Brides and grooms have postponed weddings. Spring break beach time got cancelled. Seniors at college have moved home and forfeited long-planned celebrations. Investors have bid goodbye to their dividends. Parents have died alone, and their children have been prohibited from gathering and receiving hugs. Business owners have closed shop and filed for unemployment. In our own community, DTS international students have had to vacate their apartments to fly home, and professors have moved from classroom to online teaching. And we’re just getting started.
COVID-19 has changed nearly everything—including how we shepherd souls. First we heard to cancel gatherings of 500 or more. Then officials discouraged meetings of more than fifty. Then ten. And now some cities are near lockdown. That means some churches that have never even posted sermons online are scrambling to offer live, online worship. And while it’s one thing to figure out the technical side of the equation, what about the pastoral and theological considerations? We have a teachable moment right now. So let’s be wise in how we transition to online services for congregants. Here are some ways:
- Acknowledge the losses in moving to virtual gathering. In the beginning God created a physical world (Gen. 1:1). And he took on human flesh (John 1:14). Physical realities—the creation, the incarnation, Jesus’s death and burial, the resurrection, and the ascension—are all foundational to our faith, as Christianity is not some ethereal philosophy that eschews the physical life. Baptism involves touch. The wine and bread involve taste. The passing of the peace is physical, as is greeting one another with a holy kiss. And withdrawal from matter is part of why we grieve as we must fast from greeting each other with touch, sharing the elements, and hearing a sermon in person. When this is all over, we want our people to know better than to ask, “Why go to church when I can watch at home on my computer?” Instead, may we use this absence of physical gathering as an opportunity to explain why inhabiting space together is essential.
- Give people the opportunity to do more than listen to God’s Word. Worship is two-way communication. So while all of us desperately need to hear from God right now, we also need to talk with Him. Consider some of the things the church needs to say in this moment:
- Adoration (“We remember that You are good and sovereign”)
- Lament (“This hurts”)
- Prayer for illumination (“Help us understand”)
- Self-examination/confession (“We’re sorry for our sins”—especially as families live in closer quarters than usual)
- Petition (“We need you”)
- Thanks (“We still have You, and we’re grateful”)
- Giving (“We’re called to share”)
- Benediction (“Send us forth”)
Even as people gather at their computers, invite them to listen, pray, sing, affirm, and be sent rather than merely viewing passively as they would a TV show. A congregation may be separated in terms of space, but the Lord of time will still unite them as simultaneously they join in worship.
3. Lament. The lament is the most common form of prayer in the psalms. Yet often, especially in the West, it’s the most neglected. Instead, we tend to limit ourselves to the praise sections of the Hebrew prayer book, as if we’re inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time. But in reality life this side of eternity breaks our hearts. And now is an especially appropriate time to model how to express to God our fears, frustrations, longings, aggravations, and griefs.
4. Read scripture aloud and affirm beliefs together. Read God’s words to the people slowly. Lovingly. The words themselves feed souls. So consider including a time of straight-up reading with no commentary. Draw on passages that remind listeners of God’s nearness—“I will never leave you.” Of his sovereignty—“The Lord your God in the midst of you is mighty.” Of hope—“He will wipe away every tear.” And together recite the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed, affirming together what the church has said for more than fifteen hundred years through many dangers, toils, and snares.
5. In the early days, go ahead and interrupt the sermon series. Yes, we need a sense of routine, of normality. But this is also an emergency. And the sheep need especially tender shepherding. They may need reminding to give up their extra toilet paper or face masks for others. They may need gentle redirection of their focus from nine hours a day on Facebook to time in the Word. They may need reassurance that if they lose their businesses, together you will keep each other fed. And they may need reminding that God can handle their terror. So consider taking off a week from the regular series in Colossians or Jeremiah to address the felt needs of those in your care. Assure them that the Body of Christ will get through this together—because we will.
Two thousand years ago, the elder John acknowledged that, even in a low-tech way, “distance learning” has its place, but embodied fellowship is way better: “Though I have many other things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink, but I hope to come visit you and speak face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). For now, love calls us to give up gathering physically. But in the spirit of John, may we shepherd well from afar until our joy is once again made complete.