As of this writing, the world is churning from the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Churches and pastors, assuming perhaps they might face a weekend or two of inconvenience, now face the very real possibility of several weeks of modified or online-only services. Maybe longer. Entire cities are under curfew with daily updates, businesses are ceasing operations, restaurants and bars are being required to close early or close altogether. Major American airlines have already petitioned the US government for a bailout. Announcements are being made faster than articles can be written.
God’s people are not exempt from these confusing times, nor from the tumultuous emotions they agitate. And pastors are expected to shepherd and lead, whatever that may possibly mean. You see, pastors haven’t lived through pandemics. Ever heard the saying, “They didn’t teach this in seminary?” I think we can all agree that no one alive was taught this in seminary. This pandemic has set us sailing in uncharted waters; seas unknown to us, yet altogether unsurprising to God.
How then can pastors stand in faith towards God personally—and keep their churches focused—in times like these? Here are few things to remember as you seek to serve your church.
First, every tragedy tows an opportunity. God’s people are unsettled, parents are afraid, older saints are alarmed as they watch life savings tumble due to market fluctuations. When sheep worry, shepherds work. And right now, there’s plenty to do. Bewildered parents need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness. Evicted college students need to know about God’s provision. And those dear senior saints who sit in the crosshairs of COVID-19 need to be assured that the Great Shepherd is with them; His rod and staff will comfort them. Remember, your leadership and pastoring are not the ultimate answer. Pastors exist to point people to the care and power of the true Shepherd of our souls. Spend time with Jesus each morning so that you can feed others throughout the day.
Second, behind pandemics stands Providence. Not the frowning kind, or the variety that makes God all-powerful over events but neglects his lovingkindness. But the rugged, durable, “you-meant-it-for-evil-but-God-meant-it-for-good” (Gen. 50:20) kind of Providence. The Providence that fills calamity with care and returns us to the doctrinal ground upon which we stand: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). Pastor, tell your people. Remind them that at the center of our creed lies a bloody cross, the cosmic calamity that saved us from the pandemic of sin. Let them know that God does his best work in our worst moments. Remind them that there are things happening right now which may appear to the naked eye as His judgement or His abandonment, but they are really deepening our capacity to flourish in God and persevere in life. We don’t always get it, but we believe it. Even when Coronavirus comes knocking, a good and loving God stands at the door.
Next, a pandemic levels the playing field. It’s a prophet in viral clothing reminding us of our shared humanity—our collective vulnerability. No country rests immunized; all of us are potential carriers. But for the western Christian, it unites us with the global church, among whom are some who suffer catastrophes each and every week. Yet, they suffer in faith and they multiply mission while it’s happening. So, let’s avoid a form of “chronological snobbery,” to quote C.S. Lewis, where we assume our suffering is unique because, well, it’s now happening to us. Christians have been courageously enduring natural tragedies, epidemics, invasions, persecutions and poverty since the beginning of the church. When you think about it, the New Testament church was conceived during a period where most of the government and population were hostile to their existence. Yet, they were known as ones who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). Pastors serve most effectively when they carry historical perspective, and then wisely convey it to others. Though this may be the worst we’ve seen, it isn’t the worst it’s ever been. Just as Christ rose from the grave, God has a reliable record of delivering His people through pandemics. Given His promises and his track record, God will protect and sustain His people today through His word and for His glory.
Finally, a pandemic reminds us that a world with COVID-19 is not our home. We were created for another place. Abraham saw it and lived “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). God’s people really need to hear this. An endless stream of information is obscuring their vision right now. Faith is under fire. Christians need to know that the focus of our eyes informs the strength of our faith.
By introducing fragility, pandemics reassert eternity. As priorities shift, we slow enough to hear the toll of a bell from the city “whose architect and builder is God.” It reminds us that we sojourn in the Shadowlands where life is brittle; where “normal” tips over all too easily. If we dare to look, the coronavirus points forward to our true home and forever family. Just imagine: resurrected bodies impervious to infection! Let the anticipation fire us to serve Christ today with eyes on eternity. May your livestreamed preaching ping our souls with an echo from the world for which we were created.
Pastors, point to the hope of His coming; bear the glad tidings of a new heavens and new earth. Sure, we might be in uncharted waters, but Jesus is the Morning Star that guides us. Be an example; look to Him. And do so with the confidence that even when a pandemic shouts, Jesus has the final say.