Covid-19 has presented many challenges for the local church. Depending upon state regulations, it has been a struggle for the church to figure out how best to maintain corporate worship in the midst of a pandemic. Without question, every church has suffered loss due to the pandemic, the largest concern being that some people have disappeared from the church altogether. I have spoken with many pastors, all who express the same frustration over the disappearance of members.
What is even more disturbing is how Covid-19, which has resulted in lock-downs, quarantines, and “distancing”, has helped to support the rugged individualism that disconnects people from accountability to the local church. It’s difficult for church officers to navigate the absence of people, whether there are legitimate health concerns, or sinful patterns and fears that are pandemic induced that have made isolation from the church a new way of life. Church officers feel somewhat hamstrung due to the prevailing sense that Covid-19 is a personal matter, disconnected from any ecclesiastical authority.
The result is that now, on a given Sunday, due to a variety of circumstances, we are becoming used to the absence of our people. We live with wishful thinking and eager hopes that our missing people will come back to church one day, after the pandemic goes away. But hoping and waiting is not the way God’s servants are called to shepherd his flock. Have we missed another important shutdown, or, quite possibly, has the pandemic exposed a shutdown that happened long before Covid-19? I am speaking of pastoral care and elder visitation.
That church visitation has been absent in the church today is evidenced by the fact that virtually no one is asking for its return after almost a year of pandemic. Is it possible that most of our people have received not one pastoral or elder call/visit in almost a year, due to restrictions? Yes, I’m guilty in this neglect too as a pastor. My point in writing this piece is to make a case that one of the best ways to shepherd Christ’s flock during the pandemic is to recover proper oversight of the flock through visitation. Visitation is a great “vaccine” to the absence of church members in worship. As they receive the elder’s loving care and shepherding, it motivates their return. Yes, there are creative ways to accomplish this too without the threat of spreading the virus.
Churches need a strategy to go after their absent members with love and wisdom, giving thought to each particular circumstance. Have some fallen away? We know levels of alcohol and substance abuse has increased exponentially during the pandemic. Has this happened among some of our people? What about the elderly who are alone and single? Are we checking in on them? Who is most needy among us? Who needs church discipline toward restoration? Pastors and elders have to be aware of these things and make efforts to shepherd the people with more than wishful hopes that people will show up on Sunday.
In what follows, I provide five categorical distinctions of churchgoers that may help to discern some of these needs toward visitation and care. The categories overlap, and one designation does not mean these things are absent in another (please keep this in mind lest there is offense), these categories should function to help in the pastoral care of our congregations due to the particular challenges of Covid-19. None of these are meant to be belittling or demeaning, but are expressed in love with the goal of shepherding God’s people according to their needs.
1. The Confident: These are the members who are present on a given Sunday through the pandemic. They are not concerned about contracting the virus, though they would be grieved to think they might pass it to someone else. They will not miss corporate worship; they lean heavily on the leadership of the elders, and desire to receive God’s Word.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for preserving your sheep through these difficult times. Uphold these who gather every Sunday in difficult times, keep them in your promises and may they be edified, encouraged, and strengthened with the good news of the gospel. May they never grow weary in doing good. In Jesus name, Amen.
2. The Conscience-Bound: These are members who struggle deeply with the conflict of pandemic regulations, honoring Romans 13, and the call to assemble on Sunday for corporate worship. Due to confusing stipulations, inconsistences of governing authorities, constitutional authority issues, and the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, church officers may make decisions against their consciences. These members have tender consciences and are not rebellious in spirit. Elders should do their best to make contact and encourage such members, while providing thoughtful ways to shepherd their spiritual growth so that they do not drift during their time of absence.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, we confess that as leaders we do not have perfect knowledge or understanding in these times of confusion. But we confess that you are omniscient and know what is best. Guide us to make good and wise decisions during these difficult times. We ask for your help as church leaders to be patient and compassionate with those who struggle with our decisions during pandemic. May your people who desire to do what is right in your eyes be helped and loved and not isolated from your church. May these saints know that we love them as you do. In Jesus name. Amen.
3. The Concerned: There are two types of members in this category of churchgoer.
a. These are members who remain seriously at risk due to age or underlying health issues who may not feel safe to attend worship. Most often, these are the elderly in the church who are lonely, and deeply desire to gather on Sunday but cannot due to physical weakness. Elders should be weekly/monthly encouraging these saints.
b. These are members who live in frequent fear. They are afraid of contracting the virus; they are fearful sheep who may be afraid of dying. These should be treated tenderly and encouraged with the Lord’s providential care and love for them, reassured that they belong to the Lord, encouraged to receive the means of grace to strengthen them.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, you know the weaknesses of your sheep, due to frailty of the body, and fear. Help your sheep to be uplifted in your strength, renewed in the inward man daily, and confident of your providential care. Since it is your will that fear not govern us, replace all ungodly fear with stronger trust in you. Uphold the physically weak during this time that they too might be encouraged in your steadfast love. In Jesus name. Amen.
4. The Contrarian: These members have taken a contrarian attitude to the civil government. Some may simply disagree with what they believe are unlawful violations of authority but are willing, for the sake of unity, to follow the elder’s decisions. Others, however, may be willing to divide over things like wearing masks. They may be outspoken, divisive, and ready for a fight, frequently attacking church authorities. In some cases, they may be willing to leave their church family if masks are worn, or, if, in their eyes, the elders call for honoring an unreasonable government stipulations. These are heavily involved in the political divide, and, if left unchecked, can cause divisions in a congregation. If such a divisive spirit is demonstrated, the elders are called, in love, to admonish the member to maintain behavior that is Christ-like and patient with their brethren, avoiding the sowing of discord among the body of Christ.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, preserve your church through these times from those who are caught up in foolish disputes and divisions that hurt the unity of your church. Grant us all humility together to be of the same mind. May you root out all divisions among us that Satan uses to destroy your church. May all of your people honor those you have placed in spiritual authority over their lives recognizing that we must give an account for the care of your sheep, and that, through us, even in our weakness, you chose to rule over your people. Calm the restless heart of the divisive churchgoer through repentance. In Jesus name. Amen.
5. The Compromised: These are members who have used the pandemic to escape the church. Since the pandemic has afforded little church accountability, these members, who were non-committed before the pandemic in the life of the church, have been absent from the earliest point of the shutdown. These may have been in the church for the wrong reasons to begin with (i.e., family, friends, social connection, or to have their good works seen by people). These should be diligently sought after by the elders, asking the more probing questions about repentance, faith, and following Christ. Church discipline may be necessary.
Prayer: Heavenly father, we know that you often prune your church and take away those who do not bear fruit. We pray, Lord, that you would give life to those who have been loosely committed to your church, and those who, at the outset of the pandemic, saw it an opportunity to escape from you. Please soften their hearts in your gospel love and may they bear fruit worthy of repentance, to the honor and glory of your name in their salvation. In Jesus name. Amen.
May this brief guide help church officers to restore the practice of visitation and pastoral care in shepherding the flock of Christ during the challenges of Covid-19.