I pen this article on April 1, realizing so much will have changed by the time you read it. While we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, most indications point to a dramatic increase in coronavirus cases and deaths in the weeks to come. A week ago the CDC reported 68,440 cases of coronavirus in the US. Today the CDC reports 213,144 cases. Chances are by the time you read this those numbers will sound small.
Everything has changed: businesses closing, millions filing for unemployment, schools teaching students online—and churches unable to gather for what has been their signature expression of faith: corporate worship around Word and Sacrament. Ministry programs centered around gathering in church facilities have had to cease while church leaders scramble to replace them with online equivalents. These disruptions will end some churches, stop some ministry programs, and impact generosity patterns. My role serving in North American Mission has completely changed as I have begun leading our response efforts. Many of the important things on my plate were put on hold as a whole new set of priorities and challenges came into view. And I know that pales in comparison to the massive changes experienced by our pastors.
This situation leads me back to a Scripture passage I preached on recently—the choosing of the Seven from Acts 6:1-7. It’s an account of the Church facing its first major international challenge. A group of widows in an ethnic minority group were being forgotten in daily food distributions. It is the kind of problem that nowadays often causes power struggles or church splits.
The apostles addressed the problem in a healthy way: they changed the structure of the church. They created a new ministry, gave away part of their authority, and empowered the congregation, within guidelines and boundaries they laid out, to select the new ministry leaders. With this new team functioning, the apostles could focus on their responsibility to proclaim the gospel—and the Church continued to grow.
I believe the coronavirus pandemic provides us a great opportunity to live out the lessons we learn from Acts 6:
- God helps us change the way we do ministry in order to remain healthy. The apostles, who previously controlled all the finances and administrative decisions of the Church for thousands of believers, had to release their control over what was surely a special area of ministry—the feeding of widows under their care. There are many times when our attachment to certain patterns of ministry keep us from trying fresh approaches. Sometimes we need God to change the conditions around us to help us discern how we should carry out the mission he has given us.
- God finds ways to turn the Church back to his mission. In Acts, we see God use this challenge to keep the Church focused on disciple making. Their response had a direct impact on their ability to multiply disciples and engage their communities. Acts tells us that many in the city were impacted by how the Church handled this crisis, and the Church grew dramatically as a result. Our current crisis also gives us a chance to pause from ministry activities and reflect: what is essential for us to continue as the Church? Churches around the world are discovering new ways to experience and express worship, make disciples differently, and serve their communities with Christ’s love. For many churches, this marks an opportunity to engage in disciple making more intentionally than they did before.
- God calls and equips his shepherds to lead. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit (the same Holy Spirit who is with us today) the apostles restructured the Church. They responded proactively to a complex, volatile situation and reorganized the Church through a collaborative and open process. One of the most remarkable factors I’ve noticed is how so many of our pastors were ready to lead when faced with the unexpected. I’ve been amazed to see how rapidly churches have moved their worship services online (some leaders facing criticism as they did so), followed by small groups and other ministries, and then re-focus back on the hurting community all around them. And despite the hardships, many of our pastors are energized by the challenge that God has equipped them to face. While this crisis is frightening and stressful, God has been preparing his Church leaders for this moment.
- God draws us together when the world pulls us apart. The early Church faced challenges because of religious tension and ethnic barriers within Jerusalem and the Roman Empire. Instead of the Church being torn apart by conflict, God grew the Church and expanded the circle of leadership to provide more care and connection within the Church. Today, stay-at-home orders have seriously hindered face-to-face contact. In its place, though, church leaders are calling and praying with their congregants—some of whom haven’t darkened the doors of the church in years. Powerful, personal conversations are happening. Through this crisis, God is drawing together the leaders of our churches and ministries in a way that is strengthening our bonds, not weakening them.
- God is our source of wisdom, grace, strength, and creativity. Reading the story of the Seven, it is easy to think that we could never handle a situation so gracefully! But we have hope, because the same God who took the bickering, distracted, fickle disciples and made them the apostles of the early Church is here for us too. This is the same God who guides and empowers us to join him in his mission in our communities and around the world. We don’t have to fear that we lack the ability to face this alone. God is the one who provides what we need to face this day.
When this crisis is over, our churches will be different. Some will close their doors. Some will emerge stronger. While our theology is unchanged, our expressions of ministry will be different. Through it all, God will ensure that his Church is changing so that it can keep pursuing his unchanging mission to redeem and rescue the world through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Rev. Ryan Nilsen is Associate Director of North American Mission for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.