Our country has been in lockdown since March 25th, 2020. We have now begun the process of unlocking the country. In Lockdown 5.0, there is talk of Unlock 1.0, Unlock 2.0, and Unlock 3.0. The good news for churches is that we may be able to resume church services soon.
While this is bringing cheer to most of the church, some members are concerned and even afraid to return to the gatherings. From simple fear to paralyzing paranoia there is a spectrum of reaction among various persons who are concerned with resuming church services at this stage.
While I have addressed the logistical implications of resuming church services in another post, in this post I will address the challenge pastors will face with their members and the opportunities for shepherding them.
Pastors have been talking to one another seeking advise on how to deal with the two groups of people – the fearful and the others. It is a good thing to see such conversation among pastors. It shows that they care for the flock and are concerned about the unity of the church.
I would like to suggest that there are not two groups in the church at this moment, but three. The fearful, the careless and the careful.
The fearful have been identified to be the ones who are afraid to resume church services as soon as possible. They may not even be satisfied with the provision of hand sanitizers and thermal screening and the wearing of masks.
The careless are the ones who are rightly identified as eager to gather again with the church but have not been identified as careless. They are not careful to wash their hands regularly. They are not usually hygiene conscious. They are therefore careless and as such a potential threat to the church community and their contacts.
The careful are the ones who recognize that there is a threat of infection, care must be taken to prevent communicating the infection and prevention is good. However, they also would love to gather soon. They recognize that God is sovereign over every sub-atomic particle in the universe and therefore trust God’s providence amid this pandemic as well. I am thankful for these mature Christians who genuinely believe ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain…’
Having defined the three categories of Christians, our next step as pastors is to identify where we are at. We must be honest with our assessment of ourselves. If we are fearful, then we will be concerning ourselves with setting up hospital like environments in the church building. If we are careless, then we will not provide the adequate sanitary conditions prescribed by the government for resuming services. If we are careful, then we will also seek to minister to both the fearful and the careless before we resume our services.
How to care for the fearful?
Recognize that they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. They need to be diagnosed. Some may be struggling with understanding God’s sovereignty. They are trying to control their environment. Others may be concerned that a loved one may be severely affected if they get infected. They are trying to be protective. Others are concerned about how the pandemic is affecting their livelihood. They do not want the pandemic to prolong so desire more caution.
Whatever be the case, I think the fearful should be given the space and time to process their fears. They must not be dismissed as those who do not have faith or as those who are paranoid. They are struggling with something or the other and it is a struggle. This part is acceptable and needs to be addressed over time.
What is unacceptable of the fearful is ungodly response to their fear. The fearful do not have the right to be angry or to display anger or displeasure. The fearful do not have the right to be angry or display anger to their family members, neighbors, church members for not following their standards of safety. It is not acceptable for the fearful to be displeased that their local church will resume services. If a fearful person usually is angry. Then there are more serious underlying sin issues that needs to be dealt with over time. With high certainty I would say that prayerlessness is a sin issue in the life of the fearful.
Pastors need to care for the fearful by assuring them that they can take some time before they decide to re-join the services. Pastors need to help them by not letting them feel judged for being afraid. Pastors need to lookout for chronic heart issues like anger and pride in them. Pastors need to ask them not to judge those who are willing to join services immediately as well.
How to care for the careless?
Recognize that they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They need to be identified. The careless are not struggling with their faith amid the pandemic. They are not displaying the fear markers of the fearful. But they do not have strong faith in God either.
There are two kinds of careless persons. One kind are more irritated that they cannot work, they cannot go out of their home, they cannot gather with the saints. For them, the lockdown period has been a nuisance.
The other kind are gladder that they got a vacation of sorts, they can stay at home and enjoy the time off. They are busy enjoying the lockdown and flood their social media accounts with their creativity and fun at home. They are oblivious to the fact that there is a global pandemic. They may even be unperturbed by the fact that people are losing their lives and livelihood.
Both kinds may not care much for “hygiene”. They do not like wearing masks – it makes them uncomfortable. They do not see why everyone is making a big deal out of social distancing.
Whichever kind they are, I think the careless must not be misidentified as the fearless. Pastors have the responsibility of recognizing the careless and differentiating them from the careful mature Christian. If we do not properly identify them, then we lose a shepherding opportunity.
Pastors must address the hypersensitivity to the lockdown in the first kind of careless. It is not okay for them to display irritation or anger. They may be suffering due to financial crisis or loss of revenue. But that does not give them the right to be angry. Such a person again is usually given to anger over small matters. Pastors will have to address the sin issue over time. Once again prayerlessness will be seen in the lives of these brothers and sisters.
Pastors must also address the insensitivity to the pandemic in the second kind of carelessness. It is unloving of them to flaunt the blessing that God has endowed them with while their brothers and sisters are in need. Their carelessness may also display underlying sin issues of worldly desires, trusting in riches, lack of generosity and prayerlessness. They need to be trained in stewardship of what God has entrusted to them.
Pastors must ask them not to join the services unless they are joyfully accepting the protocols set up in the local church as it complies with the government requirements. They must be reminded not to murmur and complain. That attitude will spread in the community like gangrene. They must be reminded not to judge the fearful for not re-joining services immediately.
How to care for the careful?
Be thankful that you have careful members in your church. Reassure them and affirm them. Encourage them and seek their assistance in whichever way they can help in resuming church gatherings. They can help pray with the other members over phone calls and video calls. They can provide reassurance to other members.
Pastors must not neglect them because they are doing well. Pastors will do well to encourage them at this time. Also, they will be a source of joy and gladness for the pastors as they work hard to prevent disunity in the church over the resumption of services.
Grace and peace.