The last few weeks have seen such quick changes in the state of our nation that it is often difficult to keep up. For preachers, the context of our ministry is radically different now than it was just a weekend or two earlier. A weekend ago, I might have written some of us, but now I write with confidence that all of us are preaching differently than we ever imagined. How do we navigate these days in the preaching ministry? This question has so many answers, but let me provide some contours for considering how we approach the ministry of preaching in the time of COVID-19.
Remember the Core Message
Every day brings shifting messages in our own city, state or province, nation, and the greater world about the nature of this pandemic. With all these messages coming at us daily and hourly, it is so vital for preachers to remember the message they proclaim. Even as we pay careful attention to the guidelines offered for overall health and wellness at this time, I also want to encourage us as preachers to step back from all this messaging in order to remember our core message in Christ. Without taking time to consider the message of God’s good story in the Bible, as well as key themes of our faith that seem particularly pertinent at this time, we may lose our way, not only as preachers, but as Christians.
First, it is good to remember that history is not aimless, but guided by God from creational goodness through the fall into sin and its ramification to redemption in Jesus the Messiah and, ultimately, to the restoration in the new heaven and the new earth. This story—the four chapter gospel—reminds us that the time we face finds its place within a bigger story of humanity, but also a bigger story that God is telling.
Second, it is vital that we remember and hold onto certain key themes within God’s good story at this time. For example, as I wrote this article, I took some time to write down some themes that stood out to me in this present moment.
We remember that all of life with God hangs on the essential love for God and love for neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). In this time when love of security and love for self could easily rise to top of the list, Jesus’ words reframe our priorities. We also remember that we are called to be a people of faith, hope, and love at all times, but particularly in trying times (1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Hebrews 11:1-40; Romans 5:1-5). We also know that when we face times of trial or suffering, God can use that for his good purposes in shaping our lives in various ways (James 1:2-12; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Romans 8:28-30). You could certainly make your own list, and I encourage you to go through that exercise sometime in the next day or two. We must remember the core message of our faith in these times, or else we will have nothing to communicate.
Pivoting Our Preaching
Even as we remember our core message, it is self-evident that we need to pivot the way we preach in these times. Let me offer three areas in which we could pivot toward new ways of preaching so that our message can both reach people and stay fresh for our present moment. In no way are these areas exhaustive, but I hope they suggest some ways we can continue with creative and vibrant preaching now.
Two weekends ago, I was preaching through a series on the minor prophets in the Book of Nahum in our worship services. I had never preached from Nahum, but the preparation and the delivery of that sermon became rich and meaningful to me, particularly chapter 1, verse 7:
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him
The next week radically changed everything for my preaching, as I am sure it did for all who are reading these words. The very next weekend I was preaching to a mostly empty room as we pre-recorded my sermon, and our entire worship service, for posting online. I cannot help but feel it was providential that the text scheduled for that tumultuous week of change was from the prophet Habakkuk. His message was so applicable in a time of unexpected suffering and change, that it took just a little tweaking to pivot my message to our present circumstances.
Whatever our opinion about it, whether for or against, we have all suddenly become online preachers. Whether you are utilizing some live-streaming platform or pre-recording, pivoting toward preaching online is essential. Some churches were prepared for this already, while others made quick changes in the moment. Some are highly produced and others are not produced at all. Whatever our situation, I encourage you to consider multiple phases of this change. At present, we can still go into our workplaces to a certain degree, but there may quickly be a shift where we are having to do this on our own as preachers. It is as vital as ever to preach the Word to our congregations and to any of those who may be listening.
You may also consider other online means of “preaching.” Our student ministry team is utilizing social media videos to keep in touch with and share the Word with our students. Many churches, ours included, have a regular Lenten devotional that posts everyday as a source of encouragement to our congregation. Even if you do not have something like that prepared ahead of time, social media can be redeemed as meaningful avenue for sharing the Word with our congregations and others. I blog regularly, and that tool is readily available as a means for longer reflection on Scripture to guide and encourage others during this time.
