My story isn’t unique. Among pastors, it’s the exact opposite of that, in fact.
18 months ago, my church shut down for a few weeks. We did services online only. Eventually, we started having parking lot services and kept streaming for those who wanted to remain at home. We soon re-entered the building for worship with much fanfare and excitement. A decent percentage of my people came back inside and most others watched online. Things were going to be OK it seemed.
But as the months passed, the excitement waned. Fewer people attended regularly. Fewer people watched online. Getting volunteers for most things began to become tiresome. A new wave of the virus came in late Fall, and our most popular church and community events were canceled. And while I wish I could say the thing I remember most about Christmas 2020 was celebrating the birth of my King, I actually will never ever forget that the Sunday before Christmas was, and still is, the most poorly attended service of my entire time at Bear Point. On top of all this, the division things like lockdowns, masks, and upcoming vaccines cause left me feeling like there was no way I could keep the morale of my church up.
But the Winter outbreak eventually ceded. COVID numbers plunged. Hope sprang with the changing of the seasons. Easter was our biggest service of the pandemic, albeit still smaller than an average Sunday in January 2020. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day felt like steps to more normalcy. A few people who hadn’t been back in over a year finally returned. As Summer is always dominated by vacations, sports, and camp, I thought, “We really need to set a date for things to really get back to normal”. August 15 it was. The first Sunday before school started back. All Summer ministries and events would be over. COVID was dying. Routine was coming. Normalcy was on the horizon.
So I planned that Sunday. I advertised. Hundreds of people in my community watched my Facebook videos about it. My church fasted and prayed. We had special times of gathered prayer. This was going to be a significant Lord’s Day. A way of saying, “The pandemic is over. It’s time to move on.”
But then the cases started to rise in my county. I tried to remain optimistic. I tried to forge ahead with my plan, which I was so sure was from God and at his right timing.
But the cases kept rising. And rising. And when Sunday, August 15, came, nothing was different. No back to normal. No momentous occasion of leaving the past year and a half behind us. Only more frustration.
I don’t want to forget two crucial things before I comment further. First, many jobs have had it harder than pastors. Like many in the medical field. And secondly, the church is far more than Sunday morning attendance.
Yet there are two reasons I am writing this article for pastors and framing it as “I was discouraged because people aren’t coming to church”. First, while I am sure double shifts and full hospitals bring stress I cannot imagine, there is something more subtly, yet still psychologically, damaging about seeing a half-empty auditorium for months on end. And knowing that while some should be staying home for health, work, or similar reasons, others are living their lives to the full Monday through Saturday and using the pandemic as a cover to avoid church. It’s feeling more than a fact, but I feel rejected. Often.
And secondly, while the church is truly God’s called-out people more than an event or building, it absolutely is a gathering of people. That is what the New Testament word means. And also, I have discovered that if I want people to serve the church and to be discipled 7 days a week, coming to our worship services and Bible studies is foundational. I can gauge the health of my church by who is coming or at least watching online, and who is doing neither. In fact, I am positive that we have struggled with volunteers because or pool of people coming to church is half of what it was. The same people that have to do twice the work are burning out.
“O Lord, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”King Jehoshaphat, 2 Chronicles 20
I am 43 years old and nothing in all my life has made me feel as weak, helpless, and ignorant as the last 18 months. My leadership flaws have been magnified by a factor of ten. My church had a long, rich history of disciple-making before I came aboard. And while this season of loss is not my fault in general, like many other pastors, I still feel that way.
Yet I am not writing for sympathy. I am writing to communicate why, today, I am more encouraged than ever. Perhaps my favorite prayer in all the Bible is King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20 saying, “O Lord, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” And how God has filtered that prayer through my church’s current circumstances is powerful.
I can sum it up in the most simple yet most powerful of Biblical illustrations: sowing and reaping. The Bible has numerous literal examples of this concept, but everywhere in Scripture from Psalms to Jesus to Paul, we also find it used figuratively to teach us essential ideas about how God works. In my case, it is about people respond to the Gospel and my subsequent pleas to be a part of the church again. I can only sow. And you don’t have to be a farmer or a gardener to know that you can put the seed in the ground in the sun and water it and give it the right circumstances. But you cannot make it grow. Only God can do that. This is why we find the concept of sowing and reaping dozens of times in the Bible.
So we sow by praying and fasting. We sow by continuing to be involved in the community. We sow by checking in on people. And we sow by preaching the Word faithfully every worship service and Bible study we have. That is all we can do. If we for one second cannot find meaning in prayer, fasting, and preaching to the disciples who do show up, then we do not understand who we are in light of who God is. Why should we be any better than Jeremiah in the Bible, who did all these things with little to no fruit? Or Isaiah, who was told they would not listen to him?
And if I fight
I’ll fight on my knees
With my hands lifted high
O God, the battle belongs to youPhil Whikham
Only God can give the harvest. And I believe for us, one day he will. I pray it is next week. Or at our Homecoming in October. Or Easter 2022. I’d love it if it happened at all of them! But I cannot control that. I can only sow. No doubt more discouraging days are coming, but right now I find too much meaning in that to be down about my church’s circumstances.
I close with this thought and an illustration that I have used to keep my church’s fire alive during these frustrating days. I believe the harder the lean days, weeks, and months are, the more rejoicing there will be when harvest comes. It makes me think of my high school basketball team at East Clarendon High in Turbeville, SC.
Back then E.C. was a football school. We won a state championship when I was in Elementary School and we made the playoffs every year, often making deep runs. Basketball was an afterthought and we were always terrible. My freshman year in the last game of a 1-19 campaign, we were on the road vs. arch-rival Maywood, a school 8 miles up the road. They were having an excellent season and were throttling us in an unprecedented beatdown. They were up by like 60 points late. We started having so many guys foul out of the game, we only had three eligible players to put on the court by the end. The officials didn’t call the game. Maywood did not use the disadvantage as an opportunity to show mercy. They kept pressing. We kept turning it over. They kept getting layups. The final score was 113 to 30.
The next year we brought a new coach in, who had great success coaching Class A ball in South Carolina. Speedy Johnson was passionate and confident that we could build a winner at this historically abysmal school. He preached basics and fundamentals. He started practices far earlier in the year than we were used to. In hindsight I can see he didn’t expect to change the culture overnight, but that we had to sow if we wanted to reap.
My sophomore year saw more competitive games, but little change in results. We went 2-18.
In my junior year, things started to click some. Nothing earth-shattering, but we did start winning a few games. By season’s end, we had a close to .500 record and were on the threshold of making the playoffs. Which was unheard of for us in basketball. We had to win the final game of the season to make it. And as fate would have it, it was at home, versus Maywood. The game was a tight back-and-forth struggle. The tension was as heavy as any sporting event I can remember being at in person. And at the very end, we pulled it out. We were going to the playoffs! Fans stormed the court. Everyone was hugging. A mosh pit of euphoria took place at mid-court. It was a moment I will never forget.
The same guys who suffered that annihilation two years prior were the same guys who celebrated on the court that night. They were the guys who had put in the work, day in and day out, and endured the losses and lean years. And everyone knew that, while making the playoff was special, it was all the more special because it was Maywood we beat.
O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.Psalm 88
And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?Luke 18:7
So when the day comes that my church sees a harvest, I am going to remember these days. I will remember the praying and the fasting and the preaching to sparse crowds. And it will make the rejoicing all the richer and more meaningful. There is no doubt to me that this is biblical theology. Our faith is one, after all, that says you have to go through the cross to get to the empty grave.
And that is why I am encouraged. And why I want other pastors to be.