“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?" Jesus, in Luke 15: 3,4
Various ideas have been circulating regarding how the pandemic should change the way we do church. I have received many articles listing out the "seven or ten things" which churches should do differently. On top of the usual pandemic-related anxieties, some may find that these ideas add to the pressure. They can create anxiety about missing out on something or not "getting it." It is the usual FOMO thing.
In a season where we are forced to physically "dis-gather" ("unchurch"?), some measure of scattering or loosening of community life will happen. This will affect churches that are less tightly knitted, i.e. larger churches or even smaller ones which are new to the scene.
In my opinion, worship, prayer and discipleship life will be less affected, especially for our faithful core members. What should be the focus of our concern are the people outside our core community. These are those who attend our Services but have yet to join our cell groups or prayer meetings. There are many reasons why some are just, using the derogatory term, "Sunday Christians." If we get to know them better, we will realise that some of these reasons are valid indeed. For example, some have jobs which keep them busy while others have parenting or home care-giving responsibilities.
That they were still coming to your Services may attest to the importance of regular participation in worship and fellowship. That they are there every week can attest to the fact that your church is doing some things right, during and even after the Service. It is probably fulfilling some spiritual and social needs, essential to the person's sense of being and wellness. Regular worship and fellowship, as we have often taught, are central to one's faith and well being.
While we can be thankful for virtual means of gathering, these avenues may be less effective for those outside our core faithful. The effectiveness of these virtual avenues are predicated on existing relationships, bonds and sense of belonging: all of which are lacking for those on the fringe. Even with the availability of limited capacity onsite Services, it is not difficult to predict that it is the core faithful who will queue up with their fingers when booking opens up.
Jesus’s Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15, which we often use as a reference to evangelism, may speak to us in a new way as we slowly pull out of a season of scattering. We do need to focus on reaching the "ones" who have drifted off from fold.
A few priorities come to mind.
Community stability is paramount during this season. We should be careful about change when it comes to pastors, staff and lay leaders because community is built around them. Some are serving as “fellow shepherds” (see 1 Peter 5:1). We may think that one more change may not hurt in a season of change. For some, it can be the final straw of dis-anchoring which spins them off.
Invest in strengthening friendship with your community leaders. This will in turn, help to strengthen community all round. This is definitely a season where we should not "sweat the small stuff" and where possible, avoid or dissolve conflicts.
Activities which reach those outside your core may seem like "non-essential" but they help create links or opportunities for them to stay connected i.e. choirs, music, cooking, walking, bicycling, farming etc. Interest group activities have always played a big part in church life, more than we may realise. These avenues allow many others to meet or connect outside of our onsite Services.
Not everyone outside our core faithful are needy people. Some may be looking for opportunities to serve and to give. Community outreach projects and mercy ministries etc will be great ways to engage people like this even as the church seeks to reach the needy in society. Some may even offer to help in listening or counselling ministries.
Lastly, if you are a pastor, this is a season where everyone in your flock – whether in the pen or scattered - needs to know they are equally important to you. Seeding kindness, compassion and patience into the community will create positive chain reactions to counter the fear and insecurity of this difficult season. It will be a leadership task to cultivate a safe and edifying environment which is not dominated by fear, suspicion, judgmentalism and other forms of toxicity. A happy, secure and loving flock will attract lost sheep to come back to the fold. And yes, if they are to stay, the fold needs to be a safe place.
In short, build and strengthen community and invest in values which will help our core to gather the scattered sheep. By now you may have realised that nothing new or earth-shaking has been shared in this piece. Precisely.
Meanwhile, this should go without saying: we should pray and work hard towards the day when the church can gather fully again. Prayer and worship gatherings are essential to the shalom of our communities and nation. We should desire nothing less than a return to the ancient normal.