Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much debate over what is essential to life in this world. If grocery stores are essential, does that mean Walmart is as well? If we allow Walmart to stay open, should other retailers be allowed to open? Is a shopping mall essential? If so, then what about the daycares and schools that make it possible for shopping mall employees to go to work? And while we are at it, is sitting down at your favorite restaurant to enjoy a hamburger an essential part of life? Certainly not, unless you are the restaurant owner or the server who depends on the income from my burger to visit the grocery store that certainly is essential. On and on the conversations have rattled through the psyche of the culture, being rehashed and retweeted to the point where there is not much left to say, except to reassert our objections toward anyone who might disagree with us.
The church has not been immune to these debates any more than it has been immune to the virus. In fact, the debate has arguably been more impactful to the life of the church than the virus itself. This is not to diminish the pain of those congregations and Christian families who have lost loved ones to COVID, or currently have dear friends battling the real physical affects of the disease. But in terms of the scope of its impact, every church has been caught up in the debate over what is essential. For the better part of 2020, churches all over the world have struggled, petitioned, and even rebelled at times in order to meet for corporate worship. In my own state of Delaware, public beaches and bars were permitted to open before churches. Frankly, however, the future survival of many congregations seemed pretty bleak at various points throughout the year.
But something very interesting and (from a biblical perspective) unsurprising happened. Faithful churches around the world strenuously labored to make sure their people could hear the Word, partake in the ordinances, and be with God’s people. Faithful pastors stood in their pulpits week after week proclaiming the same truths from the same Bible they’d always preached from. And, faithful people came back to worship the Lord and hear the Word. Not only did people come back to church, new people started showing up. In our congregation we have seen what many other serious-minded church have seen after the initial wave of COVID hit. We have seen new believers who got saved during the pandemic show up at our churches. We have seen believers who have long known they were in weak churches use this as the opportunity to find a place where they can be fed. And we have seen believers desperate for a church that will open its doors show up with the hopes that their souls will be fed. In other words, as nominal Christianity slowly dissipates into the annuals of history, committed churches are stronger than they have ever been.
What has taken place confirms what we knew all along, that church is essential. More than that, this pandemic has reminded us what is essential for church. In other words, as we are witnessing the Lord purify and strengthen the church through the midst of this pandemic, it reminds us of what is truly important for maintaining a healthy ministry.
Leadership is Essential
The circumstances surrounding this pandemic have placed a heavy burden on the leadership of churches as they balance the physical safety and spiritual well-being of their people, while also navigating the varied and conflicting opinions people seem to have about every aspect of this situation. Frankly, congregations led by opinionizers and pontificators have grown in their love for their own preferences, and the people led by men anxious for their health and afraid to make a decision have been confirmed in their own anxieties and fears. Meanwhile, imperfect but steady shepherds have provided a spiritual reprieve for their sheep from the winds and waves of our current times. They have provided the kind of principled, sacrificial, gentle, and Christ-like leadership that is essential to the church.
Unity is Essential
In addition to faithful leadership, the life of the church thrives on unity. In our own small congregation, we have members who were born in at least 12 different countries. They come from all walks of life, they sometimes hold differing political opinions, and it seems like we all have different views on masks, vaccines, and lockdowns. However, the distinctions that inevitably cause tensions in the world have died the death of Romans 14 in our church. There has been a sweet unity among our people to limit our preferences, set aside our opinions, and come together to serve the Lord. The harmony that we’ve experienced is certainly a fruit of the Spirit in our midst, and it has been an essential element in our effectiveness during this challenging season.
Body Life is Essential
The unity that is necessary for faithfulness is not merely coexistence with one another, it leads to a vibrant body life, which is also essential for the church. Body life is a way of describing the shared life and ministry that takes place when a church is serving the Lord together. Body life is short hand for faithfully fulfilling the one another’s of the New Testament within the context of the church body. It takes place through discipleship as we live the Christian life together. If preaching is the meal the church needs to prevent malnutrition, then body life is the exercise it needs to prevent atrophy. The separation that we all experienced in the midst of this pandemic was a clarifying reminder that we need one another and that body life is an essential means of grace.
Discipleship is Essential
At the heart of body life is the grace of discipleship, which has always been essential. When we talk about discipleship, we are really just talking about relationships within the church that are spiritually oriented, focused on truth, and committed to becoming like Christ. These relationship are so important because God has placed us in the church so we can benefit from the spiritual influence and gifted ministry of other Christians. As all the programs, events, and pragmatics of modern church life have been COVID cancelled, all that is left is all that we really needed all along—discipleship.
Conviction is Essential
In a season filled with difficult decisions, the need for deep convictions has never been more obvious. If you are trying to make decisions for how to respond to this pandemic based on the latest news report or the trending Twitter article, good luck to you! What the church really needs is a settled and clear philosophy of ministry that is rooted in deep convictions about God’s Word. When our church returned to weekly services after the pandemic, we almost immediately had nearly all of our people return as well. Some of that may be attributed to the poor production value of our weekly videos, but a big part of it can only be explained by our shared convictions about the importance of gathered worship. Our people didn’t come back because we told them to; they came back because they were already convinced from Scripture that they needed it. I would imagine that churches built on style, preferences, or fads found it much more difficult to get their people to return when they couldn’t offer the same experience they previously did. For churches like ours, however, it was easy for us to offer them the same truth they had always received.
Focus is Essential
Difficulties are always clarifying, and this pandemic has not been an exception. Our church has more people coming to it than at any other point in its history. Part of that has been because of the new people God has brought into our church. However, a big part of this development is the fact that our members are more consistent in their attendance. Why? We all learn to value something when it is taken away from us, and so we valued being at church after a season when we couldn’t be together. Additionally, there has been nothing else to do (at least not in Delaware). The weekend trips, sports tournaments, and live events have disappeared, which has led to an increased focus on what we can do—church. Not only have we seen more people at our church, more people have been serving to make sure the needs of the ministry are met. What we have seen in our church is a reminder of the toll distraction can take on ministry and sanctification, as well as the need for focused faith.
Adversity is Essential
We really shouldn’t be surprised that faithful churches are thriving despite the adversity they are facing. Actually, the church isn’t thriving despite adversity, they are thriving because of the adversity. More specifically, they are being blessed by the grace God extends to His people through trials. God uses trials to examine and test the purity of our faith in order to help us cultivate a faith in Christ that can endure anything. This is true for us as individuals and it is true for us as the church. COVID has exercised our faith by forcing us to walk by faith in Christ not by what we are used to seeing. While I would not sign up for another year like 2020, adversity is essential to making us faithful to Christ.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.