Pastors & COVID-19

Written by: Chris Galanos

It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the coronavirus has rattled the American church. Pastors around the country are asking questions they probably never expected to be asking a few months ago.

How are people going to come to church if they are under a stay-at-home order?
How is giving going to be affected by this?
Are we going to be able to make payroll or pay our building payments?
Are people going to return once this is over or will this scare many people about larger gatherings?
How long are we going to have “do” church away from the church building?
How do we even “do” church away from the church building?

These and many other similar questions have plagued the minds of pastors throughout our country. I think many pastors are beginning to believe that things won’t return to normal after this over. There will be a new normal in the American church. But what will that be?

I was slated to speak about DMM at a conference in Chicago in March before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Two pastors that are in one of our DMM coaching groups had already arrived in Chicago before the event was canceled. They decided to spend a few days meeting & praying together about a path forward in their churches in this coronavirus season.

After meeting together, they called me and said, “We have a sense that we need to bring pastors together on a Zoom call and talk more about this. We know tons of pastors wrestling through what to do & this might be a great time to talk about ways to implement DMM in our churches.”

I thought it was a great idea, so we set-up two Zoom calls the following week. One with pastors that were familiar with DMM or had been trained in DMM. And one with pastors that were unfamiliar with DMM. We probably emailed a thousand pastors between the three of us.

As we expected, many pastors showed up to both of them. 
We spent time talking about how the coronavirus is going to affect churches and what we should do about it. 

I want to share some of what came out of those meetings. 

I asked a pastor of a large church to start off by sharing what he’s been thinking. With a prophetic voice, he immediately confronted all of us on that Zoom call. 

Let me try to paraphrase from memory what he said:
It’s tragic that many pastors in this season are basically saying, “Thank God for church online.” Church Online? Really? Is that our best solution to this crisis? Is what we really need during this time to figure out how to stream our sermons into people’s living rooms? That’s a step backwards! Our churches were already consumeristic before COVID-19. Come, sit, listen, leave, come back if you liked it. Now we’re saying, let’s keep doing all of that, plus encourage people to do it in their PJs on their sofas. That’s even more consumeristic than what we were doing before! We must seize this opportunity to make disciples!

While that might’ve stung a bit, we all agreed. Even if pastors have “church online,” surely in a time of national crisis when people might be more spiritually hungry than ever, we should do more than that.  

Another pastor said, for some of the reasons mentioned above, that he was refusing to stream services online. While much of his congregation wishes he would, he’s wanting to use this time to help them not be so dependent on him, but rather on God.

The Lord will lead each church to know what he wants them to do.

What essentially came out of that Zoom call was a continuum of ways churches can respond to the coronavirus crisis, from low risk/low commitment to high risk/high commitment. 

I want to walk you through these as I hope it could be helpful to you & your church during this season. 

1st Response – A Call to Prayer
Pretty much everyone agreed that, at a minimum, we should be calling our churches to pray. During times of crisis, people are more open to gathering for prayer. They sense a need to pray in a unique way. And as we see through the Book of Acts, when God’s people gathered together, often prayer was a major focus.

They all joined together constantly in prayer. (Acts 1:14)

Most pastors know that it’s hard to get many people to pray in the American church. If you call a prayer meeting, few will show up. People love great bands, engaging sermons, and attractive programming, but when you call people to pray, you secretly know you might be the only one who comes.

It reminds me of what Jim Cymbala, Pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, once said:
You can tell how popular a church is by who comes on Sunday morning. You can tell how popular the pastor or evangelist is by who comes on Sunday night. But you can tell how popular Jesus is by who comes to the prayer meeting. —Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire

While prayer isn’t usually popular, during a time of national crisis, more people will come to pray. We should take advantage of that. When God’s people come to pray, amazing things can happen. United, concerted, extraordinary prayer has preceded every major revival in history. 

And the result of prayer is often that we go out speaking with boldness (Acts 4:31), which we need now more than ever!

Some pastors in that meeting have chosen to turn their Sunday morning services into prayer meetings. They gather together on Zoom (or some other platform) and spend the majority of time praying. Other pastors are scheduling a prayer meeting every day of the week that people can come and join.

This reminds me of what God told Solomon after he finished the temple in 2 Chronicles 7:
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:13-14)

At a minimum, during this time, we should call our churches to pray. The pastors on the Zoom calls agreed.

