“False start on the offense. Five-yard penalty. Repeat first down.”
I was never a football player, but I am a football fan. And nothing frustrates me more as a fan than when my team commits a false start penalty. If you’re not familiar with football, a false start is just like it sounds. One or more players (usually linemen) make a sudden movement before the ball is snapped and the play actually begins, which often makes the opposing team falsely believe the play has started. The play is blown dead, and the team has to back up five yards and try again. It’s incredibly frustrating and can present a significant challenge to the success of the team if multiple false starts are committed during the course of a game.
During these ever-evolving days of the pandemic, churches have faced many challenges, and the latest is the ministry equivalent of a false start. In my region, most churches have returned to some form of in-person services over the past few weeks. For many of these churches, attendance has grown slowly but steadily as church members become more comfortable in larger gatherings. But then, a member of the church shows signs of the virus, or there’s a spike in cases in the community. And the church is temporarily back to online services only.
False start on the church. Back to online-only. Repeat regathering efforts in a few weeks.
In less than two months since the majority of churches in my association have returned to some form of in-person services, nearly 20% have already experienced a false start. And it’s incredibly frustrating for those church leaders. It’s difficult to regain momentum. It’s hard to make ministry plans with any level of certainty. It may cause those who were on the fence about returning to in-person gatherings to stay away even longer.
In light of this latest challenge, what is the church to do? How should we respond? I believe there are at least five ways to do so:
- Don’t lose hope. God is still on His throne. He has promised that He is always with us (Matthew 28:20). He has said that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). And He has declared in His Word that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18). If hell won’t prevail against the church, neither will the coronavirus. Yes, false starts are frustrating. But we don’t have to be discouraged because God is in control and He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
- Acknowledge false starts as a temporary reality. This pandemic is a challenging season for the church, but it will only be a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Until a vaccine is available, churches must acknowledge that they may experience multiple false starts. It’s quite possible that churches will conduct in-person services for a while, and then return to online only. Then back to in-person gatherings, then back to online-only. This could be the unusual rhythm of some churches for the foreseeable future. Churches need to acknowledge this potential reality and make appropriate preparations.
- Hold plans loosely. I’ve said many times, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” While that’s not in the Bible, most churches have proven it to be true over the past few months as they were forced to pivot quickly to online options. Churches have shown remarkable flexibility, and they must continue to do so due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. Plans must be held loosely. Events on the calendar should be written with a pencil. False starts may force the church to make significant changes, sometimes with minimal advance notice.
- Look for evidences of grace. Throughout the pandemic, I have heard multiple testimonies of how God has shown up and shown off. The lost have been saved. The discouraged have been encouraged. The church has met needs of its members and community. I’m certain God has been working in and through your church during this time as well. Look for those evidences of His grace and spend some time praising Him for all that He’s done.
- Re-examine your church’s ministry focus. Most ministries have put on pause since March, which has provided an opportunity for churches to step back and examine their ministry efforts. Many of those ministries will come back at some point, but some may need to be placed on permanent pause. Now is a good time to examine what needs to come back and what needs to be retired. In addition, there may be some changes that were made (such as developing an online presence) that need to become a permanent component of your church’s future ministry efforts. During this season, take some time to re-examine what ministries matter most for your church.
If your church is experiencing a false start, I hope you see you’re not alone. Yes, false starts can be incredibly frustrating. But just like every other challenge the church has faced during this pandemic, this one can be overcome as well. By His grace, I pray that your church will see God’s hand at work, especially when you have to move back five yards.