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I have a confession to make: I am relieved I’m not pastoring a local church right now. The restrictions on gathering and the necessity to go online have stretched every pastor I know and has required everyone to learn new skills literally overnight! Pastoring is a challenge at the best of times, but right now it’s just hard. I have great admiration and respect for every pastor who is recording sermons, leading online Bible studies and caring for their congregation from afar.

The natural response to the constant disruption is to look forward to a time when things will return to normal: when you can welcome people with a handshake or a hug, preach to a live congregation that isn’t physically distanced, meet someone for coffee without wearing a mask or dipping your hands in sanitizer first and a host of other things.

At the risk of being labelled as a prophet of doom, I don’t think we’re returning to normal anytime soon. Think about it: in March we hoped to be back for Easter. In May we speculated that we could keep our summer holiday plans. In July we thought that churches would reopen in the fall. Now, optimistic leaders are planning for Christmas services, others are predicting a return in January, and still, others have already written off all of 2021.

If “normal” is that far in the future, then the longing to get things back to the way they were will only result in frustration (for you and your congregation) and will ultimately lead to irrelevance. In fact, I wonder if we’re at risk of repeating Israel’s mistake of romanticizing the past by craving for cucumbers and leeks instead of eating the manna the Lord has provided (Numbers 11:4-15). And you know how that turned out: an entire generation wandered aimlessly in the desert instead of receiving the promise.

So, what’s a pastor to do? I’ve asked myself the same question and came to some unsettling conclusions.

  • I will not wait for the past to return. Ministry will not look like it did in 2019 and what worked then will not work now or in the future.
  • I will not accept the idea of a “new normal.” Normal suggests that doing ministry will eventually settle into a predictable pattern. Change is the constant and effective pastors and leaders are resilient and flexible.
  • I will choose innovation over preservation. Preservation is easy whereas innovation requires the exercise of holy creativity. Innovation suggests prayerful experimentation with Great Commission strategies.
  • I will embrace both/and thinking. Ministry is analog AND digital; the Spirit works through in-person ministry AND online ministry. BOTH strategies are effective.

Practically speaking, this shift means I have to stop moaning about preaching to a camera or grumbling about another Zoom meeting. It also means that I can’t solely rely on skills I have developed over almost 30 years of in-person ministry (i.e. preaching to a live audience, connecting with guests in the lobby, meeting people for coffee). I have to continue to hone those abilities while learning new skills as well: how to engage an audience online, how to effectively teach via pre-recorded video, how to leverage social media and so on.

This shift in perspective has so many implications on how we organize church, use (or abandon?) our buildings, who we hire and how we understand global (digital?) missions. Most important, it requires you to reflect on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it – and ask if something needs to shift.

The bottom line is that I think this is just the beginning of another major disruption in how we fulfill the Great Commission – and that’s really disconcerting. If you are feeling overwhelmed, unprepared or exhausted at the prospect of rethinking and relearning ministry I want to leave you with two scriptures that are in tension with one another and true at the same time:

19 For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. ...
20b Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland
so my chosen people can be refreshed.
- Isaiah 43:19-20

8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
9 So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. Your strength comes from God’s grace ...

- Hebrews 13:8-9a

Obviously, the context of both passages is important, but I hope the point is clear: God is leading us into uncharted territory which requires us to do new things to reach new people.
But God’s grace remains. He will provide all we need to accomplish all he has called us to do. “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

If you want to explore these ideas further and how they impact your church or ministry I would be happy to connect with you personally or lead a discussion with your leadership (volunteers, staff, board, etc.). Feel free to contact me by emailing len@bc.paoc.org.