Praise God.......for the Pandemic?!?

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.

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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."

And...well...God answered.

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.

 


What If the Face Mask Helped You Reach Your Community for Christ?

For years I have heard stories of church splits. Sometimes these are needed divisions in that they are over doctrine. When unbiblical actions occur or false doctrine is espoused from leaders, division seems inevitable. We have seen this recently in evangelical churches related to the definition of marriage and other such things. In fact, my own denomination was launched over a disagreement regarding slave-holders being sent as missionaries. In our case, we were wrong, sinfully wrong on our stance. Thanks be to God for forgiveness and redemption. And, yes, we are still working toward unity and reconciliation as a denomination.

When it comes to local churches splitting, the stories are just as sinful and sad.

Most often the church splits we have heard about or have experienced personally have little to do with doctrine. In fact, a church can divide over just about anything.

There are stories of churches dividing over the color of the carpet, a change in the schedule, the use of hymnbooks versus projecting the songs, and any other number of things. I heard of one that split over the color of shingles put on the roof of the building, even after the fight led to one side having one color shingles and the other having another. 

People will Fight Over Anything

Humanity has always been divided. History is replete with stories of rebellions, divisions, wars, and battles. There are winners, losers, and those who are categorized as collateral damage. In many cases, the battles were needful and right. Even in Scripture we see battles between God's people and the enemies of God. Unrighteousness and sinfulness leads to disunity and individualism. It has always been the case. It always will be this side of eternity.

There are many battles occurring in our nation today. Being an election year, each division is accentuated and more intense than ever. It seems that we check our news feed daily to determine that which we should be angry about now.

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Most recently, face masks have become the issue. I was talking to one of our missionaries in Europe recently and he asked if the issues over masks was truly happening. He found it amazing that people would actually get upset over being asked (or required in some cases) to wear a face mask. I told him it is an issue and seemingly growing.

I fear that generations to come will look back and wonder how churches could be so foolish as to fight over face masks, just as we do now regarding those splits over carpet color. Ridiculous.

Maybe it is the nature of our personal desire for independence and our elevation of individual rights that makes this such an issue?

Maybe it is because people just, by nature, do not like being told what to do?

Maybe it is because people are watching way too much 24-hour news on television or on their streaming apps?

Maybe it is due to the fact that everyone is overwhelmed, stressed, and angry and masks just seem to be the tipping point in this year of pandemic isolation, racial disunity, murder hornets, bubonic plague infested squirrels, cancelled sports, and social distancing?

Maybe. 

Maybe it is something else.

People are sinful. It's the heart of man that is distanced from God and desires to live for self rather than others.

What about when Christians are asked to wear a face mask? What about when those of us who are free in Christ, redeemed, called, saved, and sent, are asked by...you know, the governor, or the corporation, or the superintendent, or the mayor, or...even their pastor, to wear a mask?

One gentleman (I don't know who he is because I was home last Sunday awaiting my COVID-19 test results, but if he reads this, he may send me an email or let me know how much he doesn't appreciate me writing this) told one of our associate pastors last Sunday when asked to put on a mask, "I have Jesus. I don't need a mask!"

Hmmm. I wonder if he put on his seat belt in his car when he drove home?

I am truly thankful this brother has faith. I just do not believe his choice to not not wear a mask from his seat to the exit is evidence of faith. It may be evidence of self-confidence, but that is not faith...at least not faith in God.

Our church began requiring face masks in our services a few weeks back. We are in Florida, so though we are meeting, we are taking extra precautions with distanced seating, face masks, social distancing, sanitizer, etc. The vast majority of people messaged me and told me personally "Thank you!" Some struggled with the requirement and do not like it. They have let me know, too. Let me say clearly that if anyone likes wearing a face mask, they are super weird. No one likes wearing face masks. We don't wear face masks because we like it. We wear them because even if there is just a slight chance they help, it is worth it.

It is not persecution by the government to have to wear face masks. Persecution will likely come one day, but it will not be spearheaded by mask-wearing. When persecution comes, you will know it. Just ask my friends in China.

Missional Masks

Here's my thought about why we should wear face masks during this time. If I were serving as a missionary in a foreign land I would go through language and cultural training. I would learn as much about these image-bearers who live differently than I do. I would adjust in ways that do not compromise my faith in order to engage them in conversation, show that I care, and ultimately share the love of Christ in words and deeds. Why? Because that is what missionaries do. That is what all Christians should do. We have a mission to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

In our nation today, there are the "wear masks" people and the "not wearing masks" people. In my estimation, there are more wearing masks now because they either are afraid or they are trying to be compliant with the requirements of stores and local officials. 

I want to reach these people for Christ.

I want to reach the anti-maskers, too.

I am concerned that if I do not wear a mask I am creating a barrier (virtual, not physical...like a mask) between others and myself. If in my desire to uphold my right to not wear a mask I lose an opportunity to share the gospel, I have lost more than I can imagine. 

To love others more than self is the calling. To love the Lord most of all is the command. 

If me wearing a mask gives me an opportunity, even without saying a word, to express that I care for others...I will wear a mask.

I hope you will, too. 

And if we're not careful, while we, as Christians are over here debating face masks, the world keeps spinning and millions remain unengaged with the gospel. You cannot "go tell" if you're home arguing over the unimportant.

(Seriously - this is not the time to debate the intricacies of N95 versus homemade masks that look like they used to be T-shirts. If that's the argument now, the point is missed.)


Don't Waste This Pandemic - Lead with Clarity In the Midst of Uncertainty

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."

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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.