When people assemble in church under the government guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus in the current pandemic it is great for pastors and preachers. We have had it ‘up to here’ speaking to cameras. To have even a few people to preach to with whom you can make eye contact is such a joy – even if, in their facemasks, it feels as if you are preaching to a gang of bandits.
But let’s be honest, the experience for those who gather under lockdown restrictions is not great. You can’t sing God’s praise. You can’t talk and have fellowship. You might well feel cold with the doors and windows open to maintain the airflow. You are discouraged from going to the loo. You can’t have coffee. You almost have to possess extra-sensory perception to detect an exchange of smiles under the masks. You can’t hang around very long.
So how, pastor, are you going to encourage your people to return under these circumstances?
Minimize the negative
When you explain to your folk all the do’s and don’ts associated with returning in a limited way to church, don’t get too officious about it. You need a light touch, even a smile or a joke about it all. The worse thing is to give the impression you are enjoying telling people what they can’t do.
Recently we travelled to an area of the country for ministry. We had to stay in a guest house for a few days. Whether we caught the owner at a bad time when we arrived I don’t know, but her ‘Welcome’ could not have been much worse. She spent a long time explaining all the negatives. This is where we must wear face masks at all times. This is why you have to take your breakfast at a certain time and no other. These are the things which would normally be part of the stay but can no longer happen. These are the things which she would usually do but now she would not be doing for us as her guests. We had hardly opened our mouths, but by the time she had finished we felt we had had a good telling off – and we had not at that point even been shown our room! It was almost as if she was doing us a favour by letting us in.
Don’t let fears of the virus or of accidentally breaking the rules dominate your demeanor when you are trying to communicate what needs to happen.
First impressions are important. Who are those who return first going to meet when they come to attend church under lockdown?
When your people do queue up, socially distanced, on a Sunday morning, make sure the welcome team are friendly, common-sense types. You need bright-eyed personalities who give off the message ‘I know this seems ridiculous, but we are all in this together’. Brief them to be more concerned to make these returning souls feel welcome than to tick every single box of the guidelines absolutely perfectly. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to chaperon people to those spaced out seats, specially prepared, as if they were ‘A’-list celebrities entering the King’s residence (which in a way they are).
Beware having as welcomers those who love to order others around. Warmth and gentleness is the order of the day. ‘A gentle tongue is a tree of life…’ (Proverbs 15:4). Some people may turn up at church feeling irritated by the whole thing, but, ‘through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone’ (Proverbs 25:14).
Accentuate the positive
‘If this return to church under the restrictions is a less than satisfactory experience, then why are we doing it?’ What answer, pastor, do you have for that?
The answer is ‘We are doing it for the Lord’. We are not doing this first of all for our own comfort. We are doing it to humbly honour God. We are doing this as a witness to the world. ‘Have you seen? That church is open again. There are people queuing, socially distanced, to get in. Would you believe it?’ We do it to show we love the Lord Jesus Christ, that God is not dead, and that even in difficult circumstances we want to do our best to exalt his name.
Yes the face mask is itchy. Yes, it can make you feel sleepy from less oxygen in your system if you are not careful. We can’t pretend it is the best experience. But we are going to do it for the sake of Christ. We do it, not first of all for ourselves, but for the Lord.
Most Christians worth their salt will see the sense and feel their hearts stirred by such a motive.
In the town we visited, there were notices on the lampposts reminding people to keep socially distanced and saying ‘This won’t go on forever.’ Thankfully, that is true.