By / Jul 9

On a number of occasions, I’ve picked up a “spiritual disciplines” book, only to put it down in frustration a few chapters in—feeling wholly inadequate and squarely judged. I never felt that way while reading, The Praying Life by Paul E. Miller.

Miller provides a humble, practical example of what it means to have a relationship with God that my heart yearns to follow. With searing honesty, he addresses the most difficult of questions surrounding prayer by sharing stories from his own life and family, teaching us to look for the “gospel stories” that God is writing everywhere around us and, also, in our own hearts. 

His emphasis on the hidden life of believers and the child-like posture of going to God in prayer with everything, big and small, could not be more timely. I thank God that it’s the book I began reading in 2020. 

By / Jul 9

Our community was just making progress in recovery efforts from a recent tornado when threats from the coronavirus re-ordered our lives again. Our daily rhythms changed quickly, but neither a tornado nor a virus has changed our gospel mission. In fact, we are discovering that we were built for this kind of moment.

Just as hospitals are built to treat sick people and schools are built to educate uneducated people, churches exist to give hope and help to people who need hope and help. We have light that pierces the darkness. We know and commune with the very God of the universe who holds power over disease and whose Son has defeated death. 

So as our communities face unprecedented challenges, churches stand as ready-made disaster relief centers fully equipped to give the best kind of care imaginable.

We’re on a steep learning curve, but here are few ways we see God working through the local church:

1. We are fully prepared for this difficulty. 

When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his departure, he promised them that he would not abandon them. He promised the coming of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus called our Helper, our Guide, our Teacher, and our Comforter. Jesus was faithful to his promise, and now the Spirit of God resides in every believer and is active in equipping us spiritually, emotionally, and physically to accomplish his will.

In our most desperate moment, we lack nothing we need to fulfill the purpose of God. We are not overcomers in the sense that we are untouched by tragedy, that pain is always kept at a distance, but rather that in our difficulty we are fully supplied to show others the beauty of Jesus and the hope of the gospel.

Churches stand as ready-made disaster relief centers fully equipped to give the best kind of care imaginable.

We’ve seen this truth play out in our church family as people from every walk of life have stepped into the rubble to serve their neighbors. We may not have the latest technology capabilities or the most finely tuned organizational systems in place just yet, but as pastors and leaders, we can trust the Holy Spirit, who has already equipped every member of the body of Christ with unique gifts and callings, to move into the middle of brokenness with great effectiveness.

So let’s do whatever we can to shepherd our people well, recognizing that our skills and systems are not the most important asset we possess. The Holy Spirit residing in every believer is at work, and he is capable of transforming hearts and restoring lives, even in the middle of the most difficult circumstances. 

2. We are fully prepared to give hope.

Bad news is bad. We do no one a favor by denying that. And the church should provide good information that is not always good news. Last year, our church started singing the song Living Hope by Phil Wickham. Here are just a few lines of that song: 

“In desperation, I turned to heaven and spoke Your name into the night, then through the darkness, Your loving-kindness tore through the shadows of my soul; The work is finished, the end is written, Jesus Christ, my living hope . . .”

We are not a people ruled by fear, so we do not lead or serve others from a posture of worry, dread, or anxiety. Instead, we are people of hope because the work is finished and the end is written.

As churches in our community serve people wounded by wave after wave of suffering, we do so with a tender smile and open hands that remind people who have lost everything that they have not lost everything after all. The words we use, the tone of our voice, and even the countenance on our face reveal the abiding mercies of God.

The church of the Lord Jesus is made for moments like this one. Unseen, unfamiliar forces of opposition are not new to the people of God. So we face uncertain days with confidence, fully prepared to fulfill the mission of God in our generation.

The hope that is within us is the hope we dispense to others who are vulnerable to despair. Jesus is alive, victorious, and near to the broken-hearted.

3. We are fully prepared to love our neighbors.

A few years ago, our church began thinking more intentionally about what it means to love our city. We considered the prophet Jeremiah’s call to the Jewish exiles to plant their lives in the city where they lived, to seek the welfare of the city, and to pray for the city.

At that point, we began re-ordering our ministry around the question, “How’s our city doing?” That naturally led our people to connect with neighbors in new ways, to serve in the pockets of vulnerability, and to build meaningful relationships with leaders from every domain of our community. 

In the wake of a tornado and now a virus, these relationships are absolutely flourishing. Church leaders, business leaders, educators, nonprofit influencers, and public officials from across our community who already know each other are working together to love our neighbors and help them take big steps toward wholeness. 

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he was answering the question about neighboring. In his story, it was religious people who avoided the hurting man along the roadside. And it was an outcast, half-breed Samaritan who took a chance, stopped to help, and became the hero of the story. 

I’d like to think if Jesus were telling that story today, he would be able to say, “It was the local church that took a chance and stopped to help those who were hurting, downcast, and broken.” I’d like to think Jesus would point to us and say, “Now that’s what loving a neighbor looks like!” 

The church of the Lord Jesus is made for moments like this one. Unseen, unfamiliar forces of opposition are not new to the people of God. So we face uncertain days with confidence, fully prepared to fulfill the mission of God in our generation.

