By Brian Boyles
Pastors and church leaders know everyone has an opinion on church matters, including how money should be spent, how facilities should be used, and who should be hired and how.
But I never thought we’d see a time when churchgoers were as divided as they are now on a medical issue like COVID-19 and how it impacts their corporate worship rhythms.
Recent findings from an AEI survey show that even though many churches have begun some form of physical regathering, 64% of Americans are “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” attending in-person worship.
What’s even more telling is the responses from those who felt this way fell into similar racial and political categories. The same can be said of those who feel more eager to return to church.
A lot of churches—including ours—have worked toward diversity. But skin color or ethnicity is just one way churches can be diverse.
Other types of diversity—at least in our case—include generational/age diversity, socioeconomic diversity, and most certainly political diversity.
Diversity—as we’ve defined it here—is a beautiful thing and reflects God’s kingdom. It doesn’t, however, come without challenges.
When diverse groups of ethnicities, races, socioeconomic groups, and ages are represented in your church, you’re going to have diverse opinions about politics, COVID-19, and many other challenges.
When there’s division among people groups on multiple cultural issues, there are considerations for church leaders in navigating these tensions as we move forward and hopefully lead our churches to be stronger on the other side.
Is our top priority the gospel? Absolutely. It always will be. In times like these, however, we must also focus on optics.
It matters not only what we’re doing in our churches to reach people with the gospel and to care well for our neighbors; it also matters that people see us making that difference.
This divided season requires the church to be politically invisible, show respect for varying opinions on regathering, and to be ready for ministry in season and out of season.
Be politically invisible
Church leaders know there’s going to be division in their congregations during a presidential election year.
When it comes to our tight circles of friends or our families, it’s easy for us to joke about our least favorite politician. Or to pontificate about what the anchor on a certain news network says. We get it; it’s all politics.
But when we’re pastors who watch CNN or Fox News, or vote Democrat or Republican, we must not let it be obvious either way. Here’s one thing I require of my staff and a phrase I use often: “Be politically invisible.”
I discourage my staff from saying anything publicly about politics. Our political opinions should stay out of our ministries. If we emphasize politics, our theology—and the gospel—will get drowned out.
If we’re truly going to prioritize the gospel and biblical community over politics, we need to do more than merely remain politically invisible; we need to demonstrate shepherd-like care for our church members and our neighbors.
Show respect for varying opinions on regathering
I just preached a five-part series on Hebrews 10, a passage that addresses the crucial importance of the gathering and building up of the saints for the advancement of God’s kingdom.
We went through the chapter building a case for the gathered church. With no politics involved, we approached it with pure theology.
Naturally, this intensified discussions among the congregation about when and how we should reopen. And my answer to these questions about regathering was always, “Yes, cautiously.”
I’m a pastor, not an epidemiologist. So when I give a medical answer, most people are going to respond with whatever fodder they’ve heard on their preferred news outlet.
By answering this way, we can take politics and other strong opinions out of the equation, while honoring all viewpoints on regathering.
Let’s briefly shift to everyone’s favorite topic right now: masks. In some states, masks have become mandatory in recent days as reported cases of COVID-19 have increased.
In light of this, a common question I get is, “Are you going to require everyone to wear a face mask to church?”
My response is: “Church staff will wear masks, and you’re welcome to wear one. You will never touch a door, because as you approach, greeters will open them for you. We’re also sanitizing every pew, and the seating will be arranged in a way that allows for social distancing.”
Here again, our goal is to unite differing opinions on regathering. We don’t want to ostracize anyone who wanted to gather months ago (or not even stop gathering in the first place).
We also don’t want to ostracize those who feel the need to retain their level of protection and remain cautious about coming back to church—or even continue to tune in online for a little while longer.
We’re encouraging the people entering our church facilities to honor one another with how they choose to return to in-person, corporate worship.
Be ready for ministry in season and out of season
I’ve been at my church now for five years. Early in my tenure, I began investing in the senior adults at my church.
Over the years, my wife and I have gone on senior adult trips, made hospital visits, and sat in living rooms getting to know our senior adults as church family.
Why is this important now? Our senior adults are demonstrating trust in our leadership during this season because we’ve spent years investing in our older members.
They’re asking, “Pastor, is it safe for me to return to church?” They watch the news. They don’t need me to regurgitate what TV anchors or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
In a sense, they’re saying, “Pastor, I’m going to take your word over everyone else’s.”
What a huge honor—not to mention a huge weight—to have people you lead trust you like this.
When I get asked about whether it’s safe to return (which again, is a question I get primarily from senior adults), here’s how I respond: “My number one goal for you is to minister to you for years to come. If you feel it’s safer to stay at home, by all means do that. But if you do choose to come. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
And then I explain all the safety procedures we’ve implemented.
Build trust over time
Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to start reaching out to people.
If you’ve never picked up the phone to check on someone or haven’t spent time with them until now (visiting from at least six feet away on a front porch), understand they don’t know how you feel, and they don’t know if they can trust you to lead them during an unstable time—and, in this case, help keep them safe.
As pastors, we must be ready in season and out of season. Don’t wait until something is popular to jump on whatever bandwagon applies.
People may not be able to trust presidential candidates. They may or may not trust the medical community.
But they should be able to trust their pastor.
BRIAN BOYLES (@brian_boyles) is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Snellville, Georgia.