Let’s Think Transition, Part 1: Lessons Learned from Pastoring in a Pandemic

Uncategorized // May 16, 2020 //

For the next three weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of posts to help us think through the re-opening of our church. We’ll need to purposefully transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of the North Carolina government’s guidelines, and ultimately into Phase 3 and beyond. Despite the losses and heartache of this pandemic, God is teaching us lessons and strengthening his church. Let’s not miss the moment.

To further the conversation, I’ll also be taking the next three Sunday night services to expound on the content of each post. I’d like to present this material in a more personal and comprehensive format toward application for us all. Join our live stream at 6pm or watch on demand, at coatsbaptist.com, YouTube, or Facebook.

God is using the COVID-19 pandemic to take me to school. As I pastor through this pandemic, he’s teaching me some important lessons for my personal life and the life of the church. I hope you will find relevant applications for your own life and ministry. Let us remember that no pastor nor any church is alone in this crisis. We are in this together.

What’s the Lord teaching me?

1. The world is broken, and so are we. This first lesson has come as a gentle and subtle reminder, yet it seems as fresh as ever. The Bible teaches that we are a fallen people living in a broken world. The fall of man in Genesis 3:1-5 had cataclysmic consequences for the spiritual and physical condition of all humanity. We are separated from God in our sin and broken before God in our bodies. We are in a real mess with or without the coronavirus. Yet, the virus is real and people are hurting, which makes my heart hurt for people. I’m learning more and more how relevant and applicable the gospel of Jesus Christ is to every breathing soul. People are hurting on the inside and outside. Though scars remain, Jesus changes lives. He gives hope in this life and the life to come.

2. The church is always better together. The New Testament notes at least 17 different “one another” commands to be carried out in the context of the local church (e.g., “Greet one another,” 2 Cor. 13:12; “Serve one another,” Gal. 5:13) Over time, these become the distinguishing characteristics of a church’s incarnational gatherings together. What is more, it’s really hard to be the church as the commands of Scripture would indicate without being in physical proximity to one another. That tells me something: there is no true substitute for the gathered church. Digital community, though expedient and convenient, just doesn’t cut it. There is an intangible, unquantifiable spiritual reality that is woefully lacking in the absence of a physically assembled church. We were made to be together. So it is with the church, in the same room with one another. Yet, we’re trying our best in this season while asking all the more for God’s grace to fill the gaps. We need him, we need one another, and I miss hearing you sing.

3. Screen time is not all that fun. For many of you, the digital meeting via Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime, etc. is routine in your profession. Unfortunately, you know firsthand the negative effects of staring at a screen for long blocks of time. Your head hurts, your eyes dry out, and you suffer from emotional fatigue. From McLuhan to Postman, there’s a wealth of commentary on the effect of digital media on the brain.[i] Sherry Turkle, a current voice in the conversation, writes in her book Alone Together, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. As it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”[ii] We’d do well to listen to a voice like hers. We’re all now learning what some have known for years.

4. It may be time to re-evaluate our models of ministry. Jesus was in the people business, so we are, too. We know this. You might say that Coats Baptist Church equips people for life on mission. We are about setting people on a track to make and multiply disciples. We know this, too. But the pandemic has made things different. It has and will continue to force us to think with creativity and intentionality as to how we might more faithfully make and multiply disciples. Let me offer one example of a ministry model that I predict to be re-evaluated in a positive light: small group Bible studies.

Small groups, Sunday School, call them what you will. These weekly groups will become more of the backbone of the church. Though the Sunday morning large group worship service(s) will be cherished, people will see a similar value in small community group Bible studies. And what is more, people will be open to non-traditional times and spaces throughout the week. Why? Because the group setting is where life happens and relationships are forged. The group is where true ministry takes place, both in spiritual formation and pastoral care. We cannot stress this enough. As we are driven further into a digital world, I predict a reactionary craving for genuine, incarnational (that’s face to face) relationships. Large group Sunday worship gatherings will be the epicenter of such an incarnational community, thus spawning small groupings of people learning to live on mission for Jesus a little more each day. That’s a healthy move, every time.

5. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Those words are a breath of fresh air. The pandemic has us seemingly doing ministry with one hand behind our back. In a strange way, that’s a good thing. We all have the tendency to think that God needs us and we are the linchpin to effective ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that God does use us, but he does not need us — thankfully. What is more, we serve the church to bring glory to God and to build his kingdom. We are all replaceable sources of service. I believe God is teaching us those lessons during this season. He is stripping us down so that the only power we have is the only true power we’ve ever had — a “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). As we say around here, “It’s All About Him.” Christ builds his church (Matt. 16:18), and that’s never been more apparent than it is right now.

I hope you can join us online this Sunday night, May 17 at 6pm. Remember, we’re in this together — one lesson at a time.

[i] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: 20th Anniversary Edition, (New York: Penguin Books, 2005); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition, (Berkley, CA: Ginko Press, 2013).

[ii] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 1.

About Neal Thornton