Years ago John Piper, prior to having surgery for his cancer, wrote a short message titled "Don't Waste Your Cancer." This is available online with the following description:
On the eve of his own cancer surgery, John Piper writes about cancer as an opportunity to glorify God. With pastoral sensitivity, compassion, and strength, Piper gently but firmly acknowledges that we can indeed waste our cancer when we don’t see how it is God’s good plan for us and a hope-filled path for making much of Jesus. (available at desiringgod.org here.)
It's a worthy read, especially for those struggling with cancer or other health issues.
The principle espoused by Piper is transferable to other areas of life where uncertainty lies ahead.
Recently, Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Church in Alpharetta, Georgia was interviewed by Ed Stetzer and Daniel Yang on the Stetzer Leadership Podcast (listen here) about his decision to not restart in-person worship services at North Point until January 2021 at the earliest. Stanley's reasonings were clear and articulated well and whether others agree with Stanley on areas of organization, leadership, doctrine, or church polity, his explanation regarding their decision as a church continues to be discussed by many in pastoral leadership throughout the nation.
Don't Waste This Pandemic
Much like Piper's "Don't waste your cancer" statement, this one has been resonating since I heard Andy say this, "A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste."
When Andy said that, it was in the context of the church seeking God's lead in ministering well and leading well while serving those who are the church during these difficult and uncertain times. In other words, it would be tragic for pastors and leaders to simply sit on their hands awaiting the return of "normal" so that programming, ministry events, and all our go-to traditions of church gatherings could restart. He wasn't being condescending, and he knows that pastors simply aren't sitting at home waiting, but his point was clear. There is much to be done now.
What if this is the new normal?
That's not a statement of gloom and doom. I am fully confident in God's sovereignty over circumstances and all that occurs. It's not a fear versus faith issue, but is a question of discipleship. At least that is my view.
I am no prophet, but even if we get a vaccine for COVID-19... and even if the majority of people take the vaccine... and even if it works, I believe we will continue to see people wearing masks in public. I believe parents will still be more cautious where they send or take their children than prior. I don't think it will be a never-ending shutdown, but the impact of all that we are facing this year will have long-term effects.
So, what about the church seeking to be faithful, serve well, make disciples, and live missionally?
There are varied responses from pastors and church members regarding this. Even if you ignore the asinine battles taking place between the pro-mask and the anti-mask Christians (BTW - our grandchildren will look back at our divide over masks and laugh the same way we look back at previous generations who split churches over the color of the carpet or the use of hymnbooks versus projecting lyrics on a screen) there are legitimate concerns from pastors seeking to shepherd well and lead biblically. Why? Because these are uncertain times.
Another "Stanleyism" that he presented helps.
"People want clarity. Clarity in the midst of uncertainty is the name of the game and this is a great time for church leaders to provide clarity."
It seems that just about every other aspect of public life that impacts our community is, if not failing, struggling greatly, to provide clarity. School boards and superintendents are on the clock now as public schools are seeking to restart. Governors and state leaders have become memes and soundbite feeds as messages fluctuate from day to day. Even athletic associations, especially those which determine rules, start dates, etc. for public junior highs and high schools are now top news as they wrestle with whether or not to allow games in their state. In just about every case, the challenge teeters between public health and economic stability. I will not get into all that here, for there are many others who are offering their opinions on such.
What is needed from leaders is clarity. As one coach stated in an athletic association meeting "Someone please make a decision. Just tell us what we're doing!"
Our church is not suspending in-person worship services at this time. Hopefully, we will not have to do so. We began meeting again in-person a few weeks back, with social distancing regulations in place and required face masks for all in attendance. We continue to offer online streaming of our services as well. Our challenge now is to focus less on the Sunday preparation and more on the intentional, strategic, discipleship of all in our church, even those who cannot or will attend in person now, as well as evangelistic engagement in our community.
Our fall schedule is written in pencil (actually, it's on a white board, but you get the point–it's erasable.) We are surveying our church members with children, and based on what we see now and where we believe God is leading, we will definitely NOT be restarting children's and preschool groups soon. Our mid-week schedule is likely to be shelved until 2021. That could change. We're flexible. You have to be. Yet, we want to be able to offer clarity, direction, and updates that do not change weekly. That is not easy, but it is our goal.
Perhaps your church is not meeting in-person yet. That may very well be the best for your church and community.
Maybe you are offering some in-person gatherings, or plan to begin to do so. For a perspective from a church doing so, listen to Stetzer and Yang's interview with the leaders of Calvary Chapel in California. While their plans are mega-church sized, the principles based on implementation are transferable to churches of all sizes.
If you are the pastor of your church, remember that your church is looking to you for direction and leadership. You won't get everything right during this pandemic. Don't worry, you weren't getting everything right prior to it either (none of us were.) I am praying for you and trusting God that in these days of uncertainty, knowing that he always offers clarity, we will be discerning and trusting. Lead well.