Living in the midst of a pandemic has been difficult. Leading in the midst of a pandemic has been harder. Trying to stay on the focus of the mission God has for the church in the midst of a pandemic has been the hardest.
The local church by definition is a gathering . . . It IS a physical gathering of people in a location for the practice of the things that God has called us to…ReCAST calls it growing in faith, growing in community, and growing in service. These are things that God desires to accomplish in His people through the routine gathering of His people locally.
But this season of pandemic response has been clearly antithetical to the purposes of the church. In the absence of what is best, we have shifted in many ways to second or third tier responses all along with the hopes of getting back to what is best. We have recorded online services. We have socially distanced even when the very thing a person needed was a hug. We have hidden our faces even when the very thing others needed from us was a smile. And we have stayed at home when the thing we’ve needed most spiritually is to be out with others doing life in a way that sharpens each other.
All the discussion about normal and new normal brushes up against this blog post. And yet I want to be clear that I am not merely pining for the pre-Covid days in this post. I am advocating for things that, as a pastor, I see as non-negotiable in the way that God has designed us. These are things that we SHOULD get back to as soon as possible.
I am pretty certain that no church intentionally set aside evangelism and outreach during this season of pandemic. But what concerns me most is that many of us have set it aside UNINTENTIONALLY. Sure, we may have sought some creative ways to get the Word out. We may have given more resources to those in need in our community. But even at ReCAST the cadence of our outreach was knocked off kilter by the absence of hooks in our culture to get together. Families didn’t get together for little league (meaning that members of our church didn’t rub shoulders with unbelieving families). The schools being closed down removed a huge opportunity for outreach. There has not been a homecoming parade in Mattawan for the past TWO years. That parade has always proved to be a great opportunity to have fun as a church in our community.
My hope and prayer is that we come back to that focus on outreach and evangelism. It would be great for everyone in the church to take a reassessment of where our hearts have been regarding the proclamation of the gospel, and get back to the work of sharing our faith in our communities.
2. Hugging and Shaking Hands
It may seem strange that I would say this here for two particular reasons. First, those of you who know me, know that I am not a hugger. I have a pretty well established personal space bubble. Physical distancing has not been tough for me in practice. Second, it may seems strange for me to place something so high on this list that seems petty and small. What does it really matter if we never hug or shake hands again?
But Paul often exhorts the church to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” There is a physical and personal comfort that many receive in being together with others and really WITH others. As a pastor who is not a hugger, there are times when the only thing to do is to give a hug. There is a time when an elbow bump cannot be sufficient. There are times when a hug is life-giving.
With cases on the rise in our area right now, I am not advocating for a big group hug at our church service this weekend. But I am advocating for a mindset that is shifting toward a restoration of some of these physical things we have set aside for a season. My point in this blog is to advocate for the return to these things WHEN we can do so safely.
3. Back to Being Seen
In Muslim countries women hide their faces out of modesty. At weddings, a bride wears a veil as a symbolic hiddenness that is soon to be revealed to the groom. And for decades a surgeon in the OR would wear a mask to protect the patient from infection.
We recognize a time and a context to hide the face . . . Men will often instinctively look away or look to the floor when they tear up to keep up with the false messaging of a culture that says, “real men don’t cry.” When do we hide our faces? When we are ashamed. We hide our faces when we want to hide our emotions.
There is not anything within me that wants to enter into a debate over masks in this blog. We have for a season hidden our face to protect one another, or at least to demonstrate to others that we would LIKE to protect them. But I will take up the debate at the point that someone disagrees with what I say next.
Regardless of the reason why we have hidden our faces, the unintended consequences of hiding our emotions has come with it! In the same way I don’t mind establishing some physical distance from people (and have to correct myself on this) there are some who would love to continue hiding their faces. Some fear being known, fear being seen, and have kinda liked the anonymity provided by a mask.
As soon as possible, we need to get back to seeing and being seen. We need to remember what a face of compassion looks like. We need to remember the kind smile of a stranger in a grocery store. I saw a mother playing peek-a-boo with her child on an airplane last week. And it grieved me that her infant son only received a masked smile at every reveal. There is a metaphor in this somewhere, but for the church, masks cannot stay. In our community we need to know and be known. We need to see and be seen.
To be honest, at ReCAST we have experienced a surprisingly high level of unity in the past year. I have spoken with other pastors that have not been blessed with that same level of unity. And yet even at my church we have people who have not yet been able to rejoin with the gathering for work-related or health-related reasons. We have also had people who have seen our church’s pandemic response as a divisive issue that couldn’t be reconciled. What I mean by this, is that some have elevated their church’s response to Covid as a first tier issue that required them to leave their local congregation.
I am advocating that we put behind us as soon as possible this fractured divisiveness of “Covid-response.” This pandemic has forced all churches to draw the line somewhere on this issue. And on non-biblical issues, I am quick to admit that I am out in uncomfortable territory. I love teaching the Bible and giving Biblical counsel, because at least I can site my sources. Ask me to preach on my opinion and I am going to ask you the same question every time “who cares about my opinions?”
I do try to blog every week, and will readily admit that what I put here is more my opinion than anything that I preach. But this pandemic has forced me to go far outside the bounds of seeking principles from scripture. This past year I have been asked to be scientifically knowledgeable about masks, fluid dynamic, virology, and immunology. I have further been asked to be an expert at the bazillions of executive orders issued by my governor, and have even been asked by some to make stricter guidelines than she has, while being asked by others to rebel against her orders.
I am recommending that we come back to the central unity of the cross. We may have various opinions about how to handle a pandemic, and that will come in super-handy the next time we go through a pandemic, but let me just humbly encourage you to avoid flaying your church based on their Covid-19 response.
God forbid that this pandemic would be used by the evil one to open an even wider critical attitude between individual Christians and their church. We need to set aside things that belonged to the pandemic and move forward in unity on mission as soon as possible.
5. Putting Others Above Ourselves
This pandemic has centered the average person on themselves. There may be the rare person who has spent the entire pandemic worried for the safety of others, but most of us, if we are honest have spent the pandemic washing our OWN hands. Covering our OWN faces. And wondering “when will I get the virus?” It has been a season of isolation, self-entertainment, solo work, self-reflection, social distancing, quarantining, and, for many, fear of our OWN mortality.
Regardless of how much longer things go before we can ditch masks, give hugs, and really get back to doing life together, it is never too soon to get back to thinking of others first. We need to repent of a year of self-centeredness.
Without a return to a focus on others, the church will be stunted in our growth. We were already a pretty selfish culture and selfish people going into the pandemic, and without an intentional repentance and shift away from that self-centerness, we will find ourselves powerless in a world that is in desperate need of the power of the good news that we alone can bear to a world in need!
Church, let’s pray for a return. Let’s repent in proportion to how much we’ve enjoyed this season of hiding, distance, and self-centeredness. There are some things we have lost in this past year that we MUST get back. New normal or old normal. Whatever we call it, there are some things that the future needs to include for the church. Please join in praying with me that these things return soon!