By / Jul 9

Jason Thacker: As churches haven’t been able to gather in many months and as some begin to gather again under various restrictions, what kinds of things do you think we miss about the gathered church that technology cannot replicate or replace?

Jay Kim: Embodied presence. Almost everyone I talk to expresses the same sadness and longing—that all of the digital online mediums at our disposal are helpful but ultimately unsatisfactory. Several months into sheltering-in-place now, as digital fatigue sets in, I think what we miss most is the ability to be near one another as we worship and commune—hearing voices sing together, listening, learning, leaning in together as we hear the Word preached, the shuffling of feet and the extending of hands as we take the bread and the cup together. We miss the conversation in the lobby or courtyard, before and after, all the stuff of human experience that digital connections try but fail to replicate. Technology is doing a fine job keeping us pseudo-connected in this time, but it’s shortcomings are also becoming abundantly clear.

Julie Masson: I miss the atmosphere of being in a room with voices worshipping together. You can’t replicate the sound of the person behind you singing slightly off-key or the visual of the girl in front who is raising her hands and swaying. All five senses seem to be irreplaceable in a virtual setting.

John Dyer: The first things that come to mind are all the little accidental things that happen with physical proximity—reading the face of someone you haven’t seen in a while and knowing you need to go up to them, feeling the room react to a point (or joke) in a sermon, hearing someone else’s baby who’s not on mute. At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are already elements of our in-person gathering that technology has replaced, but not replicated. An example of this is online giving, which is so helpful for churches in the summer months, but which also hides the spiritual practice of bringing money every week and the communal practice of seeing our brothers and sisters give together.

 I’m not that concerned that we use our technology too much, I am concerned that we use it with too little reflection on how its form shapes our message. – John Dyer

JT:What are some of the best practices you have seen in regards to technology and the church in this season?

JK: It feels a little archaic even saying it but using phones as a listening/talking technology has proven itself to be a beneficial practice during this season, at least in our context and community. Turning away from the lure of social and news media, even texting, and picking up the phone to call someone has become a way of focusing our energy on little things that go a long way. I’ve tried to call people in our church community several times a week throughout this time of sheltering-in-place.

Before the coronavirus, it was mostly emails and texts from me. But now, exhausted by the digital disconnect, being able to focus solely on a voice without the added element of video and text has become a respite. And for some in our community, phone calls are so rare these days that receiving one is almost akin to receiving a hand-written letter in the mailbox; there’s been something surprisingly pleasant about it. Aside from the phone calls, the chat feature during online gatherings has been a helpful tool in creating at least some form of interaction as we “gather” in online spaces.

JD: Churches that had previously built their Sunday gathering times around highly commodifiable elements—three fast songs at pitches only professionals can reach, four minutes of video announcements, two slow songs, a sermon, etc.—were probably most prepared to enable those to be consumed online. What is rarer are churches that have intentional times of silence and prayer, songs that people and families can sing, and interactive elements that bring people out of the “watching church” mode.

JT: In what ways can churches bear the burdens of those who are still unable to attend in-person gatherings for a while due to this virus?

JK: One of the most encouraging and inspiring things I’ve seen come from this season has been the way so many have given their time, energy, and resources to come alongside the most vulnerable and needy in our midst. From picking up and dropping groceries to gardening to delivering meals, I’ve seen people bearing one another’s burdens in very visceral, real-time, real-life ways; an analog leaning, if you will. In some ways, this is one of the simplest and most powerful ways for us to truly be the church.

On an ecclesiological level, one of the most encouraging things I’ve experienced is how this pandemic has unified church leaders. Every Tuesday I’m on a Zoom call with dozens of others serving and leading local churches in the Silicon Valley and greater Bay Area. We pray for one another, share best practices, express specific needs, etc. Much has come of this; specific, pragmatic help from one church to another, as well as constant prayer for each other, and a unified plan for reopening, even though the rollout of that plan will look different from church to church. 

I’m hopeful that the church can and will continue to leverage technology. But as we do, we must never forget that the information must always point toward an invitation into embodied realities. – Jay Kim

JM: Overcommunication is key. Our church leaders have done a great job of sending weekly email updates to members, and they keep emphasizing how people can connect with the pastors, what is and isn’t happening in the church, and encouraging people to reach out to their small group members. This same information is repeated in different formats on social media. Overcommunication will help people feel like they know who to reach out to for help and how to be connected to the church while remaining at home. 

JD: I see congregations doing all kinds of wonderful work through activities like grocery shopping for those who can’t go out, sharing favorite local restaurants, supporting healthcare workers at nearby hospitals, and holding outdoor gatherings. On a more personal level, I’ve also found that returning to phone calls has been particularly meaningful. One incredible tool is which allows friends and family of those quarantined in the hospital to record a soundtrack of messages to give patients hope and connection.

JT: Help us understand some of the dangers of technology in the church and what we might do to avoid abusing these tools or relying upon them too much.

