I saw a pastor refer recently to the challenge of “COVID malaise” in the church today. Our spiritual muscles have atrophied. Drawn away from once-weekly (and often more-than-once-a-week) gatherings, we’ve grown accustomed to sporadic church attendance. Many believers who used to serve in various church and community programs have disengaged, reducing the volunteer force. Restaurants and businesses have “Now Hiring” signs in their windows; many churches would like to put up signs of their own, “We need volunteers. Help wanted.”

It’s been almost two years since COVID altered our lives. I hear pastors and church leaders talk about surviving the pandemic spiritually and emotionally, and then enduring the fallout in their congregations. Many harbor grave concerns about ministry right now and about the long-term sustainability of those who have been tasked with leading the church.

My students at Wheaton last fall, many of whom pastor large churches, expressed a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. “The chaos of the last two years burned away all the chaff of our programs, vision statements, and attendance numbers, and we were left staring face-to-face with the core essence of the discipleship we’d been doing . . . and it wasn’t pretty,” one said. Another lamented: “I thought the resurrection would’ve made more of a difference than it did.”

Add to this stressful stew the ingredients of politicization, debates over health measures, the reality of racial injustice, and a dash of social media slander, and it’s no wonder so many pastors feel they’re barely hanging on. In response, many congregations are focused these days on sustainability, hoping just to hold on to what they have, concerned about the church’s slow and steady decline, and wondering when we’ll officially be on the “other side” of this crisis in order to rebuild for the future.

In response to cultural and spiritual malaise, two dangers present themselves.

Maintenance over Mission 

The first is that the church would begin to prioritize maintenance over the mission. We develop into a “holy huddle” where our focus is on the barracks and no longer on the battlefield. We picture ourselves as soldiers having survived a heavy bombardment and the goal has become, Don’t lose any more ground. Launching a new initiative or moving forward—those elements of the mission don’t occupy our minds.

The danger here, of course, is this: when maintenance replaces mission, the church moves backward. We turn inward. It’s like surviving an illness and then defining “success” as recovering enough to make it back to what we were like before we were sick, but without a greater vision of what we might do with restored health.

Weary pastors worry that their church members have lost sight of the mission. And more than a few church leaders worry they too may be slipping into maintenance mode. I’m too tired to focus on the mission, I just don’t want to lose any more people.

To the weary pastor who reads these words and feels the burden: be encouraged. The game is not lost. The battle is not over. You’re still here. You’re still walking with Jesus. God’s call remains. The mission will move forward, and you and your church will be a part of God’s work.

But beware of the second danger, which is even more subtle than the first.

Mission over Our Maker

If the first danger is that we prioritize maintenance over the mission, the second is that we prioritize mission over our Maker. Mark Galli diagnosed this ailment a few years ago when he warned of a pervasive problem among evangelicals—becoming so busy in efforts aimed at doing good in the world that we forget God.

In a series of blog posts I engaged in extensive interaction with Galli about the strengths and weaknesses of his diagnosis, and I took issue with his criticism of a “missional” understanding of the church. But despite my disagreement with Mark over the missional movement, I echo his primary concern: the work of ministry can supplant our pursuit of God himself. Our service can get in the way of our relationship.

When we prioritize the mission of the church over learning to love and adore our Maker, we engage in more and more efforts at growing the congregation, serving the community, and “furthering the kingdom,” while running the risk of making God a means to some other end.

“God wants worshipers before workers,” wrote A. W. Tozer. “Indeed the only acceptable workers are those who have learned the lost art of worship.”

Desperate for Jesus

Yes, it’s important to rediscover the mission of the church and devote ourselves to evangelism and missions. Surely this is a vital step in countering the post-COVID malaise that shrinks our vision to mere maintenance of what we have. But the mission isn’t the ultimate answer. The solution to the “maintenance over mission” problem is the pursuit of our Maker—of coming to know him, love him, adore him, worship him, revere him more. It’s to find in him the strength we need in a time of weariness, to recapture a vision of his heart for us as his children, to follow him as our Shepherd and trust his good intentions.

And what better place to rediscover the unfailing, unflagging strength of the Lord than in the valleys of suffering? What better time to experience Jesus as our all in all than in a season when we feel we have nothing left to give? Chuck Swindoll once said, “The scary thing about ministry is that you can learn to do it.”

Perhaps it’s here, when we’ve come to the end of ourselves, when all the old measures for monitoring “how we’re doing”—those Bs of bodies, buildings, budgets, and baptisms—have been altered by the pandemic, that we’re most ready to hear afresh the gospel and to taste again the goodness of the One who called us into his service.

The answer to a church focused merely on maintenance is not ultimately a reminder of the Great Commission but an encounter with the Great Commissioner.

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