When the COVID-19 pandemic began, church leaders had to make decisions regarding weekly worship services. Some decided to utilize technology to continue leading congregations with biblical exposition and music. We did so with some trepidation knowing that streaming is a poor substitute for in-person services. Unusual times called for temporary solutions.
As one author recently said, we thought we were leading through a short blizzard, but that turned into a long winter. Now 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. How should we lead our church out of this season? Not only have our people gotten out of the rhythm of weekly gatherings, they’ve become comfortable with staying home on Sunday. It’s not hard to understand – pajamas, couches and coffee are enticing.
These things do not hold true for all of our people. As churches begin gathering again, some people will wrestle with lingering fears about being in the same room with others. This is important to note because all that follows holds the caveat that we need to be sensitive to those who are vulnerable because of health or are not yet comfortable with breaching their front door. With this caveat in place, I would like to offer a few suggestions in regards to setting the trajectory for gathering again based on the theological nature of the church.
1) The Church is made visible by local gatherings
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 not unimportant. The word itself carries with it the everyday meaning of assembly. 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.
The Apostles assume this is the normative pattern of the local church. Paul often provides instructions for the church only after saying, “when you gather” (see 1 Corinthians 11). Our people need to be reminded that the local church is made visible by her gatherings.
2) The Church flourishes because of interpersonal relationships
We should remind our people of the importance of gathering with other believers by teaching the essential nature of the church as interpersonal relationships. This goes beyond our weekly gathering but still speaks to the need of being in the physical presence of other believers. 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. 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 (consider Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 11:33; Ephesians 5:19; and 1 Peter 4:9). 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 initiative in leading our people back into these smaller gatherings as government requirements begin to lift. In many cases, smaller groups can begin meeting for Bible study and accountability before the entire church is able to gather for in-person worship.
3) The Church exists to serve one another and serve together
One could make the argument that the church is the only institution that exists for others. 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 ministry volunteers may not have thought about their availability when they return to in-person gatherings. It is important that we take the initiative to engage our volunteers 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 (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 4:10). Taking the initiative in communicating with our volunteers early will make the transition back into regular gatherings more natural. Keep in mind that some areas of ministry, like children’s ministry, may require more patience and creativity.
The pandemic has most likely halted service efforts outside the church and postponed mission trips. However, when a short term team cannot be sent, blessing mission partners with additional financial support can be a great way to spur them on in their work and remind them that you are still behind their efforts (Philippians 4:15). It’s also possible to plan one-day trips or opportunities to work alongside local mission partners, allowing your members to provide on the ground support (Philippians 2:25). 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.
4) The Church assimilates new members through personal connections
Many of us have paid attention to online engagement as a measure separate from 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 for 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 and is not unrelated 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 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, 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 assimilate them into the church family.
This season has been daunting for many church leaders. As one pastor put it, it feels like we set out to run a footrace only to find out that it was a triathlon. We’ve run hard, and now the terrain is changing and 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.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Matt Capps serves as the senior pastor at Fairview Baptist Church in Apex, N.C. Follow him on Twitter at @mattcapps.)