Who are you voting for? Do you require masks? Such loaded questions incited more than informed this past year. A friend and I commiserated over leading our churches through a contentious political season and a global pandemic, two realities rough enough on their own, but combined, they enflamed intense division and uncertainty in our congregations. We smirked at the sense of having been involuntarily cast into an apocalyptic film where the sky inexplicably remained grey as humans turned on one another. We pastors simply did our best to survive. Apocalypse wasn’t so far from our experience.
A little over a year into a deadly pandemic that’s killed over 2.5 million people, we find ourselves under the oppression of COVID-19 even as vaccinations proliferate. Our church, like many others, runs the gamut regarding whether to wear masks, when to attend church in person, and even the veracity of the illness itself. Most of our church members self-isolate despite in-person options for worship. Some do so because they, or someone they live with, has an underlying health condition that makes COVID-19 more dangerous. Some are angry and stay away because we follow state COVID-19 guidelines; to them the illness shouldn’t cause so much concern.
We are finding more aren’t returning because they’ve become comfortable with the convenience of watching online services. Worryingly, attendance for online worship has significantly decreased without much increase to our limited in-person services. We wonder: Are people still connected with us? We’ve navigated the fluctuating anger of politics before, but the habit of not attending church, alongside the newfound comfort of at-home worship, is proving more difficult to overcome.
Church attendance waned even before the pandemic. A Barna 2020 State of the Church report released in February before restrictions began revealed fewer people dedicated to only one church and many Americans divided on the church’s value, relevance, or effectiveness in their communities. Another Barna study in July of 2020 found 32 percent of practicing Christians stopped attending church altogether, either online or in person. Barna predicts 1 in 5 churches may not survive 2021.
For pastors, the global pandemic has become a biblical wilderness. As with the desert-wandering Israelites in Exodus, we have responded with grumbling, contending, and questioning the Lord. For me, the pandemic wilderness has brought discouragement too. Scripture provides numerous pictures of wilderness struggle—from Moses to Jesus—but for me, my path has been best depicted by David in 1 Samuel 21–23.
David flees to the Judean wilderness to escape a homicidal and unrelenting King Saul. David had done nothing to earn Saul’s ire. That the Lord prospered David stoked Saul’s paranoia, and Saul determined to take David’s life. Bewildered, David escaped to the wilderness out of sheer survival. He could not seek refuge in the surrounding villages for fear of people revealing his location to Saul. David also knew he brought danger to any who helped him. Even Jonathan, David’s close friend and Saul’s own son, risked his father’s rage.
By contrast, David’s wilderness experience did not lead to the complaining and contention of his forebears, but to worshiping God as his refuge. In Psalm 63, David sang in the wilderness, “My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” (v. 1, NASB95 throughout). Despite the danger, David found consolation, “Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You,” (v. 3). David trusted the Lord would defend him. He sang, “those who seek my life to destroy it, will go into the depths of the earth” (v. 9).
Not that David’s desert experience was a joy ride. Psalm 64 displays David's fear and frustration. “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy” (v. 1). No matter the constant threat of death from men who laid secret snares for him, David proclaimed the Lord as one who fought on his behalf: “God will shoot them with an arrow; suddenly they will be wounded” (v. 7). David knew evil intentions would not prosper over God’s promises; the wilderness provided redemption.
Psalm 65 shows what redemption looks like: “The pastures of the wilderness drip, and the hills gird themselves with rejoicing. … They shout for joy, yes, they sing” (vv. 12–13). David found joy in the midst of uncertainty. He didn’t know how long he would be desolate, or the nature of his rescue, but David did know God is faithful and would deliver him. Reliance on the Lord kept David moving in a forward direction, keeping him from fear when danger was ever-present.
The wilderness works in the Bible as both reality and metaphor. Physically, the wilderness as a desert lacks the capacity to nourish and is devoid of civilization. Symbolically, the wilderness signifies uncertainty and elicits struggle and despair. Throughout the Exodus, a wilderness cycle of wandering, grumbling, and miracle occurred. The wilderness tests us and removes us from the comfortable that we might witness the Lord as our help in troubling times.
Lent traditionally ties to Christ’s wilderness experience, demanding our perseverance, obedience, and spiritual discipline. We practice trust in God’s faithfulness through personal sacrifice and prayer. In the Lenten wilderness, we learn to trust in the Lord alone, disciplining ourselves with our bodies in pursuit of greater peace and communion with Christ. Lent brings a rawness to our relationship with the Lord as it invites us to face God honestly, relying on little outside of Christ for strength.
There is much to discourage pastors in our COVID-19 wilderness, but as with David, joy can be our prize. God’s goodness compels us toward exuberance in him rather than wallowing in the misery of this pandemic and worry over waning church attendance. We complain, as did David, but instead of becoming demoralized or dispirited, we can be invigorated in anticipation of what the Lord promises us and his church. We are a part of what God is doing in our towns and cities. We can embrace joy because the Lord is at work. Recall testimonies and times of the Lord’s past faithfulness. How did God use your church to impact your community? Anticipate him doing those same wonders again. With our worship, we affirm God is the one who fights our COVID-19 battles and will preserve us.
Our stress is not God’s stress. Once vaccinations propagate and the world returns to some sense of normalcy, we may not see a return to worship services as we knew them. We will have to work to regather our congregations by shaking them from their comfort and new learned habits. The COVID-19 wilderness has shown pastors we must disciple and evangelize better. We must call our congregation home, and we must also reach out to all those hurting people in our communities who don’t know God’s love. Like David, we can grow and mature in the wilderness if we live in the Lord's promise. The church will prosper and exit this wilderness stronger than before, tied only to the one who gave himself up for us.
Steve Dragswolf is discipleship pastor at New Life City, Albuquerque, New Mexico.