JK: Digital technology often values speed, choice, and individualism. Everything is always getting faster (speed), the options are vast and endless (choice), and our entire experience is customized to our personal preferences and personalities (individualism). When we’re not careful, these values can turn in on themselves and become not only counterproductive but also quite dangerous. Speed can make us impatient, choice can make us shallow, and individualism can make us isolated. 

When we find ourselves relying on these tools too much, and our reliance goes unchecked for too long, these values inevitably form us into an increasingly impatient, shallow, isolated people—and the danger here for followers of Jesus is that discipleship is actually a patient, deep, communal work. Awareness of the subtle, subversive, and dangerous ways our use of these technologies is forming us is step one. Implementing defined limits and parameters for use is step two.

JD: I think we need to relentlessly challenge a way of thinking that’s deeply wired into the circuitry of evangelical thinking on technology: “the methods may change, but the message stays the same.” On the surface, this seems right because the gospel seed can grow in the soil of any culture. But this way of thinking also seems to say that form doesn’t matter, that our faith is simply content that can be delivered in any medium, and that beauty, truth, and goodness are separate things. So I’m not that concerned that we use our technology too much, I am concerned that we use it with too little reflection on how its form shapes our message. Instead of using whatever shiny thing we see on Twitter, we have to think intentionally about using form and content together to shape our bodies, souls, messages, and communities.

JT: How might God use technology to further the mission of the church in the coming years?

JM: It reminds me of how people used to believe that ebooks would end up destroying the print book. They were ultimately wrong because ebooks, while convenient, have primarily served to increase the desire for physical books. I agree with others about a similar parallel with online church services driving a greater desire for in-person church gatherings. I hope that more churches will keep an eye toward accessibility, and perhaps, those who were not streaming their services will start so that shut-ins or those who are sick can still partake in a part of the service, even if virtually. 

JD: In the opening chapters of Genesis, God says that our creativity is part of our image-bearing and part of our call to have dominion over, cultivate, and care for his creation. In the center of the story is Jesus, who is a second Adam, both by perfectly following the Law and by being a tektōn, a carpenter, who cultivated the Garden and the Temple, and who died on a hideous machine made from the very tools with which he worked. And at the end of the story, we see a resurrected Jesus bringing down from heaven a new city, a holy city, full of all of the things humans make—swords beaten into plowshares, roads paved with gold, trumpets filled with music, and gates in all directions. I think this means that technology and human creativity are not just a means for telling the story, but they are part of the story. I enjoy my work building things like Bible software for closed countries, online education platforms for seminaries, and other tools.

JK: A helpful differentiating line between digital and analog realities has been the divide between information and transformation. Digital technologies offer us incredible opportunities to inform people. And information is undoubtedly an important element to sharing the gospel. But ultimately, the mission of the church does not stop at information but rather, transformation—to be remade day by day into the image of the risen Christ. The work of transformation, I believe, is always an embodied, incarnational work. It’s communal too, in the sense that we cannot do it alone. 

We are not saved as individuals headed for a far off place called heaven. We are saved into a family, called to embody heaven’s reality, the rule and reign of Christ as King, here and now, as we look forward together toward the day when Christ shall return and right every wrong. I’m hopeful that the church can and will continue to leverage technology to inform the world of kingdom possibilities in compelling ways. But as we do, we must never forget that the information must always point toward an invitation into embodied realities, where we gather together as the people of God to be transformed in real ways, in real time, and in real space.

By / Jul 9

Many people talked about “cabin fever” during the social distancing necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic, often musing about the places they wish they could go—the beach or a restaurant or a baseball game. But the one place I found myself longing to visit was not one I might have guessed originally: a funeral home. 

During the months of quarantine, my 92-year-old grandmother died peacefully in her sleep. Neither I, nor most of our family, could attend her funeral, since public health guidelines and prudence meant that fewer than 10 people could gather. Our family, scattered across the country, grieved alone, all remembering the life of a woman who loved, and was loved, intensely by her children, grandchildren, friends, and church. We knew we would have to wait until this crisis is over (whenever that is) to have a “normal” memorial service for her. 

I noticed as I grieved that, without a funeral, it did not seem quite real. And I wondered how many other people—with thousands dead from the coronavirus, not to mention those who, like my grandmother, died from other causes—were in the same situation. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to an article in The Atlantic by funeral director/essayist Thomas Lynch about how we are meant to mark life and death. 

“The fear of death, of ceasing to be, includes the fear that our stories will die with us, and won’t be told or will be told incorrectly,” Lynch writes. He goes on to say: “If death steals everything except our stories, pandemics—like famines and holocausts—do their best not to grant us the time it takes to pay respects, to get our story right, to get our story told, to share the story with family and friends, to tell them that what took us in the end may have been COVID-19, but that fact is only a footnote, not our story.”

There’s some truth to that. A funeral is the way of getting our stories straight. That’s why one of the most important aspects of grieving is not just the rituals of the funeral but all the telling of stories about the deceased—especially those that make us laugh. That’s what reminds us that we still remember not just the facts of this person, but the story

For Christians, this sort of “keeping of a story” should remind us that we don’t have to keep it. The Pharaohs built the pyramids as their gravestones. But there’s a Burger King in view of the pyramids, and few taking selfies in front of them know the name of Amenhotep or Ramses. 

