The past three weeks have proved to be an unprecedented time of uncertainty for people throughout the world. Concern over the impact of the coronavirus has seized medical professionals, the elderly, those with weak immune systems, business owners, financial institutions, non-profit organizations, and—most significantly—local churches.
This past Sunday, pastors and staff members of churches worldwide livestreamed sermons and services so that the members could join in to worship in their homes. In light of our current circumstances, a number of important questions about the nature of the church have surfaced. For instance, what authority can the state exercise over the church? Is it appropriate for churches to voluntarily cancel in-person worship? What are the best ways for pastors to stay connected with and care for their members while they are sequestered in their homes? These, and other related subjects, are important for the simple reason that the church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ and should always be seeking to do what is pleasing to Him. However, there is another significant issue we must begin addressing—namely, how can the church best prepare for the time when the coronavirus is past?
The Church Will Continue
Before I provide some specific ways that the church can grow back into its worship and work, we need to know why the church will absolutely continue in the world. Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church (Matt. 16:18). As long as there is summer and winter, day and night, seedtime and harvest, there will be a church in the world. No pestilence will destroy the fruit of the substitutionary, sin-atoning labor of the righteous soul of Jesus. Jesus died to purchase a people for Himself out of every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Rev. 7:9). Jesus shed His blood to redeem a bride for Himself. Until He comes again, there will be a church on earth. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will” (WCF 25.5).
As the Chief Shepherd of His church (cf. John 10:11, 14; 1 Pet. 5:4), Jesus has entrusted the care of His sheep to under-shepherds He has appointed. When the Apostle Paul charged the Ephesian elders before departing from them, he said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). This means that pastors must take care of the flock in this time of uncertainly with the utmost diligence and wisdom. There will be wolves seeking to attack the members of local church online and through various other channels during this time of separation. Good under-shepherds must guide their congregations with clear and loving communication so that members of local churches do not fall by the way on account of this trial. Here are a few things keep in mind:
1. Caring for the elderly. Both elders and deacons should be thinking about the elderly and sick in the congregation. The elderly are so often neglected in our society, and they ought to be of the utmost concern to both church leaders and congregants. Caring for them during and after the threat of the virus is past is essential to recovering from this situation. Pastors can encourage their congregants to be checking in on elderly members in order to see if they have present needs. Congregants should also consider the needs of elderly saints in the days ahead. This is an opportunity for the church to think seriously about how to best care for the elderly as those in need of our ongoing mercy and assistance.
2. Encouraging family worship. Pastors should be counseling their members how to be praying and worshipping with their families in their homes. This time in which members are sequestered at home can be a rich opportunity for growth in the area of family worship. While pastors should discourage the future neglecting of the gathered assembly in favor of streaming a worship service (Heb. 10:23–24), this is a wonderful opportunity to teach our people about the importance of consistently carrying out family worship in our homes. Pastors have an opportunity to provide resources for their members to help equip them to carry out this task. It is possible that the local church emerges stronger on account of the present situation, if pastors take advantage of the opportunities to instruct their congregations to this end.
3. Pursuing wandering congregants. Elders should be staying in touch with members on the fringe of their congregation. There will always be sheep who stray from the assembly when the opportunity presents itself. Jesus taught a parable about the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to go after a wandering lamb (Matt. 18:10–14). As weeks may pass in which congregants cannot gather, there is a very real danger that certain sheep will wander from the fold. Right now, elders must give serious consideration to those members who are already less frequent in attendance. This is an opportunity for elders to keep members close to the fold. Ongoing communication with such members can make a world of difference for the time when things return to normal. The intentional care for such members at present may actually bring about a greater commitment from them in the near future.
4. Anticipating future outreach. A separate but related concern regards the outreach of the local church. Depending on how long we are physically separated from one another, many will be tempted to inwardness and neglect of the mission of the church. As we plan on coming together as a church again, we will have opportunities to carry out the Great Commission in our communities. Elders should be seeking to encourage their members to consider outreach opportunities. If elders plan accordingly, some local churches may find themselves entering in on the work of local missions with a greater zeal than they had before. It would be a glorious thing to see local churches regaining a zeal to reach the lost, when we are able to again gather together as a local church.
5. Encouraging the grace of giving. Finally, elders and deacons should encourage their congregants regarding the grace of giving. Without doubt, financial concerns are foremost on the minds of many at present. There will inevitably be economic challenges ahead and congregants will almost certainly lose jobs. The church will need to come alongside such members in their time of need (Acts 2:45). The fear of job loss precipitates a fear of being able to give. Local churches need the generous and faithful giving of the saints. When members choose to stop giving out of fear, they may inadvertently affect the livelihood of ministers and other pertinent church staff members Additionally, we must remember to continue supporting our foreign missionaries. God has promised to provide abundantly for His people when they give joyfully and freely to the work of His kingdom (2 Cor. 8:7; 9:6–9). This is a time in which elders and deacons should encourage their people to trust the Lord in their giving for the future ministry of the local church to which they belong.
While there will certainly be adverse consequences from this current crisis, elders have opportunities to shepherd the flock of God through them and out to greener pastures. If the elders are prayerful, wise, and diligent in caring for the flock and the needs of the whole congregation, the local church may actually come out on the other side stronger and more committed than before. May God give the under-shepherds of His church the wisdom needed to prepare and labor for the good of the congregants from whom they are physically separated for a time.