Ministry in the age of pandemic

April 20th, 2020 / By: Kie Bowman | SBTC President / comments

Sometimes suffering hides in plain sight. For instance, the internationally known 19th century British pastor Joseph Parker, in spite of all of his ministerial success and achievement, lived and died in sadness. Parker preached weekly to several thousand people at City Temple in London, where he served as pastor for 33 years. Only Charles Spurgeon, his contemporary across town at The Metropolitan Tabernacle, led a larger congregation. Parker was also a prolific author, and many of his 60 books are still in print today. Yet, in spite of the giant footprint his ministry left on modern Christian history, he lived with constant emotional pain. 

When his wife of 35 years died, Parker never successfully recovered from the unbearable grief. Perhaps that’s one reason why his most famous quotation rings true: “Preach to the suffering and you’ll never lack for a congregation,” he once advised. “There’s a broken heart in every pew.” 

If it’s ever been true that “there’s a broken heart in every pew,” it’s true in the age of pandemic.  Our ministries will focus now, more than ever, on caring for the pain nearly everyone is feeling. Our congregations are almost universally experiencing fear, uncertainty and loss. The gospel has an immediate answer for all of that and more. 

Healing

Matthew summed up the ministry of Jesus when he wrote, “He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23). We will never lose sight of the significance of preaching and teaching, but the ministry of healing is probably in sharper focus today than at previous times. 

The word “healing” in Matthew 4:23 is the Greek word therapeuo. We may live our entire lives and never witness miracles like Jesus performed, but our ministries still have a therapeutic role to play. Now is the time to minister to the real suffering of a broken world and to our struggling congregations. James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminds us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Purpose

In addition to healing, our churches can also provide something our hurting world can find nowhere else: we offer meaning. 

During times of great suffering an almost universal question is, “Why?” It’s a fair question. Do the recent, terrible events—natural disasters, school shootings, and now global pandemics—mean anything? Is it possible to find purpose or meaning in these painful and even deadly setbacks? Or, are they only brutal reminders of Macbeth’s empty perspective that life is no more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing?”

The life and death of Jesus assures us every circumstance of life—even the most painful—has significance, since God himself chose to live it with us. In Christ, God didn’t dodge a thing. He even experienced the terrible, unending suffering this world dishes up so liberally. Paul insisted our pain can be best understood when we consider the example of Jesus and choose to think like he did about suffering.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). Since the ultimate purpose of Christ’s ministry is located in the suffering of the cross, his people are constantly ready to find meaning—and God’s purpose—in suffering. 

The church that suffers along with its community is simultaneously preaching a message of hope and relentlessly communicating a stunning vision of meaning in the midst of sorrow. No one is better equipped to preach this message of meaning in the age of pandemic than the people who identify with a savior who voluntarily chose to be nailed to a cross!

Ultimately, suffering of any kind finds purpose as it opens the door to evangelism. In addition to forgiveness and eternal life, meaning is restored to broken lives through a personal relationship with God through Christ. 

Prayer

Finally, the church Jesus left in this broken world is a house of prayer. The late evangelist Armin Gesswein once observed, “When Christ ascended into heaven all he left behind was a prayer meeting. The early church didn’t have a prayer meeting; the early church was the prayer meeting.”  If there was ever a time for the ministry of intercession, it is now. In fact, a recent study from Pew Research Center shows that even people who rarely pray have prayed for an end to
COVID-19.

The coronavirus is physical, but our prayerful response addresses the spiritual vacuum and the questions the virus has created. Now is the time to call people to pray and let them know they are being prayed for! 

Fortunately, in order to minister through this challenge, our SBTC has responded rapidly to address the need for resources in all of these areas. These excellent resources and much more, are available at our fingertips at sbtexas.com. 

Your church has a powerful role to play in your community. All of us are alive now—at this phenomenal point in history—for a surprising and significant reason. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are each called to lead and minister in the age of pandemic. Together, this could be the church’s finest hour.