Remembrance is important. That’s an essential part of the sign Jesus has given us in communion (“Do this in remembrance of me”). But even more important is, well, communion. The truth that Jesus is alive, and he breaks the bread, and fills the cup. We know that, for those in Christ, our stories are “hidden in Christ,” waiting to be unveiled in glory with him (Col. 3:3-4). That means that no part of that story is lost, but all of it is redeemed, and merged with the Story that took on flesh and dwelled among us (Jn. 1:14). 

Not all of us have lost family members. But all of us are grieving. We grieve the deaths of people we love. We grieve the loss of our ability to gather each week in worship. And we grieve the threat of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” that seems especially close right now. The pandemic can prompt us, wrongly, to think of deaths as statistics, but Lynch is right to remind us that it is just a footnote to all those stories. And, for Christians, death itself is just a footnote. And I use that term in more ways that one—since the Bible tells us death will soon be under the feet of the triumphant Christ (1 Cor. 15:25-26). 

The pandemic could stop us from saying “goodbye” to my grandmother right now. But it, nor anything else, can stop us from saying “hello” to her later. 

Russell Moore
President, ERLC

By / Jul 9

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many Christian families to find themselves in an odd place on Sunday mornings: home. With many churches choosing to cancel their gatherings in favor of livestream services or family worship guides, here are a few tips for parents wanting to make the most of their worship at home. 

1. Teach the importance of corporate worship. 

Children need to know that worship on the Lord’s Day is no less sacred in their living room than it is in a church building. Corporate worship is so vital to the life of a Christian that we should utilize whatever technology is available to stay connected to the body of Christ, to be encouraged by our faith family, and to be taught by the Word of God. 

2. Limit distractions. 

The living room presents more distractions than the sanctuary. Put away toys, phones, pets, and anything else that might distract from listening and participating in worship. Instruct children to use the bathroom before you start. In doing this, you can prepare an environment where worship and study can take priority.

3. Manage expectations. 

While we want to limit distractions, they are bound to happen, and we cannot be angry or discouraged when they do. Be flexible. Embrace the awkwardness. Keep the mood light. Don’t let one child with a bad attitude ruin the moment for everyone else. 

4. Open your Bible. 

It’s tempting to sit back on the couch and passively listen to the livestream like it’s a movie. Instead, stay engaged with the sermon by opening your Bible and following along, just as you would if you were sitting in an auditorium. Make sure each family member has their own copy of God’s Word in front of them. 

5. Take notes. 

Watching a livestream service in your living room provides an opportunity to show your children how to take notes during a sermon. It is much more difficult to teach young children to take notes in a full sanctuary without distracting those around you. At home, however, you can instruct them to answer questions such as, “Who is speaking?”, “What are you learning about God?”, “What was your favorite song, and why?”, or even, “What was confusing?” These notes could lead to a good family discussion after the service ends. 

6. Dad, take the lead. 

As the spiritual head of the household, this is a great opportunity for you to lead your family. Be the one who gathers everyone together. Show a genuine excitement about worshipping in a new way. Sing loudly. Ask good questions. Encourage everyone to participate.

7. Read along. 

Pray along. Sing along. Just as the Sunday gathering of the church is an interactive time, not a performance, so is participating in a livestream service. Make a joyful noise, even if it’s off-key. Bow your head and close your eyes when someone is praying. Read along in your Bible during the sermon. 

8. Long for the return of God’s people gathered together. 

Allowing your children to hear how much you miss the Sunday gathering of the church will help them see the importance of corporate worship in the life of a believer. In a small way, it will mirror the longing that all Christians have for the day when we will gather together with the Lord Jesus to be with him forever. 

With a little planning and intentionality, this temporary season of isolation could be used to grow your family closer to one another, closer to your local church body, and closer to God.

By / Jul 9

In the midst of a pandemic, medical providers around the world need believers to approach the throne of grace on their behalf. Below are just a few of the ways you can pray for us.  

1. Wisdom

Many of us are in the position of having to make significant, timely decisions based on incomplete and rapidly evolving data. For medical professionals who are trained to be evidence-based, this can be a nerve-wracking situation leading to uncertainty and fear. Please pray that we would be wise in how we respond to the evidence at hand, and discerning as we move forward to implement best practices for our patients and our communities. 

2. Clarity

With so many incoming streams of information and with the need to adapt to new evidence as it arises, there is a very real danger that muddled and conflicting messages may confuse those we are trying to inform. Pray that medical providers would seek to be clear, balanced, and unified in the guidance we provide.

3. Compassion

In high-stress situations, compassion and empathy are often the first casualties. Emotional distancing and task-oriented interactions are common coping mechanisms for those of us who are consistently close to grief, distress, and crisis. They are also deadly to the soul. Pray that God would give grace to medical providers; pray that we would extend Christlike compassion as we care for hurting souls, not just broken bodies.  

Pray that God would give grace to medical providers; pray that we
would extend Christlike compassion as we care for hurting souls, not just broken bodies.  

