by Israel Steinmetz
The world is a different place than it was just five months ago.
As I’m writing on the final day of April, there are over 3,000,000 confirmed global cases of COVID-19 and nearly a quarter of a million reported deaths. One-third of those three million cases are in the United States along with over 60,000 of those deaths.
In the wake of the COVID-19 health pandemic is a global economic crisis, impacting employment, manufacturing, the supply and food chain, and global markets. Here in the US we’re rapidly headed toward the worst financial crisis in our history. New unemployment claims continue to set weekly records and economic trends are historically bleak.
In a rapidly changing world, how can Christian leaders respond in a way that moves people toward Christ and his kingdom?
Let me share five quick thoughts for pastors and other leaders within local churches.
1. Lead with Faith not Fear
The Christian author A.W. Tozer is quoted as saying, “A scared world needs a fearless church.” In a time of conspiracy theories and fear-mongering, concerns about freedoms and safety, and anxiety over health and money, the world is full of fear. It’s time for the church to embrace our faith in a Father who is sovereign, a Savior who is alive, a Spirit who is moving!
God is still at work in all things to bring about his good purposes. Jesus Christ is still building his Church and nothing can stand in His way! The Holy Spirit is still at work in us to bear His fruit and empower us with His gifts. Our leadership context might change, but our God does not! So, in your homes, your neighborhoods, your congregations, your cities, all of your spheres of influence—lead with faith, not fear.
2. Redeem the Time
What does it look like to lead with faith? There are two places in Paul’s letters where he encourages Christians to “redeem the time”, or as the NIV says, “make the most of every opportunity.” In Ephesians 5, Paul instructs believers to be, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil”.
Our natural response when we see evil, death, sadness, trials, sickness, and pain is to withdraw. Our natural reaction is to be paralyzed by fear and doubt. But Paul says, “redeem the time because the days are evil”. Because we’re in evil times. Because we’re encountering sin and sickness and death and natural disasters and economic collapse and all of these things, for those very reasons, that’s our opportunity to redeem the time! To redeem something is to buy it back out of slavery, to bring it back out of brokenness, and destitution, and death. And that’s our calling, that’s our mission.
Redeeming the time means we’re honest about the obstacles but also looking for the opportunities. Anywhere we look, there’s going to be obstacles and opportunities. And there are opportunities, not just for the church to survive during this crisis, but to thrive! So, look for those opportunities. Rather than lamenting what has been put on hold, or perhaps lost forever, look for those new avenues for reaching the lost, discipling believers, and advancing God’s kingdom on earth!
3. Be Flexible & Adaptable
In order to make the most of every opportunity in a crisis, we need to be flexible and adaptable. Sadly, as Christian leaders it’s easy to get comfortable in unexamined traditions, routines, and practices. But this moment in history should cause us to reevaluate what we do, how we do it, why we do it as believers.
Is it biblically mandated—something that God tells us in Scripture that we must do? Or culturally adapted, something that we do because it works within our culture? Both are necessary. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that everything we do has to be biblically mandated. The Bible tells us very little in terms of specifics about how we live and function as the church. That’s one of the most beautiful things about following Christ—you can do it in any time or place or culture.
Re-adapt to our rapidly changing culture
At times like this, we need to take what is biblically mandated and re-adapt to our rapidly changing culture. It’s time to re-examine what Scripture tells us about how to be the church in the world, and then apply that to the world that we find ourselves in today. A crisis creates an opportunity for us to ask hard questions about our practices and traditions and to face some hard decisions which we were never willing to face before.
As we ask these questions—about what’s biblically mandated, what’s culturally adapted, what’s just tradition, what’s something we’re convinced needs to be done, or a way to do it, how to do it, why to do it—we must be flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing circumstances. Although Christ will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, the truth is that many local churches will be closing their doors in the next year as a result of COVID-19. Those that survive and thrive will be those who adapt to the world around them by carefully applying Scripture to reality, rather than a fantasy of what used to be.
4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Something good leaders learn quickly is that it is almost impossible to over–communicate. We live in what many are calling an “attention economy”—everything and everyone is fighting for our attention. As Christian leaders we need to recognize that we too are battling for the attention of those we lead. And the battle will be lost if we’re not vigilant. The typical American consumes 20-40 hours of television a week, spends hours every day on their personal electronic devices, and gets bombarded by over 10,000 advertisements each day. Information is flying at them constantly on the radio, the screens, news outlets, social media, friends, family, and businesses. In order to make sure our voice is heard amidst the fray, we need to communicate in as many ways as possible.
Often, when we face a crisis we’re tempted to freeze. We want to handle things well. We don’t want to make mistakes. We want to formulate a plan and work out the plan. And those are good instincts. But if they cause us to enter “analysis paralysis” and keep us from communicating, then those following our lead are going to be isolated, and there’s already too great a risk for people feeling cut off and alone.
Communicate even as we face an uncertain future
We need to communicate, even when the communication is a humble recognition that we’re doing our best to follow Christ as we face an uncertain future. Let people know you’re there. Let them know they’re not alone. Let them know you are working toward a plan, even if you’re not sure what that plan is going to be or how soon it may need to change.
Use every available mechanism for communication, particularly as in-person communication is limited. Phone, email, video-conferencing, social media, and more are at our disposal. Take advantage of the fact that right now we have more methods of communication than ever before in human history!
5. Let Love Guide You
As you communicate you are moving forward into a future that glorifies God and advances His kingdom. How can you be sure that you’re moving in the right direction? It’s not easy, but it is simple. Let love guide you. Love for God. Love for people. Crisis doesn’t change that.
So, continue to take advantage of every opportunity to be the church. We know that “the building is not the church, the people are the church.” Now it’s time to get real about what it looks like to be the church even if we can’t come together in the same building. For far too long Western Christianity has allowed the church building and the weekly worship gathering to be the center of our identity and practice as believers.
Now we have an opportunity to re-evaluate and figure out how we can effectively love God and people outside of that place and beyond that timeframe. Christ sent the church into the world on a mission before leaving the earth; perhaps he is speaking to us again in the midst of COVID-19 to take the church out into the world on a mission?
Loving God and loving people
Jesus said that loving God and loving people is the very essence of what it means to follow him. And that’s true regardless of time, the place, the culture, the circumstances. You think the world is going to end tomorrow? Okay, love God, love people. You think this will all blow over in a few months? Okay, love God, love people. No matter what you think about the present or the future—love God and love people.
Christian history is full of situations in which Christ’s followers shined brightest in the darkest nights, from Paul writing several of his epistles in prison right down to the present day. Let your light shine in this dark night! Lead with faith, not fear! Redeem the time! Be flexible and adaptable! Communicate, communicate, communicate! And most importantly, let love guide you!