Many will soon begin to gather with small subsets of their churches’ congregations, cautiously venturing out as government restrictions ease, following church needs and church leaders’ wisdom.
As the church emerges, we will surely find it changed. And the churchgoers? The same faces and names, yes, but the people will have changed—for good or ill.
Pastors, too, will have changed. Many are wearied from months of learning new skills in their attempt to meet the needs of their flocks and to maintain connectivity among their leaders. Some are anxious about the prospect of regathering. Others battle broader insecurity and anxiety because they are not sure what’s best for the health and maturation of the church. A weekly poll of pastors conducted by Gloo, a data-analytics firm dedicated to fostering communication among church leaders, found that pastors are spending a significant amount of time instituting various safety precautions for the church as face-to-face services begin.
It would be naïve to assume that the church will return in its previous form as soon as various restrictions are removed. Church leaders intuitively understand this; pastors surveyed by Gloo indicate that most assume the disruptions caused by COVID-19 will remain fairly consistent over the coming weeks. It is common to be a bit nervous about the host of challenges that will face the gathered church for the foreseeable future. But not all change is bad. Leveraged correctly, the disorientation brought about by the pandemic could foster reprioritization and focus that brings out the best in God’s people. How can pastors facilitate such positive change?
Space for reflection
The emphasis on regathering can create frenzied activity designed to get back to old patterns. Such an aim is laudable but short-sighted. God has given his people a gift of reflective margin to evaluate the ways we’ve subtly embraced idolatry or settled for impoverished sources of hope. How else, other than by means of a pandemic, would God have allowed an entire culture to step back from entertainment, sports, travel, and the host of other activities that can so easily distract from our primary mission here?
Leaders can and should take advantage of this season, taking time to refocus. That’s one of the reasons forums such as Barna’s State of the Church webcasts, events aimed to help ministry leaders navigate topics such as engaging the next generation, resilient discipleship, and guiding people spiritually through this crisis, are so important—they allow us to all step back and cultivate our soul in a season of change.
Celebrate churchgoers’ new missionary spirit
People have built different rhythms of interaction during the pandemic lockdown. Many have taken more walks around their neighborhoods in the last two months than in the prior two years. Questions like “How are you doing?” sound a bit more genuine when asked by a neighbor. Leaders should celebrate the proactive work of church members who have found ways to meet their communities’ needs without depending on a church program or structure to do so. They should also encourage growth in social competence by showing how efforts at neighbor-love fall flat when constructed as a bait-and-switch tactic to get to Jesus, and how, on the other hand, loving care that never mentions Jesus can betray the uniqueness of Christian mission. We should celebrate those who have been striving during the COVID-19 era to both declare and demonstrate the Good News of Jesus in new ways.
Train reproducible habits
People have also come to see the value, even the necessity, of discipleship habits that can sustain them in seasons when the church is scattered. Sure, we have online services, but churchgoers’ real growth in these past few months has been found in personal intimacy with God through prayer, Bible reading, and consistent conversations with those who are far from God. Pastors can take cues from these habits and strive to equip church members to steward their own relationship with God at times when gathering with the church isn’t as easy or as normative as it once was.
For many, this season has fostered evangelism in ways they would never train for in a classroom. People are restless, aware of their own mortality, and looking to talk. In addition, those who are far from God are watching the lives of believers and seeing, with wonder, that they can sustain hope in the midst of suffering in a way that is distinctively Christian—a hope that only comes from deep abiding with Christ.
Call out new leaders
Many pastors have seen new leaders spring up during this season, often from among the ranks of those who weren’t considered leaders before. These new leaders are people who have found unique and consistent ways to minister to one another and to the world at large. Those who’ve done this well should be empowered to leverage these newly revealed skills in the future church, whatever its form may be. In fact, the regathering of the church provides a prime opportunity to officially recognize new leaders for the roles they’ve embraced during quarantine, especially when those roles have pressed the church out into the world to meet needs and share hope. Perhaps these leaders are the next wave of church planters in North America.
Churches have noted an interesting trend during this season–some of those who were once active members of their congregations have become distant, while others, newcomers, have actually pursued the church and become increasingly engaged during quarantine. Churches in North Carolina and South Carolina are reporting a steady stream of new guests who have attended outdoor services and have recognized their need for God. We should prepare and plan, knowing that God’s Spirit has been active in ways we might not have foreseen, and think about ways to safely connect with guests and integrate them into the mission of church.
Think collaborative wins
Perhaps this period of uprootedness better positions our hearts to think collaboratively about the work of God in our cities and beyond the confines of our individual local churches. What we long to see—the Spirit of God transforming every life in our cities—is something that’s bigger than any singular church anyway. We can learn to pray for the work of other churches during our church gatherings, partner with other churches for strategic missions, and celebrate God’s activity in other churches because a win for them is also a win for us. We also must not forget collaboration with missionaries scattered around the world, especially long-term missionaries in difficult contexts where food scarcity or governmental distrust are heightened during this time, and who depend on short-term mission teams that may not come, at least not for a while. Meaningful conversation, strategic prayer, and personal intentionality allow these laborers to know that they are not alone.
Disruption creates an environment where lasting transformation can take place. What if this worldwide disruption does the same for God’s church?
Matt Rogers, PhD, is a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina, who also serves as an assistant professor of North America Church Planting at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and church health strategist with The Pillar Network. He is also the author of a number of reproducible tools for disciple-making such as the Seven Arrows for Bible Reading.