4. Stamina

We are tired. Even if we are not currently in an epicenter, this is exhausting work—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Many of us are working extended hours with skeleton crews. This pace is difficult to maintain, yet any semblance of a finish line is still a ways off on the horizon. Please beg the Lord to grant healthcare workers uncanny stamina for the days ahead. Pray that he would help us find new rhythms of work and rest that will sustain us and prevent burnout.

5. Family

As we press further into this important work, many of us entertain fearful thoughts about how it will affect our family, friends, and loved ones. Most acutely, we are worried about infecting them. For those of us who continue to encounter significant exposures, many have proactively self-quarantined for their protection. Even if we’re not physically isolating ourselves from our families, the stress of the workload itself is pulling many of us away from them. This separation just adds another level of emotional turmoil to an already difficult situation. Pray for our families.

6. Dependence

If it is not already abundantly clear, none of us can do this on our own. As determined and resilient as healthcare workers are, if we think we’ll be able to roll our sleeves up and muscle through this on our own we are sorely mistaken. We need you. We need your support, your encouragement, and your responsible choices. Pray that we can depend on you. More importantly, we need God. We need his grace to sustain us and to enable us to share his love as we tend to his people. Pray that we would depend on God.

Thank you for carrying us in prayer as we seek to care for patients with an ability and insight that only he can provide. May he bring this pandemic to a quick end and draw many to himself.

By / Jul 9

I believe 2 Timothy 4:2 has taken on a new meaning for most of us this year. Pastors are leading their churches in a way they never have before. I have often joked that I missed the seminary class on “Pastoring through Pandemics,” but this really is unchartered territory for our professors as well. Most ministers I have spoken with are exhausted, noting that they have had to work harder during this time than at any other point in ministry. I can attest this is certainly true for me, and I believe ultimately, I will be a better pastor because of it.

What is most striking is how quickly this all transpired; almost overnight, the way we have been doing ministry had to adapt and change. We went from pastoring the local church gathered to pastoring the local church scattered; and primarily virtually. This time has certainly felt out of season. Most of us are searching for and discovering new ways to minister to the flock entrusted to us.

I want to encourage you by sharing some things we have done this season that are different, but have served to make me a more effective pastor. It is easy to focus on the negative during this time, but it is essential to focus on the things we can control. We must remember that God is still on his throne in this season, and he is in control. Instead of asking why God has allowed this to happen, maybe we should seek to see how God wants to grow us as this happens. Here are three areas where we have done new things during the pandemic that have become blessings. 

1. Becoming better communicators 

One of the ways my people have affirmed experiencing stronger leadership is through better communication during the pandemic. One of the first decisions I made for our staff was that we needed to be in constant communication with our membership. We did not want what them to be guessing about what we would do next. Instead, we have had them walk alongside us at this time. This process is something I thought we were already doing well, but honestly, we have found it’s an area where we could have been doing a lot better. Our people have appreciated the extra effort from the staff, and in particular from me as their pastor.

We have been doing a few different things to communicate better. First, we have been putting out weekly articles from different pastors on staff to encourage and challenge our people. These are short and are designed to be devotional. It gives our people a chance to hear from the staff, especially those who do not get a lot of stage time. 

A second thing we have been doing is sending out regular emails detailing the needs of our church, ways we can pray and meet others’ needs, and letting people know what the next week will look like for the church. As restrictions were being loosened and we were formulating a plan to regather, we developed a 10-question survey for our church. They were able to hear what our plan was and give us their expectations for coming back together.

Instead of asking why God has allowed this to happen, maybe we should seek to see how God wants to grow us as this happens.

Our people have said they appreciate being genuinely heard and regularly hearing from their pastor. When things get back to normal, we will continue to build upon these new ideas to communicate clearly, competently, and consistently with our church.

2. More intentional pastoral care

Our hospitals quickly stopped allowing visitors, which created a unique challenge for how to visit the sick. This meant that the way we did pastoral care would be different. One thing we did was assign every pastor on staff a list of 125 church members to call each week and check on. Each pastor makes sure they update the members they call with any new developments, asks what their needs are, and asks for prayer requests before praying with them. They also take notes on their conversation to share with the staff. We have found that we are getting to know our people better because of this intentional time. Coupled with that, we discovered that for many of our members, especially those who live alone, this is a time they really look forward to. We plan to keep an updated list of our membership for our pastors to call each month to speak and pray with our people.

This has also been a season where I have been doing a lot of handwritten notes. Members who have had birthdays, anniversaries, loss of loved ones and employment, and other experiences are not going through the normal process of celebration and grieving. Taking the time to write our members to rejoice with them or mourn with them has been so well received. This is another new thing I plan to keep doing every week as a part of my ministry. I have always said, “No one wants to know what you know until they know you care about them.” This is a great way to show your people you care about them.

We also implemented three teams among our deacon body to serve our church in this unique time. These teams will go grocery shopping for our more vulnerable members, pick up prescriptions for our elderly members, and help them with any other needs they may have. Our deacons have also helped some of our members learn how to use the technology needed to watch our services so they can stay connected to our church. There is no way this could have all fallen on the pastoral team, and I am thankful area deacons took on this challenge to be servants to our body. 

