Shepherding the Flock Back to Church
As Shepherds, pastors are called to gather God’s people together - and are longing to do so after six months of lockdown. How should they encourage their flock to return to church?
American author Thomas Rainer has suggested that at least 20% of those who attended before the pandemic will not return to church. Is he right? He might be, but only time will tell.
For some, reclining-on-the-sofa, in-your-PJs, with-a-coffee, when-you-want-it church will have become a comfortable norm. Will they come back? Will people have lost the habit of gathering together?
How should pastors and church leaders think and act to encourage people to return to church?
Here are some suggestions:
Trials reveal the reality of faith (1 Peter 1:6-7). In the parable of the sower, our Lord Jesus spoke of those who are like rocky or thorny places who fall away and become unfruitful. In his letters we see that Paul dearly loved the Thessalonian believers and was concerned for their spiritual welfare while they were apart.
As we emerge from lockdown there will be those we thought were full of faith whose faith will have grown cold. We may also be surprised to see great progress in the spiritual life of others, in whom we thought faith was weak.
Paul was often in lockdown as a result of imprisonment. He continued to serve God’s people. His letters are full of how he was praying for those he loved and served with the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They also reflect his longing to be with them physically.
Praying that those we serve will have a desire and longing to gather again is a good thing to do. Not simply that they would want to get back to normal, but rather that they would want to gather in order to encourage one another and build each other up.
However much we have sought to keep in contact with people during lockdown, each person will have been affected uniquely.
For some, there will have been significant family change, including bereavement or times of illness. Others will be worried about their jobs and financial security. Others will be anxious about gathering again. Some may need to travel at weekends to serve aged relatives from whom they have been isolated during lockdown. Many may be emotionally or mentally fragile. Many may not feel able to slot back into the way they were serving in church pre-lockdown.
It will be wise to plan in a way that eases people into things gently and gradually. We will need to love the flock, not criticise them; to be patient with them, not hassle them.
Church gatherings involve 1) preaching; 2) praying; 3) praising; 4) one-anothering.
For many churches 1) and 2) have continued via the internet in some way.
As for 3), lifting our voices in sung praise together is something we all miss (and at the time of writing is still not possible). However, we have been able to sing in our homes as we have watched online.
The aspect of gathering that is least easy to translate online is 4): the multiple personal connections and one-anothering that happen when God’s people gather.
In a church I once served, a diverse group of women sat together when the church met. Some were single, some widowed, some with unbelieving partners. They arrived early for a chat with each other; were concerned when one was missing; they supported and encouraged each other week by week. For them, that was as important a part of church as what was done from the front.
Director at FaithTech Adam Graber recently said:
When churches prioritize their worship services the same way they did pre-pandemic, it is easy to overlook other seemingly peripheral activities, but those activities make church attendance a critical, life-giving experience for so many.
The truth is, we may have misunderstood why a third of congregations were showing up to church every Sunday. It may be the care and comfort people received from their friends and pastors. In fact, where we might assume the worship service facilitates community, it might be the other way around: community and pastoral care support the worship service.
For many, the “peripherals” are actually central. And if that part of church has gone missing because church is only being live-streamed, then people will look elsewhere to address their relational and spiritual needs.
Thinking and praying about the relational health of the congregation as we move out of lockdown is as important as what will go on at the front.
If relational health is important, we must pick up the phone and chat with folk. It takes more time than a text or email but will be much appreciated.
Arrange doorstep, coffee shop, and home catch-ups as appropriate. Enthuse about gathering together. Listen carefully to folks’ concerns. Model and encourage others to connect relationally.
Re-connecting at this level may give the reluctant or hesitant a taste for making regathering a priority.
Be confident in the keeping power of the Lord Jesus. Be confident in his promise that his sheep cannot be snatched out of his or his Father’s hands (John 10:28-29). Be confident that he who began a good work in his people will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).
As we start to emerge from lockdown, church may look and feel quite different. How we pastor people will require careful thought and deliberate action, but we can be sure that the Chief Pastor continues to work for the good of his blood-bought flock and will equip us by his Spirit to serve them for his sake.