportunities—but it does not prevent us from finding ways to interact with others wisely. How will you emotionally connect with your people even if you can’t physically be in their presence?
If fear says we should seek power, then love invites us into submission.
We like to be in charge, but at this moment we are not. We must submit to the realities of our days, and ultimately we must submit to God.
For the last two decades, a majority of my time has been spent preparing for a weekly sermon. But that probably won’t be my most meaningful way to minister for the next few months.
While in North America the governments can’t truly dictate what a church can or can’t do, we should likely submit to their guidelines and suggestions regarding gatherings. Until we submit to others, we will be fighting against what is taking place rather than attempting to minister.
This Isn’t New
I’ve never experienced a time in ministry like this last week. I guess the months to come will be uncharted waters for our church and me.
However, there is nothing new under the sun. For nearly two thousand years, the church has been salt and light in the middle of unimaginable times of human suffering and sorrow. As the church has been in the past, so it will be during the present.
We don’t know what tomorrow holds. We can reasonably assume that after the pandemic, some local churches will have closed their doors because of a lack of funding. It’s safe to guess that if the epidemic hits hard, some pastors will lose their lives to the virus. God never promised us comfortable lives or ministries.
But He did call us.
He placed a desire within us to preach the gospel. He did empower our churches to be founded, most often, for the single purpose of expanding the gospel into new neighbors and new people.
Those things are not dependent on buildings being open on Sunday mornings or small groups meeting in coffee shops every week. While it’s not ideal for us, how we do ministry will change for the next few months, but the reasons for which we will do ministry always remain the same.
Love Your Neighbor
Pastor, preacher, layperson, church member: your task is not easy, but it is simple. We are called to love our neighbors. Wherever they are. Whatever they are going through. Whatever is happening in our own lives. God has us here in this time and at this place in order to make His kingdom known in our lives and the world around us.
Fear tells you these are bad times. It tempts you to stick your head in the sand and wait until it’s all over. It makes you think you’ve lost the opportunity to do what God has called you to do.
Thankfully, love tells a different story.
It reminds us that the church has always been most useful when the times are most bleak. It calls us to recognize our complete dependence on God to experience any real eternal success. And it promises that if we obey His commands and live out our callings in the challenges of this tumultuous season, we will never regret it.
- What does your community need the most—the Church of the Afraid or the Church of the Brave?
- What are your greatest fears during this time?
- Are there decisions you are tempted to make based on those fears?
- How does love call you in a different direction?
- What are ways you can effectively love your neighbor this week?