Since March of 2020, we have all been inundated with phrases like, “These are unprecedented times,” or “Out of an abundance of caution,” or “Sir, please put your mask on!” And now, in the spring of 2021, I think it’s safe to say that all of us are ready for some precedented times. We want to throw caution to the wind! And masks? We are ready to cast them aside for the sweet freedom of inhaling each other’s exhalings.
As a pastor of a church that is just beginning to come out of pandemic mode, my staff and I spent some time reflecting on what we have learned about our local church in this last year of weirdness. As we are trying to put the pieces of church life back together, like everybody else, we wonder what post-pandemic local church life will look like. Will we ever have the attendance that we once had? Will the local Adventist schools we are associated with survive? Will we ever do church the same again? These are questions that are yet to be answered. Yet, I believe we have learned a lot about ourselves during RONA’s visit that will forever benefit the cause of the gospel in our little neck of the woods. Here are just three of the lessons that our church has learned.
1) Empathy and repentance toward shut-ins. For 36 years, I’ve been a pastor. And for 36 years, in every church I’ve pastored, there have been members of my church that were bound to their homes, never able to get out and be a part of their local church. I didn’t give it much thought. Yes, I’d take the occasional elder into a home to offer bread and wine and an offer to wash a person’s feet. But honestly, those trips were getting rarer in my ministry.
There’s nothing to bring one into an empathetic state like walking in another person’s shoes for a mile. As of March 2020, we all have understood in at least a small way what it must be like to be cooped up in your home, not able to socialize with other people. The plight of a homebound person is something that I’ve been led to empathize with this past year, and I repent of my pastoral neglect in these areas.
What have we done to address this in my church? We’ve made a concerted effort to connect with every member on our books, whether we know them personally or not. Much of this has been done over the phone. This has been paying dividends in so many ways. We’ve reconnected with a lot of wandering sheep. We’ve also connected many of our members, involving them in Zoom Sabbath School classes and other groups that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t embark on a campaign to reach every member. Many, many of these lost connections were people who have been shut-ins for years.
2) We’ve realized that local church ministry doesn’t just happen live in a local church. Pandemic or not, the Gospel still needs to go to the whole world. The church still needs to be the light of its local community. How can that happen if we aren’t allowed to step foot into our local sanctuaries?
In our local congregation, we’ve learned that online ministries are a must in this day and age. As we sharpened our online acumen, we intentionally put out a better online product for people to watch and listen to. We’ve invested in equipment to better reach our community with gospel presentations that lead people into a deeper relationship with Jesus. This wasn’t easy. But it’s necessary to continue to use these vital tools after the pandemic is over.
We realize that most of our Sabbath School classes will have to be a hybrid of live and virtual members from here on out. Investing in technologies that can make it so that a shut-in can attend and participate in their local Sabbath School class is necessary.
Investing in proper AV equipment and training has enabled us to produce a better attempt at midweek meetings, church services, and other special programming to serve well in the future as we enter into a new reality.
3) Suffer the little children. And they have suffered. Being at home from school, not socializing at church or in their Sabbath School classrooms has been a huge challenge for families in our church. In an attempt to engage our kids in creative ways, our children’s ministries team has done a few things to engage our kids and their families in ministry opportunities.
Each month our children are given packages with all kinds of creative Bible lessons and Sabbath School materials that will occupy a part of their Sabbath experience in creative ways. Mom and dad can be included too in this outreach. This has taken quite the effort, but it has been received well by our church members. They have even taken packets for their neighborhood children.
We have used our media ministries to include children’s programming with YouTube videos just for kids. Our kids tell stories, use puppets, green screens, and other manipulative to minister to each other in ways that also endear parents and grandparents. This has helped keep our children and their families engaged in local ministry.
Don’t look back. We don’t want to be Lot’s wife, looking back longingly at the way things used to be. Things are never going to be the same as they were. In my church, we believe that’s a good thing. We want to change as the world changes around us to continue to present the Gospel in new and creative ways. We want to continue to reach our church members that have been neglected in ministry.
If you haven’t met with your church leadership groups to assess the lessons you’ve learned as a church through this pandemic, I’d encourage you to do just that. It may change how you do ministry in the future. I think that’s a good thing.
Mark Witas writes from the Pacific Northwest where he is lead pastor of the Sunnyside Church in Portland, OR.