3. Refining my preaching skills

One of the most challenging things about this season is preaching to a video camera in an empty room. This is much more difficult to me than preaching to a room full of people. Early on, we decided that we record our service on Thursday and then release them live on multiple platforms on Sunday morning. This means that I have had the unfortunate privilege of watching myself preach each week for two months. It’s like I’m sitting through homiletics all over again. 

As awkward as it is to watch yourself preach, I do believe this can help you become a better preacher. Do not waste this opportunity to refine your preaching. I have been able to watch myself and ask questions like: Did I communicate that properly? How could I have said that better? I also have been able to critique how clear I have made the gospel in my messages and how I can do so with more clarity next time. In terms of cadence, tone, and eye contact, I have seen areas of growth over our seven weeks online. 

 Most importantly, hold fast to the gospel and use this as a season to grow as a pastor, leaning heavily on the goodness and grace of Jesus to bless your efforts and build his Church. 

This has also reminded me how utterly dependent my preaching is upon God. Speaking to a camera and pleading with people to repent and believe is in vain if it’s powerless preaching. I have spent more time praying over my sermons than at any other point I can remember. This is another thing I will continue to do. In addition to praying, I have been reading Francis Grimke’s Meditation on Preaching as a devotion as I prepare each week. I do not know who will see our video each week, but I do know what they hear has been prayed over deeply by someone who knows his words don’t save—only God’s power does. Determine to get the gospel in people’s ears, and trust God to get it into their hearts.

Our plan going forward

As great as these improvements and ideas have been, we still long to gather together again. As this article is being penned, we are in the process of regathering as a church. As I mentioned earlier, we have listened to our people as we have come up with our plan. The decision to regather, at least to me, is much more difficult than the decision to cancel. Part of becoming a better leader is leaning on the wisdom of those around you. Therefore, we created an ad hoc committee consisting of doctors in our church and key lay leaders to help us make our decisions. They have been instrumental in developing the plan for our church coming back together.

But, make sure you write your plans in pencil, not pen. Your people will not fault you for being overly cautious during this time and adjusting plans based on this changing situation. Most importantly, hold fast to the gospel and use this as a season to grow as a pastor, leaning heavily on the goodness and grace of Jesus to bless your efforts and build his Church.

By / Jul 9

As I type this, my teenage sons are in the next room, and I can hear them laughing and talking. They are on Zoom calls with their youth group from our church. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they are finding a way to connect, to hear the Word of God, and to be discipled together. I am wiping away tears from my eyes, but I don’t quite know why. Partly it’s because this reality is unbelievably sad. And partly it’s because the despite-of-it-all nature of the church is unbelievably beautiful. 

Children need to know that worship on the Lord’s Day is no less sacred in their living room than it is in a church building. Corporate worship is so vital to the life of a Christian that we should utilize whatever technology is available to stay connected to the body of Christ, to be encouraged by our faith family, and to be taught by the Word of God. 

Watching thousands die every week, and thousands more lose their jobs, was a horrifying reality in this time of plague. All around the world, the necessity of social distancing brought about disconnection, separating us from friends, family, and our normal rhythms of life. For those of us who follow Jesus, the worst of these necessities has been the loss of the ability to gather together for worship. Many are thus asking, “How long will this go on? How long until we get back to normal?” 

The truth is that we don’t know, nobody knows. But we do know one thing. Even if your church has resumed gathering for worship, there will not be a Sunday when, suddenly, everything is “back to normal,” at least not in the way that we think of it.

As we gather together again, we will not be back to normal. And, amid all the sadness around us, that may be Good News.

In a sense, all of us will be “back to normal” soon if, by that, one means the ability to gather once again. Yes, some are already doing that, and others will be soon. We will sing together again. We will hug each other again. We will take communion together again. But this will not happen in one Sunday, for which we can mark our calendars and count down toward, as though it were Advent moving toward Christmas. 

By now most places have seen the requisite flattening of curves of infection and have the needed testing and tracing capabilities in place to loosen up on the restrictions we have faced. But, as we have seen, simply declaring businesses “reopened” does not mean an immediate return to the status quo. And the same is true of the church.

Getting creative 

Despite the caricatures, the vast majority of American Christians complied with health and civic recommendations and mandates. In fact, most churches I know of were out in front of those recommendations. Did some Christians interviewed on television suggest that the blood of Christ would keep them from being infected? Yes. Did some televangelist declare he could blow the virus away? Yes. Did some share bizarre conspiracy theories on Facebook? Of course. But that’s a tiny sliver of American Christian life. The real story was how churches and Christians not only served their neighbors by ceasing to gather for a time, but the remarkable creativity they showed after doing so. 

Some churches that never even recorded their sermons were able, in no time, to livestream their services, to provide ways to do youth group Bible studies via Zoom, and maintain prayer chains through texting and social media. Churches without even a website address found ways to enable their people to give their offerings online. Some churches had to find a way to vote on calling a new pastor with online voting or drive-through affirmations. 

