Tears sprung unexpectedly to my eyes while scrolling Facebook and seeing a picture of a three-year-old girl who is part of our gospel community. I was reminded that I miss seeing her twirls and listening to her chats and watching her play with my kids at church. I deeply miss our community, and that photo was a literal snapshot of what I’ve temporarily lost.
Grieving lost elements of our normal life and community is a normal and healthy part of this time of stay-home orders and flattening the curve. But it’s also normal for us to be asking, How long is this going to last? And, what’s next?
Someday in the (hopefully near) future, the shelter-at-home orders will be lifted, and we’ll have some decisions to make.
One thing I’ve been pondering is what churches, communities and friendships will look like when government orders are loosened and we are allowed to gather (at least in small groups) again. How many will be stuck home out of fear or legitimate high-risk factors? Will we ever be comfortable giving hugs or attending conferences again?
There is an element of living under black-and-white executive orders that is easy: it removes our need to analyze and decide. We simply follow orders. But someday in the (hopefully near) future, the shelter-at-home orders will be lifted—for some of us, it’s already happened—and we’ll have some decisions to make. Can our small group meet? Is it safe to have play-dates with my kids’ friends? How wide should our social circle be? When can I go have dinner with Grandpa?
I imagine that the time we can make these decisions will bring a sense of freedom and relief but also of worry and weightiness, as we know that our decisions have the potential for significant consequences. But I also imagine these decisions could be a battleground for unity in our churches.
Each family is going to come to different decisions based on their level of comfort, and the enemy is certainly going to tempt all of us to be judges of their decisions. We’ll be tempted to be offended when others aren’t comfortable getting together with us and judge them as too fearful. We’ll want to look down on those who open their social circles much larger than we’re comfortable with and judge them as irresponsible.
As church leaders, friends and members of one body, we need to be preparing each other to fight those urges and strive for peace, so that we can show each other the kind of love we will need (and the world will need to see in us) in the days ahead.
Perhaps 1 Thessalonians 5:13-15 can be a guide for this time:
“Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”
In these few, short verses, Paul urges us in seven distinct commands that could have been written precisely for this pandemic.
Honor your leaders
Make it your goal to live in peace with all. Quench your critical spirit. Accept others’ boundaries that fall in a different place than yours.
Like all of us, church leaders (and government leaders) will have difficult decisions to make in the days ahead—only their decisions are weightier because they impact many others. When and how do we re-start gatherings? Of what size? With what precautions? Likely they will make some decisions differently than we would. Paul reminds us to acknowledge that they are working hard for our good, and we are to hold them in the highest regard in love because of their labor. Let’s make a commitment not only to pray consistently for our leadership in this time—for wisdom, for endurance and for fruitfulness—but also to publicly affirm and personally encourage them in their ministry.
Live in peace
Fear and stress can put all of us more on-edge. The isolation of the last few weeks or months has the potential to eat away at some of our relationships, creating the perfect storm for disunity as we emerge from our quarantines and find we have differing viewpoints on what life and community should look like now. Let’s remember that Jesus’ final prayer for His church centered on her unity (John 17:20-23), and we need to work for that oneness. Make it your goal to live in peace with all. Quench your critical spirit. Accept others’ boundaries that fall in a different place than yours. Find the community you need with those who are ready and continue reaching out to friends who aren’t via phone or computer or old-fashioned letters. Live in peace.
Warn the disruptive
It’s hard to know ahead of time what idleness and disruption might look like in our churches. But it’s been around since Bible times, so we would be naive to think it won’t show up at all. Those of us who are shepherds (or close friends) need to be prepared to lovingly warn those who are out of step with Christ’s commands. Those creating disunity will need to be lovingly brought back into peace with others. Those able to safely work should be encouraged to contribute toward the good of our societies. Those defying government orders or inconsiderately exposing the vulnerable will need to be challenged to act in love and submission. All of this is for the sake of loving our neighbor as well as guarding our unity and protecting our witness in the community.
