The past 60 days have stripped my family, my ministry and me of almost every pattern and practice established in my life over the past 37 years. Subtly, yet suddenly, a global pandemic called COVID-19 deconstructed normalcy and ushered in apocalyptic reality for us all.
I confess being stunned and amazed by this entire experience and yet, grateful to date I’ve not seen or experienced personal illness or loss as a direct result of this virus.
Yet, changes and challenges have been multiplied in these days, and I find myself repeatedly rehearsing this question: Could God be stirring the church by stripping the church?
I’m not suggesting I know or understand the will and way of God in these days. Like you, I’m seeking the Lord for wisdom, guidance and grace. But as I see events unfold, I wonder about the path of God’s hand and His plan in the adversity created by the coronavirus pandemic. Think about it…
1. We’ve been stripped of gatherings.
In previous days, church attendance was an optional priority for many people. But shelter-in-place mandates and the continued echo of social distancing have created a pause to consider the value of a church family and community. As a result, are we poised to recast and recapture the vision of biblical community found in the book of Hebrews?
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV).
2. We’ve been stripped of styles and systems.
Nearly three decades of worship gatherings and church meetings have been marked by endless debates and discord over music, schedules and church polity. The COVID-19 crisis has now moved us beyond the option of such divisions and debates, and has shifted our focus to the substance of our witness and worship through the Word. We cannot and we must not let our styles and systems create stumbling blocks for us if we are to do the work of ministry in transitional times.
3. We’ve been stripped of programs and resources.
With church programs and resources on lockdown, we’ve all had to return the focus of ministry to relationships. It’s funny how easy it is to be in the “people business” and yet, focus on business and busyness.
When our church recognized we would be separated and scattered for an undefined period of time, we immediately prioritized personal contacts with mature adults, vulnerable communities, children, students, families and volunteer leadership.
The interruption of gatherings and groupings in our buildings prompted us to go after people, and as a result, our focus shifted from programs and resources to personal relationships.
4. We’ve been stripped of schedules.
Through the years when initiating and planning ministry, I’ve always tried to let our strategy determine our schedule rather than letting our schedule determine our strategy and structure.
In these days, online church platforms for worship and life groups have given us opportunities to explore and develop new patterns along with the freedom to move beyond the unyielding structure of our established schedules. Are you battling preferences and listening to the whine of we’ve always done it this way? Now is the time to let your strategy determine your schedule.
5. We’ve been stripped of our buildings and budgets.
One of the most amazing outcomes of this global pandemic is the way we have been moved out of the space that defined us to find equal dependence upon the One who unites us—the Spirit of God.
The church in its truest sense is a people inhabited by God. It doesn’t matter how big or small our habitations. No church can thrive or survive apart from the indwelling, infilling and empowering work of God’s Spirit. Our dependence is on the Spirit who calls and enables us.
Like no other time in my life and ministry, I have prayerfully remembered and rehearsed, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6 ESV).
6. We’ve been stripped of control.
So often we want to control the rate of change and degree of comfort in our churches. But God has taken control of ministry-management in recent days, and it’s time for each of us to reset our lives spiritually and strategically.
We cannot and must not seek our former “normal,” but rather, seek His transformational plan through this experience. Let’s not come out of the “no wake” zone and go full throttle toward the past. It’s time to quit doing church and start being church in real time and with a greater purposeful resolve.
7. We’ve been stripped of “come and see” methods and now we’re focused on a “go and tell” mandate.
Many of us have had access (at a social distance) to our neighbors and neighborhoods in ways most of us have never experienced before. We have identified new people, new needs and new opportunities to share Christ.
I confess I’ve lived in the same house with little knowledge of those in my community, apart from those living next door or across the street. These days have brought new contacts, awareness and association with neighbors and workers in healthcare, first responders and other essential civil servants. We must not waste these missional encounters that open doors for sharing Christ.
8. We’ve been stripped of “our church” and have been pressed to “My Church”
So much of the chatter in the darkest days of the COVID-19 crisis has focused on the need for “more data” to enable scientists, physicians, politicians and leaders at all levels of society to make wise judgments regarding precautions and possible outbreaks.
As individual pastors and churches, we’ve tried to listen, learn and lead with cautious compassion and with responsible decision.
Yet for all the debates regarding what data and whose data is right in providing baselines and boundaries for responses, it is important to remember, as I heard Sean Morgan express during a recent podcast interview with Carey Nieuwhof, that the church has over 2,000 years of data having not only survived, but thrived through every imaginable crisis in history.
God’s church is on mission and has been gathered and called to carry His redeeming message to the world. Neither the mission nor the message is up for debate. Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18 ESV). We advance in faith even amid the adversity of the coronavirus to the end that God’s church will be preserved and His purpose accomplished. Even if all the systems and structures we have relied upon are stripped away, the church will surge ahead having been stirred by God for a greater plan He has for us.
So I ask again, could God be stirring the church by stripping the church? Our God is the Creator who creates anew in each generation for His glory.
“Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19 ESV).
O God, let us not fear being stripped if this is Your way of stirring us to bring greater fame and acclaim to the name of Jesus. Amen.
David H. McKinley is pastor-teacher of Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.