This sort of creativity will not end. The fact is that though most churches have started the process of “reopening,” in almost every case, this will not mean dropping livestreaming and other forms of connection but adding in-person gatherings to the options created during social distancing. 

Embracing the new normal 

Lots of people have long been eager and ready to get back. But, even so, until there is a vaccine for this virus, churches will be spacing congregants out in their sanctuaries. Some churches that have traditionally had only one service may now opt to have multiple services. And out of necessity, some churches have opted for persons or families to “sign up” for what service they will attend (the way some churches have previously done on especially crowded days such as Easter). 

And as we’ve already seen, there will still be lots of people who, even after churches are back to gathering, will be unable to attend. Those who are elderly or who have complicating conditions will be unable to resume attendance for some time. For them, there will still need to be ways of maintaining connectedness. The livestreaming may well continue for a long time, even if it is streamed from a building with people in it. Online giving will continue to be a necessity for most churches, along with perhaps a centralized slot for people to drop their tithes or offerings, instead of the passing of the plate. 

Additionally, for a long time to come there will be aspects of church life that will be different. Churches that never thought about a category of “ushers” will now have people assigned to make sure that doors do not have to be touched as people enter and exit. Bathroom facilities will need to be restricted to very small groups to keep distancing requirements. The spacing of seating in auditoriums will require much more planning than just who normally sits where. And I can’t imagine anytime soon that the practice of “turn around and greet your neighbor” times in churches will resume, if it ever does (some of you will miss it; some of us won’t).

Maintaining peace and unity

Some people will think their churches are “giving in to fear” if they take longer to reopen than the businesses around them. Some will think that the church is insane for reopening whenever it does and will be tempted to say that their leaders don’t care about public health. In almost every case I have seen, though, pastors and leaders in this emergency are exercising wisdom and prudence. They are seeking to do the best they can, to make the best decisions they can. Let’s pray for one another, and impute the best of motives to one another. 

Maybe we will hear the Word of God, in person and with our own ears, with a special realization that we need the Bread of Life, and that apart from it we perish. 

If your pastors or leaders make a decision you think is overly naïve or overly cautious, in almost every case, what they need from you is an “I love you, and I’m praying for you, and I know you are having to make really tough decisions.” Make the best decisions you can in terms of your health and that of your family, but let’s all recognize that we will, all of us, make some mistakes in this process. We will find things we missed the first time. We will reconsider decisions we made. We have never been here before, and we should pray our children or grandchildren in the church never are again. So let’s, as much as possible, maintain peace and unity along with safety. 

Gaining in the loss

Some of us need to be reminded that prudence and love of neighbor is not cowardice. In some sense, we are in the place that C.S. Lewis referenced in his famous “Learning in Wartime” lecture during the height of World War II. Lewis noted how fearful the time was, and how frustrating. And yet, he said, there was something to be gained in all the loss. 

“All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration,” he said. “In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and we must come to terms with it.” 

If we give in to the frustration, Lewis said, we will surrender to despair and be unfaithful. But a certain degree of disillusionment, he argued, is in order. He said: “If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.” 

This experience has changed us all. We know what it is to be kept apart. We know that we are children of dust, and feeble as well as frail. We know that we are so feeble and frail, in fact, that something microscopic could, in an instant, take away from us our life, our livelihoods, our loved ones, even our church services. But maybe that means that we will hug each other longer, knowing how fragile all this is. Maybe we will hear the Word of God, in person and with our own ears, with a special realization that we need the Bread of Life, and that apart from it we perish. 

As we gather together again, we will not be back to normal. And, amid all the sadness around us, that may be Good News.

By / Jul 9

As Americans respond to admonitions from public health officials and politicians by practicing social distancing, quarantining, and closing schools, businesses, and churches in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), an important consideration receiving little attention is the impact of these dramatic actions on the short and long-term mental health of our people. 

Very few of us have ever witnessed as significant a disruption to our daily routines as we are currently experiencing. In my role as a child and adolescent psychiatrist often in a position to remind parents of the importance of structure and routine, I’m curious about the possible effects of quarantine and social isolation on the kids and families I serve. What I learned in reviewing the available research is very concerning. 

A study comparing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in parents and children who had been quarantined found that mean PTSD stress scores were four times higher in children and nearly five times higher in quarantined adults.

Each of us will have an opportunity to share our hope in Jesus with lots of hurting and vulnerable people during the days and weeks ahead. The manner in which we conduct ourselves will point our friends and neighbors to a hope that can sustain them through our current circumstances and offer a sense of peace and comfort that their futures are secure.

Another study examining the short-term impact of quarantine (average duration of 10 days) in a group largely composed of healthcare workers in Toronto at the time of the 2003 SARS epidemic found symptoms of PTSD and depression were observed in 28.9% and 31.2% of respondents, respectively, when surveyed, on average, five weeks following their experience.

A longer-term study of healthcare workers in China quarantined in the same year because of SARS found they were nearly five times more likely to exhibit depression three years after their experience when compared to their peers.