2nd Response – Discovery Bible Study with Families in the Church
Several of the pastors talked about how the coronavirus presents a great opportunity to really train people how to read the Bible, hear from God themselves, and follow him. Even though we wish it wasn’t the case, we know as pastors that many people who attend our churches rely on us to hear from God. Their interaction with the Bible mainly happens on Sunday mornings when they listen to us preach. We all acknowledge that this is unhealthy, but we accept that it’s just the way it is for so many American Christians.

What an opportunity for us to really train our people to be self-feeders and to learn to listen to God directly & follow him. We affirm the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” but we know in practice that many American Christians look to the preacher as their priest & their means of hearing from God. That’s not what any of us want, so why not capitalize on this opportunity to help people listen to God & follow him?

As it is written in the Scriptures, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. (John 6:45)

The Discovery Bible Study is a great tool to help Christians (or non-Christians) hear from God and obey him. You can read more about it in the Focus on God’s Word blog post.

Some pastors are breaking everyone up into DBS groups on Sunday morning. Others are providing training & Scripture passages & letting families do it on their own. However you do it, this is a great season to really help people learn to hear from God on their own apart from the pastor’s direct influence. 

3rd Response – Discovery Bible Studies with Families outside the Church
The first two responses focus on steps you can take with people inside your church. But what about all those outside who have become much more spiritually open during this time?

We talked on the pastors Zoom call about not only focusing on those inside the church but those outside. How often has the church been thrust out of the building on Sunday mornings & back into their neighborhoods? Not often! Maybe not in 100 years!

What an opportunity!

It reminds me of Acts 8:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:1,4)

Without the persecution, the believers might’ve continued to huddle up in Jerusalem. But God thrust them out because of the persecution & they preached wherever they went, thus spreading the gospel further across the region. How incredible would it be if the same thing happened as a result of coronavirus?

The pastors on the Zoom call talked about training & equipping their churches to lead Discovery Bible Studies with friends & neighbors who don’t know Christ. Initially they were able to do this in small groups (since groups of 10 or under were allowed) and eventually they had to transition to virtual Zoom groups (when small group meetings were prohibited). 

One of the things that many of these pastors & their churches ended up doing was taping letters to their neighbor’s doors around their neighborhood. The letter would essentially introduce themselves (if they hadn’t already met them) and invite them to a small group meeting or a Zoom call where the neighborhood could share needs, pray, and read & apply Scripture together. This has been a huge hit and neighborhoods have been very responsive to this. Many neighborhood DBS’s have been started & pastors are finding that people are very open.

How awesome would it be, as a result of this national crisis, for neighbors to become disciples of Jesus together? We’re seeing it happen around the country!

4th Response – Level Up
“Level Up” is a term that one of the pastors used to describe what God was leading him to do. He was referring to the Church Involvement Continuum. He felt like this was a great opportunity on his church’s journey into DMM to take a big next step in that direction during this crisis.

He knew the people’s hearts would be open to more radical ideas during this time & it could be a great chance to integrate even more DMM principles into his church. 

Other pastors mentioned that they felt the Lord leading them in this way as well. 

For some, it meant moving from Release to Hybrid. For others, it meant moving from Hybrid to Transition. But several expressed the desire to take a big next step with DMM during this season. 

5th Response – Relaunch
As we all know, some churches have already had to shut down as a result of this crisis. Many of them were probably already struggling financially and this crisis was the nail in the coffin. 

Other churches weren’t on the verge of closing, but this crisis has caused some of them to reevaluate the effectiveness of the prevailing church model in North America. If a coronavirus can shut it down or if a reduction of giving can shut it down, has it been built on the right foundation to begin with?

I’ve heard many pastors wrestling with whether or not the prevailing model, which focuses on large gatherings, buildings, budgets, and paid staff, can scale to reach a people group. Or even effectively make disciples & start churches that reproduce themselves. There are many things about the prevailing model that can actually impede multiplication. And those things are concerning.

As a result, I know some pastors are following our church, eLife, into relaunching as a network of DMM churches.

Pastors are asking whether the Lord is trying to get our attention through coronavirus to point us to more biblical patterns of disciple-making and church planting, much like we’re witnessing around the world in Asia & Africa. A great question we should all be asking is, “What is the Spirit of the Lord saying to our church and do we have ears to hear it, even if it might be uncomfortable & require bravery?” (Revelation 2:7)

The Zoom calls were so encouraging to all of us as we take this journey together. We prayed together with great anticipation about what the Lord might do in the days to come. 

If you’re a pastor & you’re processing these same questions, know you’re not alone. If you want to process these questions alongside a community of others who are willing to ask the tough questions & take risks for Jesus, we’d love to connect with you.