We are winding our way to the end of what has been, I suppose, the most memorable year of my life. Of most of our lives. This year was not marked by a single moment, or overshadowed by a single tragedy, or inflicted with an instant of pain. This year, from the middle of March right through the very end, has been infused with the fog of a disease that no one fully understands right now.
The pandemic has brought along a number of side affects in addition to illness and deaths: financial hardships, political polarization (in the extreme), uncertainty about the future, loneliness, educational deficiencies for most school-aged children, marital conflicts in many households, and even a toilet paper shortage. Beyond that, the specter of Covid 19 has impacted what would have been significant moments, even without the disease. Hundreds of thousands were prohibited from mourning the loss of a loved one at a traditional funeral. Graduations, weddings, birthday parties, farewell dinners and the like have all been either cancelled or greatly altered.
We have learned to recognize people by their eyes only. We have learned to greet one another without handshakes or hugs. We have even learned to count money and open produce bags at the supermarket without licking our fingers! Some have learned to cook at home again, and most parents of school-aged children have gotten some idea of the real value of a professional teacher.
Our churches have been impacted, too. Services have been cancelled, abbreviated, modified, transmitted and streamed. Most have suddenly developed “streaming” ministries complete with high-dollar cameras and a new team to run them. Sunday School teachers have learned to Zoom, and it’s not only the teenagers who are adapt at social media now. I do not advocate for staying home from church, but I think we have learned that these “new” methods can be of great help to our shut ins, the sick and those who are not ready to brave an icy road on a January morning. That streaming also provides the potential of a first visit from someone who is too timid to walk through your church doors without having a chance to “see” you first. And, I can tell you from my years in radio ministry, that there are certainly some watching your service, desperate for hope, who wouldn’t dare to show up in person, less the roof cave in on them. (Or so they think.)
There are other lessons that the pandemic has for us, I believe. If nothing else, we have come to understand in new ways that we have been created as social creatures. Even the most introverted among us needs human interaction. As members of the body of Christ, we certainly understand this. Sociologists know it, too, as do mental health experts. There are many now who are feeling the consequences of extended separation, be it from distant family members, or their social circle at the gym, or those they usually sit beside at work.
The church has a great opportunity here! We are, after all, a community, a family, a brotherhood, a body. As visitors begin making their way back into our buildings, they should be overwhelmed with that warm sense of a sincere, open welcome to them. Creating new fellowship opportunities apart from our services (food, activities, etc.) provides new means of “out-reach” though “in-pulling”.
Another lesson may be more subtle for us. We who have always declared the fundamental nature of “absolute truth” have been shown that we live in a society that rejects the notion of it. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, we should understand that phrases like “fake news”, “fake science”, “false facts”, and even “my truth” and “your truth” reveal something about the psyche of our culture. We have learned that believing what we want makes it so. Saying it over and over, louder and louder, makes us more dogmatic, and helps us to surround ourselves with people who see it like we do. If there are those that disagree they are wrong (and dangerous). They are not to be heard. Neither should we heed any “information” that doesn’t line up with our belief system. At least, those seem to be the prevailing attitudes of many at this time.
Jesus often spoke and preached to those who rejected Him and his assertions outright. And for three and a half years of public ministry He taught them, even as they dug their heels in deeper in many cases. He didn’t just “yell louder”. He taught them in a variety of ways, using examples from nature, observations from their character and behavior, insights on local and current issues and even clear religious doctrine, especially when dealing with religious leaders. Our message has not changed. We dare not alter the content of our doctrinal position. But we must recognize that the audience we are addressing is not the same audience of previous generations.
I have one last observation. The pandemic has taught us that we cannot always do “ministry as usual”. It has been impossible, at some points this year, to simply bring everyone into one room, “pack the pews”, sing a few songs, listen to the preacher and go home. We have had to be more creative than that. And that, I believe, is a good thing. Please don’t misunderstand me. The gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day for a time of fellowship, worship, instruction, correction, and motivation should be the highlight of our week! But it shouldn’t be the single focal point of ministry.
What happens when we can’t fill our buildings to occupancy limits. Or when our elderly or medically compromised members are afraid to come? What do we do if the Pastor is ill, or required to quarantine for 14 days? Or if half our Sunday School teachers test positively for whatever the next disease might be?
The answer is deceptively simple. We just keep on. We do all of the things we are supposed to do. We preach. We disciple. We encourage. We fellowship. But sometimes those things will have to be undertaken by more than “the leadership”. And that’s OK. That’s the way it is supposed to be. “And he gave some… pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry...” (Eph. 4:11-12) Our pastors have been busy teaching us so that we might be able to do the work of the ministry. WE. US. The BODY.
And that is why the pandemic has been such a valuable teaching experience. It reminds us of the importance of making disciples, so that they can do the same, regardless of the circumstances. Even in the most restricted parts of our country and the world, there has been no prohibition of two people meeting somewhere to open a Bible and encourage one another. There is no rule against teaching Scriptural truth to another, whether in person, by text, or over Skype. Our Pastors can’t reach everyone via one-to-one conversations or online sessions, but a group of prepared disciples can!
And that, of course, brings me directly back to the work of GBS. Training others, so that they, in turn, can train even more. Like you, our work has been slowed this year. But the value has never been more obvious. Thank you for praying for us. And now, as our pastors find new opportunities, and creative ways of getting their classes back in session, please pray for them, and for their students. Pray that we will be fruitful in preparing them for whatever may lie ahead.