In the year 2020, we did not expect this. Schools canceled, restaurants ordered to close, churches mandated not to gather physically—the governmental decrees and the subsequent social disturbance resembles stories we’ve heard from past times. Though unforeseen, these events are not unprecedented for the church.
The church, from her earliest years, has responded to plagues and epidemics. The church's response to such events has led to much of her growth. The coronavirus does not produce the extensive danger of the outbreaks in the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries or the Bubonic Plague of the 14th through 16th centuries. However, COVID-19 is real, and people are becoming sick, and some are dying. As of the writing of this article, there have been over 200,000 cases and nearly 10,000 deaths worldwide. It should go without saying that we should take the coronavirus of 2020 seriously.
The media has inundated the world with information about the virus. Every day, multiple times a day, people are receiving information about the virus’ spread, new government-imposed restrictions, advice on how to distance oneself from others properly, and much more. Of course, the preacher is not an expert in such areas and therefore, should not feel the burden of replicating the media’s task. However, this begs the question: what is the preacher’s responsibility during these times?
Right now, Christians have the opportunity, just as they did during the plagues and epidemics of history, to distinguish themselves from the world. It is the preacher’s responsibility to lead their flock during this pandemic for that very purpose. Competent preachers teach their people biblical doctrine and resultant application weekly. It is the preacher's responsibility to prayerfully imagine how a biblical text, and the truth about God and man therein, results in a gospel-motivated response of loving God and loving neighbor. In times like these, we need very little imagination.
Preaching leadership at this time can take various forms. Some may decide to take a break from their current sermon series to address the issue. In contrast, others might choose to remain in their existing series and apply their sermons directly to answer the question: What does it look like to love God and neighbor during this pandemic?
At Redeemer Church, I have chosen to take a week off from our study through the Book of Exodus and preach from John 11. I believe that Jesus' words and deeds concerning Lazarus' sickness and death in John 11:1-16 advises us of three substantial truths relevant to our situation. These truths are necessarily part of a more substantial foundation that leads us away from self-preservation and into self-sacrifice in times of uncertainly and fear.
I chose to title the sermon “What Not to Believe (Especially During a Pandemic).” The three false beliefs that Christians should reject (though in times of certainty are tempted by) are:
(1) That only the spiritual matters
(2) That hardship is meaningless
(3) That fear should drive our decisions
Contrary to these false beliefs, as shown by Christ in John 11, the physical matters, God is always doing something for his glory (and his church's good through hardship), and love should drive our decisions.
My sermon is available below. I pray that in some way, the words in this article and the audio in the sermon will be an encouragement to preachers to lead their people deliberately and thoughtfully during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ryan Welsh serves as lead pastor for Redeemer Church, a Sojourn Network congregation in Bellevue, Washington.