Preaching through Letters and Email
August Nebe’s classic book, Luther as Spiritual Adviser, traces the pastoral ministry of Martin Luther through the writing of letters. Reading Luther’s letters we quickly see the way that Luther’s ministry of teaching makes its way into the pastoral care of his letters. Luther is not alone in this sort of ministry, but we should take a cue from him. While letter writing is a lost art and email is often a means of information sharing, let me encourage us as preachers to re-learn the art of preaching through the writing of letters and email. As we quickly realize, the best Scriptural examples we have about pastoral ministry and preaching largely come through the epistolary form. Now, when increased restrictions limit us from preaching to larger groups, may we return to the mantle of the apostles who utilized the written word to convey great theology, such as Paul’s letter to the Romans, and pastoral guidance, such as his letter to Philemon.
It probably is not too helpful to self-consciously set out to write another Romans. However, when we sit down to write an email update to our congregations about how to navigate CDC recommendations about health and changes in our church activities, it might not hurt to take a little extra time to consider how we are pastoring or preaching through our letter. When we reach out to individuals via email, it is an opportunity to care for them and guide them with God’s Word. Everyone right now could certainly benefit from a good word in these days. The Apostle John’s epistles share the tenderness of an elder who cares for his people, “My dear children, I write this to you so that …” (1 John 2:1). The Apostle Paul offers a rough signature statement at the end of Galatians, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11). Along with them, let us pivot toward pastorally preaching through our letters and email messages.
Preaching through One-on-One and Phone
While those, like me, who love to write, may gravitate toward the last suggestion, let me mention the importance of incarnational preaching in these days. Some of us still may have occasion for one-on-one meetings with people. If not, we all have the opportunity to offer a phone call. Either one of these opportunities provide us with the chance to preach the Word of God to people. I do not mean becoming “preachy” in the worst sense, but refer more to our opportunity to offer “a word in season” (Proverbs 15:23).
Many times, when I talk to my parents on the phone, they say, “It’s good to hear your voice.” Why is that? I am pretty confident this not because my vocal tones are so resonantly beautiful to the ear, but that it is meaningful to hear the voice of someone you care about and who cares about you. As preachers, we have the opportunity to bring that sort of presence into someone’s life no matter how simple it is. Our staff is working diligently to reach out our congregation through phone calls, through small groups, ministry teams, and other groups. We want to make sure that our congregants have an opportunity to literally hear from someone within the church who cares for them and can offer a word in season. When we cannot offer this incarnational presence on a larger scale, it is vitally important to pivot our ministry in this way to try and make smaller, personal connections through which we might proclaim the Word of God to one another.
Ministering from the Overflow
The past two weeks have been very intense for all of us. As pastors, who are making quick changes that affect many people, we also hold the calling to care for and lead people to the Lord. We are highly responsible and highly caring people with a high sense of calling and purpose. That is why we do what we do. In these times, we will inevitably wrestle with boundaries and accessibility, responsibility and limits, work and sabbath. May I offer a personal pastoral word to all of us? We must take care of ourselves and nurture our life with God in this time.
One of my guiding principles as a pastor is that ministry comes from the overflow of our own life with God. As pastors and ministry leaders, it is vital that we make space to take care of ourselves in the midst of this season of strain. When I worked with an international relief and development organization, we would often encounter staff members who worked in chronically stressful context burning out. Many continue to work in that state, and had little to offer and often did damage to themselves. We are in an unprecedented moment in ministry that echoes those sorts of contexts in various ways. Even as we lay our lives down and serve others, we must daily remember that we are not the Messiah. While God is omnipresent, we cannot be everywhere. While God is limitless, we daily encounter our limits.
As we pivot our preaching ministry in these days, may we remember we are more like Philip and Andrew. When a group of people said to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” both Philip and Andrew simply led this group of people to Jesus (John 12:20-22). We serve the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and in this time of change and difficulty, may we as preachers and pastors draw our strength from him. May our ministry arise from the overflow of our own life with God.
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.