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Our country has been in lockdown since March 25, 2020. We have now begun the process of unlocking the country. In Lockdown 5.0, there is talk of Unlock 1.0, Unlock 2.0, and Unlock 3.0. The good news for churches is that we may soon be able to gather together as churches. While this is bringing cheer to most of the church, some members are concerned and even afraid to return to the gatherings. From simple fear to paralyzing paranoia there is a spectrum of reactions among various persons who are concerned with resuming church services at this stage.
At first glance, it may appear that our churches have two kinds of people: the fearful and the fearless. However, I would like to suggest that there are actually three categories: the fearful, the careless and the careful. Thinking clearly about these categories will help us pastors to be sensitive to care for all our members as they need. Let me begin by defining the categories:
- The fearful are the easiest to identify. They are the ones who are afraid to resume church services as soon as possible. They fear that the infection may spread, and they may not even be satisfied with the provision of hand sanitizers and thermal screening and the wearing of masks. So, they would prefer to stay at home and think it best for the church not to begin gathering soon.
- The careless can be misidentified as fearless. They are eager to gather again with the church, but are not likely to take needed precautions. They are not careful to wash their hands regularly. They are not usually hygiene conscious. They are therefore careless and as such a potential threat to the church community and beyond.
- The careful are similar to the careless in that they are eager to gather again. However, like the fearful, they recognize that serious steps must be taken to prevent the infection from spreading. They recognize that God is sovereign over every virus and bacteria in the universe, but understand that we are responsible to steward our health.
Having defined the three categories of Christians, our next step as pastors is to perform a quick and honest self-assessment. Which category are we ourselves in? If we are fearful, then we ourselves will be concerned with setting up hospital-like environments when our churches gather. If we are careless, then we will not provide the adequate sanitary conditions prescribed by the government for resuming services. If we are careful, then we will also seek to minister to both the fearful and the careless before we resume our services.
I pray that we would neither be overly fearful nor overly confident, but would seek to be wise and careful as we trust God and lead our churches. And as careful men seeking to care for God’s flock in this situation, here are ways in which we can help our three kinds of members.
How to care for the Fearful
These are our dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need to understand why they are afraid. Some may be concerned that a loved one may be severely affected if they get infected. They are trying to be protective. Others are concerned about how the pandemic is affecting their livelihood. They do not want the pandemic to prolong so desire more caution. And others may be struggling with understanding God’s sovereignty. They are trying to control their environment.
Whatever be the case, the fearful should be given the space and time to process their fears. They must not be dismissed as faithless or paranoid. They are struggling with something or the other and it may take time for them to overcome their fear. Along with communicating that we understand their fear, we need to reassure them of God’s sovereignty and continue to pray that they would trust God in all circumstances. Pastors need to care for the fearful by assuring them that they can take some time before they decide to rejoin church gatherings, and by helping them not feel judged for being afraid.
And while we are sensitive about their physical well-being, we also need to care for their hearts. The fearful need to be helped to guard their hearts from being judgemental and proud. They may not feel comfortable attending the church gathering, but they should not look down on others who do. They certainly do not have the right to be angry or display anger to their family members, neighbours, church members for not following their standards of safety, and we should help them see their sin and deal with it. Our fearful brothers and sisters need to know that we care for their physical well-being, and also for their spiritual well-being.
How to care for the Careless
Remember that they too are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need to identify which of our members fall in this category. They may appear to have fearless faith, but this is not necessarily so. They do not like wearing masks – it makes them uncomfortable. They do not see why everyone is making a big deal out of social distancing. And they think life should go back to how it was before this series of lockdowns came into force as soon as possible.
This sort of carelessness could come from two different kinds of people. One kind is fed up and frustrated with the lockdown, and the other does not understand what all the fuss is about. For one, the lockdown is a nuisance, while for the other it is a welcome vacation and opportunity to spend time on social media. In either case, their response is to be indifferent towards the needed precautionary steps and insensitive towards those who are worried. Whichever kind they are, pastors need to recognise the careless and differentiate them from the careful mature Christian. If we do not properly identify them, then we lose a shepherding opportunity.
Pastors must address both kinds of careless members. For the frustrated ones, there may be underlying reasons for their frustration, but it is still not okay for them to be angry and insensitive. They need to be helped to see their sin and also to see their careless attitude towards God. For the insensitive ones, pastors need to help confront them with their indifference. It is unloving of them to flaunt the blessing that God has endowed them while their brothers and sisters are in need. Their carelessness may also display underlying sin issues of worldly desires, trusting in riches, lack of generosity and prayerlessness.
Whatever the cause for the carelessness, pastors must ask them not to join the services unless they are willing to joyfully accept the protocols set up in the local church in compliance with government requirements. They must be reminded not to murmur and complain, because such an attitude can spread in the community like gangrene. And they must be reminded not to judge the fearful for not re-joining services immediately.
How to care for the Careful
Be thankful that you have these brothers and sisters in your church as well. They understand the potential dangers of infection spreading, and would comply with all requirements necessary to stop the spread. Reassure them and affirm them. Encourage them and seek their assistance in whichever way they can help in resuming church gatherings. They can be a huge help for the church in implementing hygiene and social distancing requirements. Additionally, they can help pray with the other members over phone calls and video calls, and can be a positive influence on both the fearful and the careless.
Pastors must not neglect them just because they are doing well. They may not be in crisis, but they should still be cared for. It would be good for pastors to affirm and encourage them at this time. Also, they will be a source of joy and gladness for the pastors as they work hard to prevent disunity in the church over the resumption of services. I am thankful for these mature Christians who genuinely believe ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain…’ And I trust God has given you some careful members too.
May God help us to be discerning and caring as we lead our churches towards normalcy.
Grace and peace.