For more than 50 years as a Christian and 40 years as a pastor, my week reaches crescendo with the church gathering. Together—singing, fellowshiping, praying, hearing of God’s faithfulness, encouraging fellow believers, proclaiming God’s Word—is normal every week.
It’s an anticipated gift from the Lord.
But this time last year, what I love so dearly got ripped away. Due to four months of intensive chemotherapy, my oncologist mandated: stay in isolation. Four months! From mid-February to early June, I stayed home on Sundays just like every other day of the week. I longed to gather with the church and lift my voice with them in praises to our Lord. I so wanted to put my hand on a brother’s shoulder and pray for him. I wanted to bend down and talk to the children who grace our congregation. I wanted to sit and listen to the Word preached, to echo a soft “Amen.” But I couldn’t. My immune system left me endangered.
A year later, we’re all facing similar isolation. With the current CDC recommendations to tamp down the COVID-19 threat, it may be weeks before we gather again for worship. In brotherly love, we practice “social distancing” by canceling our regular gatherings. How, then, do we navigate these days, especially in smaller congregations without lots of staff and high-tech abilities, to make sure we stay in contact, remain warm in our spiritual affections, and find ways to minister to one another?
We can’t do everything we’re accustomed to doing. Mercifully, that will change when the virus ebbs. But for now, we must find joy and consistency in opportunities God has given us. There are a few things we will certainly do.
Pray for one another.
We were in the process of updating our congregational prayer card when COVID-19 hit. We’re prioritizing getting it out this week. We’ll emphasize the body praying for each of our 77 families and 13 singles on the particular day they’re listed. Pastoral notes will update prayer requests regularly.
Communicate with one another.
While social distancing may hinder meeting at the coffee shop, it doesn’t stop us from using phone, text, FaceTime, handwritten notes, and other media. We’re recommending that each person communicate with three good friends at church every week, plus communicate with a person they don’t know well to start building relationship. If your attenders don’t have an updated directory for contact information, get it to them.
Increase devotional life.
We want our people to grow in spiritual disciplines of Word, prayer, meditation, Scripture memory, and worship. Many have been handed extra time as they’re not in school or commuting to work. Urge them to guard against sliding in disciplines by binge-watching movies or living on social media. Communicate the unusual opportunity given to grow in Christ. To help our congregation, I’m sending a daily devotional that comes out of my regular devotional journaling. Through it, I’m modeling reflection, interpretation, meditation, confession, praise, and application on the Word. Next week, I’ll do a brief video talk (from my phone) about maintaining a healthy devotional life.
Maintain pastoral care.
Consider ways to keep up pastoral contact. Home visits will need to be limited. Use phone calls and personal notes to encourage and keep up with the congregation. Our elders have a number of family units under their responsibility. We’re asking our elders to stay in touch with their families through calls, group text threads, FaceTime conversations, and even conference or video chats. None requires much technical ability or cost.
Most smaller churches lack equipment to do what larger churches can pull off during quarantine. But all churches have potential to serve their congregation in significant ways to keep their focus on Jesus and the gospel. Don’t try to be novel. Don’t go into debt purchasing high-tech equipment. Don’t panic. Stay people-focused. Use the tools at your disposal.
Here are a few things we will try to do as best we can.
Provide some elements of normal worship through media.
Rather than relying on spotty livestreaming, we decided to film and provide a link of our regular worship service. Last Saturday night, eight of us gathered to lead the church in Scripture reading, confession, prayer, biblical exposition, and as scheduled, commissioning a couple of missionaries. Was it ideal? Of course not; it lacked congregational participation. None perceived it as a substitute for corporate gatherings. Comments indicated much encouragement to brothers and sisters who longed to gather for worship.
Send video or audio messages to the body.
These can be done through a smartphone or tablet. Keep them brief. This week we plan to do at least two 10-minute videos addressing needed subjects such as the church scattered/gathered and shepherding our kids through isolation. We’ll add more in following weeks.
Spur family worship.
While we want our families regularly spending time in family worship, this unique period offers more opportunity to grow in consistency. Pastors can send guidelines, offer texts and short comments to stimulate discussion, write brief prayers for children, and identify helpful resources.
Read books for discussion.
Challenge members to read the same book, then do a conference chat to discuss their reading. Or ask members to read and review books, then send short reviews via email. Recommend a variety of books to purchase, download, or borrow. With school canceled, ask some children to write a short review of a book to be available to other kids via email.
Redeem the Time
When four months of isolation ripped away my weekly crescendo, I did everything possible to stay in contact with our members. I prayed daily for them by name. I sent personal written notes to every family. I watched the livestream to stay abreast of the preaching and to see the faces of those I longed to join in corporate worship. By being intentional with things at my disposal, I returned with spiritual strength and joy.
Our present isolation will end. Smaller churches, focus on both the essentials and the potentials for encouraging faithfulness. A pandemic cannot rob us of relationships in the body of Christ.