While the attention of the government and our healthcare system has appropriately been focused on “flattening the curve” of critically ill people overwhelming our intensive care units and emergency rooms, the available research strongly suggests the mental health system may be facing a larger and longer lasting second wave of need as a result of the steps taken to control COVID-19. What might the church do during this time to stem the tide and mitigate their suffering?

The church can play an essential role in combating the social isolation so many are currently experiencing. It was wonderful this past weekend to see so many friends sharing links to their church’s worship services. I would strongly encourage pastors and staff to make as much of the church’s social infrastructure available online as possible. Small groups. Bible studies. Committee meetings. Christian education. Everything. There’s something about being able to see one another, talk to one another, study with one another, and pray with one another in real time that provides relief to brothers and sisters who are scared and alone in our current circumstances. Phone calls and letters are also important in helping less tech-savvy members to continue to feel connected.

Secular authorities recognize that the central tenet in recovery is hope—hope is the catalyst for change and serves as an enabler of other factors involved in recovery and the means through which a better future can be perceived. 

The church can help by providing individuals and families meaningful opportunities to serve their friends and neighbors during this time. Research from natural disasters suggests involving vulnerable children in family and community responses during times of potential danger increases resilience, defends against development of helplessness, and may help protect against post-traumatic effects through promoting a sense of agency and self-efficacy. Consider how your staff might involve children, youth, and families in plans to provide care and support to the people in your church and surrounding communities.

The church can offer practical help to relieve common situational stressors that often lead to mental health concerns. We know that life-change events are associated with increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Helping people struggling with job loss, the closure of a business, or inability to find childcare can reduce the stress burden leading to increased risk of mental and physical health problems. 

The church can provide peer support. Churches with a lay counseling program can provide them with the tools to encourage and uplift members who are unable to leave their homes. There’s never been a better time to start a mental health support group online. The Grace Alliance and Fresh Hope are outstanding ministries with well-designed and established models for providing biblically based support for teens and adults struggling with common mental health issues.

The church can assist members and attendees in connecting with professional counseling and other mental health services in the cities and towns they serve. Do pastors and others on your church staff offer counseling? Give them the technology to continue to serve during this time. People in distress often turn to the church for help. Consider updating your church’s list of mental health resources to identify practitioners and clinics willing and available to see new clients or patients at this time, in person or remotely through video.

Most importantly, we as the church need to be purveyors of hope. Secular authorities recognize that the central tenet in recovery is hope—hope is the catalyst for change and serves as an enabler of other factors involved in recovery and the means through which a better future can be perceived. For most of us, there has never been a time when the world has been in as much need of hope as exists in the present. We in the church own the ultimate message of hope.

The apostle Paul illustrated this principle in the midst of suffering in his words to the Colossians: “But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him— if indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become a servant of it (Col. 1:22-23, CSB).

Each of us will have an opportunity to share our hope in Jesus with lots of hurting and vulnerable people during the days and weeks ahead. The manner in which we conduct ourselves will point our friends and neighbors to a hope that can sustain them through our current circumstances and offer a sense of peace.

By / Jul 9

We usually don’t realize that something is significant, history-making, or even culture shifting until it’s in the past. I am reminded of what the character Andy Bernard on The Office said as he reflected on a similar sentiment: “I wish there was a way to know you are in the good ol’ days before you have actually left them.” Bernard echoes so well what many of us experience throughout life as we look back with a nostalgic longing for what has passed us by. The truth is that we often overlook the good things in life as we are experiencing them because we are so focused on the next step, move, or season. In hindsight, everything seems clearer, and it becomes easier to draw the connections between our suffering and God’s redeeming presence.

While it doesn’t feel that way right now, I think that 2020 will be similar for most of us. This year has brought some of the toughest and most consequential events our world has experienced, all just in one 6-month period. From a worldwide pandemic and the reminder of gross racial injustices in our society to the coming general election in the United States and continued debates over the role of technology in our lives, 2020 is—without a doubt—one of the most significant years of our lives and one that we will reflect on for the rest of our days. This reflection will likely be one of deep reflection and a reminder of God’s sustaining presence in our families, churches, and communities.

I honestly could not be prouder of the team that helped assemble and produce this magazine issue. We quickly shifted our planned issue to one that focuses on these current times we are facing. Our prayer is that God will use this magazine to meet you where you are and serve you well in the midst of hard circumstances. This issue is focused on how ministry continues, even grows, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and how Christians are called to love God and our neighbors, especially when things seem bleak. We highlight wise thinkers like Russell Moore, Scott James, Chelsea Patterson Sobilik, Jared Kennedy, and Eliza Huie, who help us get a perspective on these interesting and difficult times while reminding us of the hope we have in Christ.

We pray these resources will help Christians navigate this unforeseen and overwhelming season of ministry with a deeper reliance on Christ. While this year may not feel like the “good ol’ days” right now, God is moving among us and building his church. This time of suffering will inevitably lead to brighter times, not because the pain and suffering will disappear, but because it is through the fire that we are refined and made more like Christ—able to endure the pains and toils of this world as we long for the next. We may very well look back at these days with fond memories because of the way we saw God move among us and carry us through the trials of this life.

Jason Thacker
Editor, Light Magazine