How the Lord Prepared Our Church for a Global Pandemic
Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article originally appeared on lifewayvoices.com and is reprinted here with permission. For more resources related to COVID-19, visit our new site: COVID-19 & The Church.
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In an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus in our city, on Saturday, March 14, 2020, at 6:33 p.m., the mayor of Austin issued an order prohibiting all private or public gatherings effective as of 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 15, though May 1, 2020. The looming question for us was how to shepherd our congregation for the next weeks if we weren’t able to gather? Much to our surprise and encouragement, we learned that the Lord had already been preparing us for this global pandemic through the ordinary means of pastoral ministry. Let me explain.
Through the regular, consecutive, book by book, Christ-centered preaching of God’s word, the Lord allowed us to lay a foundation for our people in his word. Immediately before we were no longer able to gather, we completed our study of Ruth. One of the main points driven home each sermon was that the Lord sustains his people and governs all things, even operating through human actions, to guide everything to his appointed ends. The doctrine of divine providence taught and applied for four weeks prepared us for whatever the Lord had for us, including a global pandemic. And just before Ruth, we had studied Philippians, landing on that important exhortation to be anxious about nothing but to bring all things to God in prayer that we may experience the peace of God (Phil. 4:6–7).
A CULTURE OF DISCIPLESHIP
By God’s grace, the Lord had convinced us that it was much better to seek to cultivate a culture of discipleship rather than a programs of discipleship. We wanted to see a culture among our members where it was normal for them to be in relationships where they encouraged one another and helped each other follow Jesus to the end that we would all grow in Christlikeness. Our biblical warrant was Ephesians 4:11–16. We hoped to establish a culture where the pastors teach/preach the word. The congregation receives that word. And then, they speak it to one another in love. While we had small groups already, we wanted to make sure every member was engaged in a discipleship relationship. Now, as we are at the end of March, we’ve been hearing encouraging stories of how our members are connecting with one another through texts, phone calls, and Zoom meetings.
A PLURALITY OF ELDERS
Crucially, we had also set out to regularly identify faithful men who would be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). By God’s grace, by January of 2020, we had 9 elders/pastors. We already had a plan in place to care for all our members. Every time we met (twice a month), we worked through a plan to contact a portion of our membership and pray for them. We were working through our entire membership two to three times a year. As we considered how to care for every member during this unprecedented season of life, we realized we already had a pastoral care plan in place to contact every member and pray for them. All we needed to do was adjust our list to make sure we made it through our membership in four weeks. If the orders are extended beyond May 1, 2020, we will simply keep working through our pastoral care plan.
Our deacons focus on specific ministries. They organize teams of volunteers to help the elders serve the church. Immediately, we contacted the deacon of emergency response and asked him to put together a church-wide response plan after he spoke with the appropriate persons: doctors, emergency personnel, pastors. Thankfully, our deacon of widows and shut-ins already had a team of volunteers, so they simply continued their original work. Added to their load, however, was reaching out to all the senior adults in our congregation, not just the widows and shut-ins.
What’s my point? These may be unprecedented times for us, but not for the church. Over 2,000 years the church has faced pandemics and persecution, floods and famines, illnesses and imprisonments, but we know from Jesus’ words that the gates of Hades will not overpower the church. In Ephesians 4:11, the ascended Christ structured his church around the ministry of the word. In the pastoral epistles, we observe the Spirit-inspired structure of the church with elders/pastors and deacons. My point is this: The Lord Jesus has already prepared us for this pandemic by how he ordered his church for the purpose of ministry and mission to the glory of God the Father, in the power of the Spirit.
Our mission is disciple-making that evidences itself in a holy people who proclaim the gospel of King Jesus. To advance the mission, we may establish programs that function like trellises that help the vine of disciple-making grow. But what we’ve learned during this pandemic is that the Lord prepared us to continue ministering to one another because we prioritized developing cultures—of evangelism and discipleship—over programs. As a result, when the programs were shut down, the cultures continued. This is good news because every church of any size may rightly order itself, develop cultures of evangelism and discipleship, and be prepared for the next crisis that we may face.