By Josh Ellis & Keelan Cook
The following article is part of a collective resource for considering your church’s current practices in light of COVID-19. This collection of articles is designed to help pastors, church leaders, and church members as they forge a path forward. The work of the Great Commission doesn’t stop for a storm, a shooting, or a pandemic. However, the methodology of transmitting the gospel will look different in each of those cases and as cultural and regional contexts play a role in shaping the channels through which the gospel most easily flows. There is a lot to unpack here.
With this collection of articles, our friends over at UBA Houston are attempting not to prescribe a particular program or method, but to encourage leaders to constantly reevaluate their circumstances through a healthy theological framework as new information becomes available.
This is not the first article you’ve read about coronavirus and how it will affect your church’s ministry. We’re sure it won’t be your last either. So, why yet another article weighing in on how churches and their leaders should navigate this moment?
Simply put, we want to provide encouragement to pastors and church leaders making very hard decisions for the good of their congregation, for the good of their city, and ultimately for the glory of God.
INFORMATION IS CHANGING RAPIDLY, AND THAT SHOULD FOSTER HUMILITY.
Over the past week, we’ve watched churches readjust their practices for worship, gathering, and mission, only to adjust them again the next day after the next press release. Keeping up with that information is daunting, and it makes us feel like we’re always behind on doing the right thing.
This past weekend the landscape changed yet again with new counsel from the CDC and President Trump urging people not to gather in groups larger than 10 and (for those of you in the Houston area) newly imposed restrictions on Harris County businesses. It’s virtually impossible to stay “caught up” right now, and that requires church leadership to make decisions based on their Christian values.
This should be a humbling experience for us. Moments like this point out our very limited ability. We’re limited in our knowledge; we’re limited in our judgement, and we’re limited in our control of circumstances such as these. For those of us called to lead congregations, now is a time that we must walk in humility even as we make grave decisions that impact the lives of others. Pastors and church leaders are pulled in multiple directions by a tension that seems impossible to resolve. On the one hand, we must recognize the gravity of counsel coming from health and government leaders urging us to change social practices for the good of the elderly and high risk in our communities. At the same time, pastors know that our greatest needs are only met in the gospel and that they possess a solemn calling to tend to God’s flock.
THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR BAD EXEGESIS.
Over the last week, we’ve seen a lot of advice that was, frankly, discouraging. This is not a moment for bad exegesis, though some seem as though they cannot help themselves. Across the country, we’ve seen too many talking heads on Facebook this week supporting whatever decisions they’ve made about church practices with shaky proof-texting, all while disparaging the decisions of others for handling it differently. On more than one occasion, we’re sad to say, it’s been used as an attempt to lure sheep from other congregations.
Pastors and church leaders, we must be careful of the manner in which we wield God’s word. Too often, verses are marshaled as mere support for decisions we’ve already made instead of the divine revelation of God that it is. The Bible isn’t a little trove of verses to dig through in order to accessorize your own vision for ministry. In moments of national crises, this approach is particularly unbecoming.
Let’s remember the church is more than an event on Sunday morning. That event is important, mind you, but it isn’t your church. Obeying Hebrews 10:25 may, in fact, be possible apart from our weekly productions, especially for a season. If I recall correctly, the author of Hebrews had something that looked a little different in mind when he penned those words.
If the only means your church has of proclaiming the gospel is the pastor’s sermon on Sunday mornings, then you’re doing it wrong. Every sermon the pastor delivers should be text-driven and gospel-centered, but the church that relies solely on these moments to proclaim the gospel to one another and the lost world is anemic in their understanding of the gospel and mission. Is it not at least possible that we are better positioned to proclaim the gospel when we are the church scattered rather than gathered?
Finally, a glib attitude that dismisses serious threats to others because “God will protect the faithful” borders on prosperity gospel heresy. This isn’t the church’s first pandemic in her history, so there’s plenty of evidence to show us that faithful Christians can and do contract illnesses. Promoting a thinly veiled prosperity message to congregations at this moment is even more unloving than normal (James 3:1). Do not insinuate that the truly faithful will show up to your gathering, only to demonstrate a lack of faith in God’s financial provision for your church because of suspended services.
IT’S A TIME TO PRACTICE HUMILITY AND GRACE WITH ONE ANOTHER.
Instead of insinuating that everyone who comes to a different conclusion about church practices must not love the gospel, care for the lost, or merely kowtows to public opinion, perhaps we can extend grace to one another. This is the moment for pastors and church leaders across congregations to encourage one another, not fire darts of criticism for doing things in a different way (James 4:11).
We must keep in mind that every church is a unique congregation situated in a unique context. A rural church of 60 people has very different circumstances to consider than one of thousands in an urban center. Churches with a young congregation may view this situation differently than those with an older congregation.
A multitude of factors surrounds decisions like suspending the Sunday morning event (notice I didn’t say suspending worship) or navigating outreach and mission in a moment like this. Furthermore, the list of specific circumstances changes from church to church. Your church may have things to consider that are not issues for my church. Complex decisions made with limited information in unique circumstances means we are likely to see an array of faithful church practices that emerge in response to the pandemic.
It is our goal to encourage those faithful practices. In the last week, we have heard all kinds of stories from churches across Houston and North America taking seriously the importance of worship and gathering, love for those in their congregation, and a love for their neighbors. Many churches have temporarily suspended the physical gathering during corporate worship, only to encourage those in their congregations to gather in smaller units like Sunday School classes or small groups. This is still embodied practice, even if it is not everyone in the same room. Increasing restrictions may prohibit even this for a season, but it’s a great example of taking seriously the gathering and the love for those at risk. We’ve even heard stories of churches holding “drive-in” services where they all sit in their cars in the parking lot and participate in corporate worship through a dedicated radio station.
In the coming weeks, we truly believe church leadership is going to be pressed in ways we could not have imagined prior to this pandemic. Pastors and other leaders are aiming at a constantly moving target. Our word to you: be encouraged. Be encouraged to make decisions based on your values derived from the Scriptures and your call to tend the sheep and love our neighbors. Be encouraged that creativity within the bounds of faithfulness is the correct course of action. Be encouraged to walk in humility in your interactions with other leaders during this time.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Union Baptist Association’s site.,
Published March 20, 2020