At his inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to a nation rocked by the Great Depression. He took the opportunity to turn the dire times into a more noble response.
He said in part, "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Roosevelt saw the opportunity to take a difficult circumstances and pivot toward the future. This perspective is helpful for the church as well.
You and I have not lived through a time like this in our lives. We can all agree we aren't going to miss terms like "self-quarantine," "social distancing," and "shelter at home" once this finally passes.
But as we creep slowly forward, we dare not miss this opportunity to turn "retreat into advance."
If you are a church leader, no doubt you were thinking at the start of the year about how to help your church be more effective in the work of the gospel in your community. You likely had conversations with staff and other leaders about how to minister to the marginalized in your community as well. Maybe you were focusing especially on the coming Easter season as key to your plans when everything changed.
A renewed vision
It's easy to see the pandemic as a great interruption to be endured and forgotten instead of the great opportunity to pivot toward a renewed vision for ministry. We can learn much in this case from the life of Jesus.
When you read the Gospels, you see that so much of his earthly ministry was based on responding to the opportunities that presented themselves to him: encountering fishermen as he walked alongside the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 4:18-22); a lame man dropped through the roof (Mark 2:1-12); a despised tax collector named Zacchaeus who came to hear him (Luke 19:1-10); an outcast Samaritan woman (John 4). The four Gospels are full of these.
The more you read these accounts, the more you see how Jesus was more available to the broken and marginalized because he wasn't so busy checking off his to-do list for the day. He had margin to minister.
Reset your why
This season can reset how we think about ministry at several levels. First, it allows us to help our churches see the why behind all we do. Too often, we give attention to what to do and how to do it, without giving attention to the why. But when we lose the why, the what and the how can fill our schedules to the point we can lose sight of the why.
Why has God placed your church in your community at this time in history?
Why has he provided you the specific leadership, gifts in your congregation, and circumstances in which you minister?
This is a good time to return to the why. Famous NFL legend Vince Lombardi gathered the Green Bay packers after a rare loss in which they were heavily favored. "Gentlemen," he began practice, "This is a football." Lombardi then took the team back to why they sacrificed together, why they went each week to play.
In many ways, COVID-19 has given the church a setback. We "lost" Easter as we normally enjoy it. But it would be far more tragic if in our haste to return to what we see as normal we don't take time to reconsider our mission.
Return to the mission
Many churches state their why with some form of emphasis on the Great Commandment and Great Commission church. If this is how you state your why, you can start there to see what and how you can move forward, learning from the pandemic in the process.
How do we effect change in a time of great upheaval? We do so in one of three ways:
1. Some things need to be maintained. We want to continue those things both timely and historic that are central to being God's church. Renewal of corporate worship, for instance.
2. Some things need to be jettisoned. What are things you were involved with that either aren't central to your mission or detract from it? This is a good time to move away from these.
3. Some things need to be adapted. Pretty much every church turned to online meetings via zoom, streaming services, and so on. What role will those play moving forward? Will zoom continue to be an option when you meet together in groups, allowing those who are out of town or home with a sick child to participate? No doubt you will continue to stream services for the vulnerable at least until the pandemic has ended, but what role will streaming or videoconferencing play?
Learn from the church
This is a good time to ask questions. Put together a simple email questionnaire to send to your church asking them things like: What is the greatest need they've observed they or the church family can help with? You may get input, for instance, from church members on what they've been doing to connect with or serve their neighbors. You may develop a group of people who begin walking regularly in their neighborhoods to have a greater gospel impact there.
Another question: What holes are in your community that your church can help fill? Many churches have filled in for Meals on Wheels or similar services; others have stepped in to help with school lunches.
You may also want to poll your church on their own personal walk: What has the stay-at-home or whatever restrictions you faced done to help your devotional life? Have you seen this as a reminder to slow down and take more time to pray? How might that translate into your personal life moving forward?
You may find ways to enhance your discipleship ministry through tools like zoom moving forward in response to identified needs.
Finally, corroborating with fellow church leaders in your area can help you identify needs you may not have seen or allow churches to come together to serve in ways you may not be able to alone.
This is a time for gospel advance, not retreat; for renewed vision and ministry, not a return to the status quo. May the coming days be our best in service to our King.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.