Let me make this clear at the outset, I know this coronavirus pandemic has left many people hurting in many ways. In no way am I minimizing the grief of those who have had loved ones die of COVID-19. Those who have lost their jobs, their businesses, and have been impacted in such drastic, negative ways are to be grieved with, cared for, and served well by the church during these days. I have written prior about not wasting the pandemic here.
If we are not careful, not only will we (the church) waste the pandemic and what God is actually providing through this, we may find ourselves sitting on the sidelines simply hoping we can get back to a predefined concept of "normal" that just looks like the February 2020 version of church.
There is a difference between not wasting a difficulty and actually praising God in the midst of it.
Why Praise Him for This?
The simple answer is that as Christians we are to always praise God. You know...we're just supposed to do this.
Yet, that sounds like little more than a verse-a-day, sugary-sweet-religiosity, fake-it-til-you-make-it instruction. It doesn't make the answer wrong, but we may just need a reminder of the why.
David, the king, man after God's own heart, forgiven and redeemed one, and psalmist, continued to come back to God in the midst of the most tumultuous times of his life. Whether it was being hunted down by a jealous king, hiding from a deceitful son, battles with enemy nations, or struggles with his own lust and sinful actions, he would come to a point, followed by repentance, where he would praise God.
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! - Psalm 34:1-3 (ESV)
There are numerous other passages where the Holy Spirit inspired the writers to extol the need to praise and trust God in the midst of all difficulties. Here are just a few...
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. - Isaiah 43:2 (ESV)
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. - Romans 5:3-4 (ESV)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. - Romans 8:18 (ESV)
We praise him in the midst of the pandemic because we know he is doing a great work (we may need to be continually reminded of this–those in the Scripture had to be reminded all the time, too,) which at this point is veiled from our view and our comprehension. To believe otherwise, is to ignore the sovereignty of God.
We Prayed for This?
You may be saying "I never prayed for a pandemic." Well, who would? But I know many believers who have been praying for years that revival and renewal would occur within the church and our communities.
Additionally, many pastors, including me, have often looked at their church's calendar of ministry events, including Sunday gatherings, life groups, committee meetings, camps, mission trips, children's activities, youth activities, women's meetings, men's meetings, fellowships, choir concerts, etc. and have recognized that as years go by, more and more things get placed on the schedule, while few ever get removed.
Even ministries that were no longer effective, have outlived their shelf life, or were vital for a long ago season tend to remain in some form on the church's calendar. The cry "We've never done it this way before" regarding new ideas may be true, but just as true is the cry "We've always done this" as it relates to scheduled events.
Due to full calendars of ministry minutia, pastors and ministry leaders found themselves doing less ministry and more managing of events and activities. While these events and ministries are not necessarily bad and in many cases made for great memories while aiding in leading people to know Christ and live faithfully, they became sidebars of busyness that kept disciple-makers from making disciples.
The minutia of ministry management became the machine requiring constant monitoring and marketing.
So in addition to praying for renewal and a season of awakening and revival, we prayed for our church calendars. Okay, maybe it was just me praying. My prayer went something like this - "Dear God. Please lead us to a place where we can ensure the mission of the church remains paramount, that glorifying you is occurring, that we are faithful in reaching the lost, equipping the saints, and making disciples. Please release us from the overwhelming busyness that comes from just managing the organization of the church to the desires of all members based on what they want, what they grew up with, and what they desire their children to experience. Amen."
Sometime in March 2020 he moved us, along with everyone else, into a moment of PAUSE. We stopped. "It was just temporary," we thought. "It will just be for a few days or at the most a couple of weeks," we hoped.
Now, we're over five months into this age of new rules, regulations, requirements, and suggestions. Churches, for the most part, are not gathering as they did in February. Most have found ways to move to online services. Some are gathering in person, but with strict regulations in place. Hardly any church is offering children's or preschool groups. Every church is suddenly a family-integrated one. There are some who meet in person with no guidelines, defying laws (deemed unjust by the church leaders) of their region.
It's a new day.
But you know what? Since we have all these new things to be concerned about, we're not worried about all those little events that used to be on the calendar.
Though it is definitely not how I expected, nor how I desired God to answer, he apparently has. We (our church staff) are continually looking at new, creative, safe, biblically-sound ways to gather, to educate, to comfort, to serve, and to equip our church members during these days.
While we make decisions now that are not always met with exciting approval by all church members (that's no different than pre-COVID,) we have been able to offer more clarity into why and how we do what we do (and ultimately for Whom we do things) for our church members. The calendar has been erased and I will continue to focus our efforts in such a way that we just don't try to re-fill it with all the pre-COVID events and activities.
If we are not careful, ministers and leaders of ministries (e.g. choirs, age-graded ministries, etc.) will default to just trying to get their one area of ministry back in place. This is a wrong-minded way of serving the church and we all must push against this natural desire. There is a bigger story playing out here.
As I heard from a friend earlier this week, it seems the church growth movement of the 1970s and 1980s (even with all its faults and miscues) led naturally to the missional church movement of the early 2000s. Being missional prepared us for this moment in church life. I'm not sure what we will call it. Will Mancini speaks of it as "Future Church" and quoting Reggie McNeal, this is the "The Present Future."
I don't think the church could effectively serve in this COVID era apart from spending a season in the missional era. The jump from "church-growth" to current era is too hard, too challenging, too much for many. Those churches who never embraced missional living are suffering more now. The missional church shifts the focus from "the church has a mission" to "God's mission has his church."
So, we praise God and thank him for the pandemic. Why? Because in this challenging and frustrating time, God has been and continues to equip his always prevailing church for his mission. His mission is not equal to filling our calendars with religious and churchy stuff, but in equipping the saints and making disciples who make disciples.
Now, more than ever, your community needs your church...even if you can't meet in the building together.
Praying Normal Never Returns
I have had to tell friends, staff members, church members, and others numerous times over the past few weeks that "normal" is not returning, so quick pining for it. Those holding out for a return to "normal" are in for a rude awakening. The changes we have experienced have impacted us permanently. It is not unlike the differences in air travel in the US from pre-9/11 to post-9/11. While things have loosened and changed a bit over the years, certain changes have remained. They have become the new normal.
This means that for years to come, some will always wear face masks in public (even if not mandated.) Hand sanitizer will continue to sell well. There will not be a mass removal of plastic shields around cash registers in grocery stores and restaurants. The buffet restaurants may never return (this is not a bad thing.) And...most churches will continue to offer some form of online service and video-conference life groups (this is not a bad thing, either.)
Will You Pray?
Are you bold enough to join me in this prayer? Will you ask God to ensure your church never returns to the February 2020 version of "normal."
For God has paused us for a purpose.
He has shaken us from our complacency.
We must cease saying "Woe is us" and lamenting our changed state of normalcy and say "Praise God" that he is not only seeing us through this valley, but has us here for a greater cause.
Praise God for the pandemic. May all that we are suffering through be used for his glory and our good. May we love God well and our neighbors as ourselves.