When the COVID-19 pandemic began, every church leader had to make a decision regarding the use of online-broadcasting for their weekly worship services. Some churches chose not to broadcast their services. Others, like ours, decided to utilize technology as a means to continue leading their congregations with biblical exposition and music.
Like the others who chose to broadcast their services, we did so with some trepidation, knowing that streaming is a poor substitute for in-person worship services. But our reasoning was these unusual times call for temporary solutions.
As one author recently said, we thought we were leading through a short blizzard, but that blizzard turned into a long winter. As the pandemic continues, many of us wonder if we’ve entered an ice age. At some point, we will come out on the other side to a new normal.
The question is, how should we lead our church out of this season? Not only have our people gotten out of the rhythm of weekly in-person gatherings, they’ve also become comfortable with staying home on Sunday. It’s not hard to understand: pajamas, couches and coffee are enticing. Even if they miss the live broadcast, they can always catch up later. Right? Why not vacation for the weekend?
Now, these things do not hold true for all of our people. It’s also the case that as our churches begin gathering again, some of our people will wrestle with lingering fears about being in the same room with others. This is important to note, because we need to be sensitive to those who are vulnerable because of health or are not yet comfortable gathering in large groups.
With those caveats in place, here are a few suggestions related to setting the trajectory for gathering again based on the theological nature of the church.
The church is made visible by local gatherings.
As we prepare for the new normal, this is a great opportunity to preach and teach on the essential nature of the church as a gathering. I believe the vast majority of our people miss being in the same room for live preaching and congregational singing. After all, this is not just based on their experience but is grounded in God’s design for the local church.
The New Testament Greek word ekklesia that our English Bibles translate as church, is significant. The word itself carries with it the everyday meaning of assembly or gathering. While ekklesia can mean more than gathering, it is never unrelated to the gathering. Therefore, it would be helpful to teach on the importance of gathering together for teaching, encouragement and support as Hebrews 10:25 reminds us.
In fact, the apostles assume that gathering is the normative pattern of the local church. Paul often provides instructions for the church only after saying, “when you gather.” Our people need to be reminded of the truth that the local church is made visible by its gatherings.
The church flourishes because of interpersonal relationships.
It is also important that we remind our people of the importance of gathering with other believers by teaching that one essential characteristic of the church is interpersonal relationships. This goes beyond our weekly gathering in speaking to the need of being in the physical presence of other believers.
In other words, while the worship gathering is essential to the pattern of a New Testament church, we must also champion the personal discipleship that happens relationally among the body, as well. In all of our churches, smaller group gatherings (Sunday School, life groups, discipleship groups, etc.) are essential for the spiritual health of the congregation as a whole.
It is difficult to argue that the numerous “one another” passages in the New Testament can be holistically obeyed without being in person. As we all know, it is very difficult to maintain relationships when we are not in the presence of one another on a regular basis.
Therefore, we should take the initiative in leading our people back into these smaller gatherings as restrictions begin to lift. In many cases, smaller groups can begin meeting together for Bible study and accountability well before the entire church is able to gather for in-person worship again.
We must take responsibility for those under our care by providing clear pathways to walk back into the biblical norms of the local church.
The church exists to serve one another and serve together.
Based on biblical teaching, one of the reasons the church exists is to serve one another. The isolation of watching an online service works against this dynamic. The church is and has always been a people of service, whether it entails serving one another or serving together on mission.
Many of our volunteers who focus their ministry on serving others may not have thought about their availability for these roles when we return to in-person gatherings. It is important that we take initiative to engage our volunteers on the front end to begin thinking about gathering again before we enlist them to serve in the roles they previously held.
Part of being a member of the church is serving other members of the church. Taking the initiative to communicate with our volunteers early will make the transition back into regular gatherings more natural. It is also important to keep in mind that some areas of ministry, like children’s ministry, may require more patience and creativity.
When it comes to serving together on mission, the pandemic has most likely halted service efforts outside the church and has led to the postponement of mission trips. However, in cases where a short-term team cannot be sent, blessing our mission partners with additional financial support can be a great way to encourage them in their work and to remind them that while we are not able to be there in person, we are still behind their efforts.
It’s also possible to plan one-day trips or opportunities to work alongside local mission partners that allow our members to provide on-the-ground support. These can be temporary means to remind our members of the work that exists outside the walls of the church building and aid in the preparation of moving out into the world again.
The church assimilates new members through personal connections.
Finally, as we’ve walked through the pandemic, many of us have focused on engaging with people online in addition to in-person attendance. In many cases, the uncertainty of our cultural moment has provoked an interest in spiritual matters. One of the benefits of broadcasting our services has been the ability to cast a wider net when it comes to gospel proclamation.
I remember returning from an overseas mission trip in college where we had seen many people come to Christ, only to wonder, “Who would disciple these new believers?” This question haunted me then, and it relates now to our leadership coming out of the pandemic.
If we prioritize in-person gatherings as a biblical norm for the church, we must lead those we engaged online to seek out a local church to be a part of for all the reasons listed above. We’ve learned how to better engage online participants through the pandemic, but now we have a great opportunity to add another step to our assimilation process. If those engaged in our online services are local, there must be an effort to connect with them in person and to assimilate them into the church family.
For many church leaders, this season has been daunting. We’ve never tread on territory like this before. As one pastor put it, it feels like we set out to run a footrace only to find out later that it was a triathlon. We’ve run hard, and now the terrain is changing and it requires that we adjust how to move toward the finish line.
Regardless of how much longer we lead into the unknown, as church leaders we are called to lead from the front of the pack. Our people are going to look to us to lead them into the new normal. Therefore, we must take responsibility for those under our care by providing clear pathways to walk back into the biblical norms of the local church.
As we look ahead, we have a great opportunity to utilize these circumstances as a teaching moment to strengthen our people’s understanding of biblical ecclesiology.