We are freed from fear not by a medication or a vaccine or enough hand sanitizer but by our trust in God’s sovereignty and love.
Encourage the disheartened
Likely, the “disheartened” or fearful might be the largest category in our churches. Fear is everywhere. You see it on people’s faces at the grocery store, even hidden behind cloth masks. You hear it in Twitter posts and brief conversations over the fence with your neighbor. You witness it in hoarded toilet paper and empty shelves in the cleaning aisle or canned goods section. It’s likely most of us have dealt with at least moments of fear. And people will not suddenly be freed from fear when the quarantine is lifted.
To encourage, of course, is literally to give courage to someone. It’s to help them stand in their faith even when there is plenty of reason for discouragement. We can take courage because God is still on His throne, Jesus is still the Victor, the Holy Spirit is still present, death does not have the final word, and one day sin and sickness and mourning will be no more. We can walk in faith instead of fear when we keep our eyes on Jesus. And we can give courage to those struggling with fear when we point them to the same hope. We can remind them that the Bible is filled with the command “do not fear” because God knows that is the tendency of the human heart, but remind them also that we do not fear because God is with us. We are freed from fear not by a medication or a vaccine or enough hand sanitizer but by our trust in God’s sovereignty and love.
The sin of the disruptive and the fear of the disheartened in actuality both spring from the same root: a failure to actively believe the gospel and apply it to this present circumstance. An active faith in Christ is the antidote for idleness and discouragement. So in all of our relationships—and in our own hearts—let’s call one another back to a trust in God’s character and His promises, and let’s take active steps of faith in the face of fear, in obedience to God and in love of others.
Help the weak
There are people in our congregations (and our larger communities) with real needs caused by this pandemic—whether the elderly or high-risk, those who have lost jobs or businesses from the shutdown, those who are lonely or in unsafe home environments, or those who are ill or grieving the loss of loved ones. We as the church will have abundant opportunity to show the love of Christ at work in our practical help of those in need. Those of us who are in leadership will need to mobilize our people to use their resources to care for the weak, sick and needy around them, as well as to do our part to rebuild our cities and economies that have been weakened by the shutdowns.
Be patient with everyone
This year has already been an exercise in patience and endurance, and there is plenty more to come. As we face frustrations with our leaders, our government, our church, our friends, let’s remember to display the heart of Jesus as we show grace and patience with everyone, just as He shows toward us.
We will be equipped to act in sacrificial love and patient endurance when we learn to keep our eyes on Christ.
Those of us who have shepherding roles in our churches know that a primary part of our job—in all times—is to call people to faith and love. We want to help the church to grow in our trust of Christ in all things and to grow in our love for God and neighbor. Shepherding in light of COVID-19 is no different. It simply gives us more obvious, universal areas in which we all need to respond in faith toward God and in love toward others. Let’s help each other honor our leaders, encourage our brothers and sisters, care for the weak, and be patient with everyone—and let’s do it with our eyes on Jesus, because we know He will work even this for good. That’s what He promised to do.
Rejoice, pray and give thanks in all things
Paul concludes his call to live in peace and love with this familiar command in verses 16-18:
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
We will be equipped to act in sacrificial love and patient endurance when we learn to keep our eyes on Christ. He is our reason for rejoicing, thanksgiving and long-suffering in whatever the days ahead may bring. We can pray and give thanks always when we remember His love, displayed on the cross, and His promise to one day return and defeat sin, death and sickness forever. We can move forward courageously, in love, with the knowledge that our eternal inheritance cannot be taken away. And we can serve others joyfully because He invites us to be a part of bringing His Kingdom to the broken places of this world, and COVID-19 gives us a greater opportunity to do so.
For the first part in this series, read “In Good Company” by EFCA West District Superintendent Tim Jacobs. For the second part, read "5 Ways to Lead Through a Crisis and Into the Future" by Bill Riedel, EFCA Board of Directors and lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church (EFCA) in Washington D.C.