Pastoring and preaching in unprecedented times.
The novel COVID-19 virus has manufactured a nearly unprecedented socio-economic moment, one in which the powers that be are executing orders to try and fend off an unseen nemesis. But notwithstanding how invisible this enemy is, its effects have been intimately and devastatingly felt by tens of thousands around the world. There’s no denying that. For me, though, the social angst is most palpably felt within the ministerial realm. Believe me when I say that pastors all over the globe have lost sleep over how to shepherd the church to which they are called through the coronavirus crisis. Sundays are weirder, quieter. Sanctuaries are emptier (as are offering plates). And dozens of preachers who’ve never given a second thought to live-streaming worship services are now scrambling to stay connected in an era of “social distancing.”
Some churches have closed their doors for a spell. Others have remained open, albeit with heavily modified services and no small amount of flack from the peanut gallery. I’m no virologist. I’m no doctor. I’m not here to tell you which side of the “social distancing” coin you need to fall on. There’s certainly responsible measures that can (and should) be taken. But only you know what’s best for your family, your church family, and your community. Love your neighbors, yes, but tend to your flock, too.
To that end, I am here to remind you, pastor (just as I’m reminding myself), that even as establishments close and “stay-at-home orders” intensify, there is one thing that cannot diminish or dwindle: the public proclamation of the gospel. In fact, we need preaching now more than ever. “A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic,” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Dr. Al Mohler wrote recently, “tends to jerk humanity into the most fundamental theological questions.” Indeed, when tragedy strikes, one’s thoughts usually turn to life and death, eternity and the End of Days. Therefore pastor, as Jared C. Wilson writes, in a way “you were made for this.” He continues:
All along, you’ve been preaching, loving, serving — hoping your flock will get a glimpse of the supernatural reality of Christianity. Your business as usual has been about interrupting people’s business as usual. And what your gracious warnings could not do, the Lord has done in ordaining this weird, anxious season . . .
This is what you’ve been called into all along — praying as if the power is outside you, caring as if life-on-life relationships help more than virtual ones, preaching good news as if people are broken, weary, and scared of the future. This has always been necessary to pastoring, but now we can’t avoid it.
What COVID19 can do for many of us is strip life down to its essential motivations and fears. And the gospel can speak into these things like nothing else. “What a man is on his knees before God,” M’Cheyne wrote, “that he is, and nothing more.” The wise among us were already going there. The rest of us are being pushed there. And it’s a great opportunity to see what only God can do.
We might be hampered by the restraints of our society, but God’s word is not. “The word of God is not bound,” St. Paul declares. “This is why I endure all things for the elect: so that they also may obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” (2 Tm 2:9–10) The good news of Jesus’s passion and death is an unfettered, unbridled message that will never be thwarted by the pestilence of life “East of Eden.” Grace can’t be quarantined. Notwithstanding the opposition or the obstacles at present, God’s plan to remake and redeem the world from the terrors and tragedies of sin is unstoppable. Nothing — not even COVID-19 — can thwart that plan. “All the power of the enemy has been brought against the Church of God down through the centuries,” H. A. Ironside asserts, “but the Church abides, and it will abide until the Lord comes again.”
No, the circumstances are not ideal. But even still, “God’s solid foundation stands firm.” (2 Tm 2:19) This moment is not outside the bounds of God’s omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent grace. In a recent article for Reformanda entitled “You Are the Man for the Hour: Our Desperate Need for Sound Preaching,” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Owen Strachan writes to this effect:
Preach the truth. Don’t give us milky little homilettes. Don’t give us a few reassuring words of comfort. Don’t give us some tentative “thoughts” on a passage. We don’t need these things. We need preaching that readies us to face God, to go see Goliath, to stand alone against a wicked empire, to walk in the shadowlands, to share Christ from a gallows as a rope nestles around our neck . . .
Put the truth of God on every platform known to man. Don’t feel bashful or hesitant about this. With boldness and zeal, let it rip. Call the church to fresh faith, and call the lost to repentance. We are hungry. There is no food in this world that can satisfy our souls (Heb 5:11–14). We are needy. You are the man for the hour, and this is not a drill.
Preach your heart out, pastor. “To the glory of God,” writes Pastor Tim Counts, “study and pray and preach with all your strength — no matter how many people are in the room.” Don’t incapacitate your church with discounted sermons. Preach as though people are dying (because they are) and grace is the only cure (because it is). These may be unprecedented times, but God is not unprepared. And neither are you, pastor. The Word in your mouth is none other than the Word of God himself. “My word,” says the Lord, “will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” (Is 55:11)
H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the First and Second Epistles of Timothy (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1951), 205.