Christian LivingMinistry

Bringing people back to church: A pastor’s word

In one of our congregations, we recently conducted an online poll of the challenges people are facing as we head towards re-opening church. One of the most commonly identified challenges was learning to manage our fears and anxieties as we step back into meeting in person.

Fear and anxiety are tricky. Most of the time, we don’t feel like we’ve got a lot of control over these feelings – we just experience them! To state the obvious, they are a reaction to something we perceive to be a threat. That perception may be completely rational, and justifiable in an objective sense. Or it may be somewhat irrational, and not really that justifiable in objective terms at all.

To illustrate this very quickly: consider my fear of spiders. I know that there are irrational aspects to it. For example, it is not uniform across different species of spider. I am supremely unfussed by a daddy-long-legs. But something big, black, and hairy, or something lively that that scoots across the ground or a wall super quickly … for that I generally need to physically leave the room and ask someone else to deal with it. (If I was being really honest, I may even tell you about the time I asked my wife to come out at night and deal with the spider that had gone up the outside of my windscreen, and that I just knew would be waiting on the edge of the car roof waiting to drop on me when I opened my door!)

What all this means, though, is that when I see a spider, there are really two things I’m managing. On one hand, I need to deal with the fact of the actual spider. On the other, I also need to deal with my response to the spider. Because my response is a thing. It’s mental. It’s emotional. Sometimes, if it’s the right kind of spider, it’s physiological as well.

Transfer all that to our current situation, and the prospect of churches returning to in-person ministries, and I think that for some of us, there are the same kind of things going on. As restrictions ease and NSW opens up – and as of today (Monday, 18 October), we are in a whole new stage of that opening up process – we are all finding our way a little bit in terms of how we participate in this.

Some of us are just raring to go. And we don’t feel especially aware that what’s happening is in any way dangerous.

Others of us, though, are feeling very cautious, and somewhat disoriented by what feels to be the break-neck speed at which we have gone from: ‘my family/housemates/COVID buddy represent the vast majority of my personal interactions, which have all been within a 5km radius from home,’ to: ‘I can now go just about anywhere and do just about anything in a crowd of people I may know virtually nothing about.’

To be honest, I do think some of this natural variation between us is a function of age. It’s a generalisation, I know, but I think older people feel much more cautious and concerned about these things than younger people. The reality is that for most of us in our forties and fifties – and I am just a few years off moving from one of those categories to the next – you do begin to think about life and mortality very differently to the way you thought about (or didn’t think about) them as a young adult.

But for some people, the anxiety and fear that we’re feeling might have nothing to do with age at all. It’s just the way that we’re feeling as everything begins to open up in a highly vaccinated population where yet there is still a serious virus circulating in the community.

For some of us, we ourselves may, objectively, have a very small risk profile for contracting COVID. Or, if we do contract it, for passing it on to others, or becoming seriously ill or dying. And yet in spite of all that, we still feel fearful and anxious.

Others of will feel fearful and anxious because we know that, objectively, for whatever reason, our risk profile for contracting COVID, or becoming seriously ill from it, is actually much higher than for others.

So what do we do? How do we manage all this? Not just individually but also together, as the churches of God?

I think the biggest thing to say is that just like everything else in the Christian life, we must allow ourselves, and each other, to be constantly taught and re-taught by the gospel. In other words, we manage this with an ever-growing trust in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and an ever-deepening, self-sacrificing love for one another.

What that means is that if we are not anxious or fearful about returning to church, let’s make that non-anxiety be not simply the bravado of youth, or of a personality that is simply more gung-ho than others and wonders what all the fuss is about. Instead, let it be, above all, an expression of our confidence in God: who loves his people with an everlasting love; who sovereignly rules over all things; who works in every circumstance for our good, that we might be transformed into the likeness of his Christ; and who has guaranteed his good disposition towards us by giving up even his one and only Son to die for our salvation. This will kindle our humility and help keep us from pride.

And if we are anxious and fearful about returning to church, let’s learn hour by hour, day by day, week by week, to keep entrusting ourselves to our heavenly Father, and to our Lord Jesus Christ, who lovingly yet earnestly teaches us that no amount of worrying on our part can add even a single hour to our lives; that God knows our every need even before we ask him; who holds us as much more valuable than the birds that he provides for and the flowers that he clothes in such splendour; and who has guaranteed his good disposition towards us by giving up even his one and only Son to die for our salvation. This will kindle our trust in God and help keep us from despair.

And of course, we must also hold on to a gospel view of risk and personal safety. For Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. He promises that the one who saves his life will lose it, whereas the one who loses his life for the sake of Christ and of the gospel will find it. What’s more, a passage like Hebrews 11 finishes with many who suffered because of their faith in God, and holds them up as the great cloud of witnesses who might spur us on to run with perseverance also. We are not completely reckless in the face of danger. However, if 0% risk is the only threshold at which we are willing to act as Christians, we will find it impossible to be Jesus’ disciples at all, let alone manage the next few months.

Now, in any person’s particular set of circumstances, this still may not mean we are ready to return to in-person church. We are not those who hold up signs saying that the blood of Jesus is our vaccination against COVID-19. We proclaim that Jesus is our cure for sin and death and the judgment of God.

But whether, in the end, we decide that it’s right to return to in-person church or remain online, our lives are always, and only ever, in the hands of the sovereign Lord.

What does this mean if we find ourselves talking to someone who is particularly fearful and anxious, and we would love to urge them to return to church but the vibes they are giving off tell you it’s just not happening? Is there ever a time and place for pushing someone? To put it very strongly, is there ever a time, maybe, when we could say that it was sinful to remain online rather than to gather in person?

Can I suggest that if we are to obey passages like Philippians 2, and to consider each other’s needs above our own, what that does is completely turn around some of the ways that we might otherwise deal with each other on these matters.

Rather than asking: ‘How far can I push them to overcome their fears?’, ask: ‘How far can I comfort and strengthen them in the gospel of God’s grace?’ Rather than seeking to give them all the information you think they will need to change their mind, why not set aside some serious time for some serious personal ministry: with patience and kindness, to try and understand their concerns, their hesitations, their fears … to ask them questions rather than simply hit them up with arguments.

For one thing, maybe we ourselves will become aware of something we didn’t yet know or understand, and so we will be better equipped to serve and support them into the future.

For another, as they talk things through and explain their thinking, they themselves may come to a new understanding and a new perspective on their fears and worries.

Beyond all that, though, I am certain that we will further the cause of brotherly love. And as we do that we will be in a much better position to urge each other on in living lives that please the Lord.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22-26)