There are many complicated issues for churches to consider when deciding to start gathering again during the COVID-19 pandemic. We assume that the vast majority of our members are eagerly anticipating our gathering again. However, there will be some who are less eager. Here are five considerations in pastoring those who are unable or unwilling to attend.
1. SEEK TO IDENTIFY THE CIRCUMSTANCES
The reasons someone might not want to attend church gatherings vary greatly and our pastoral response will be directed to such reasons. Unwilling and unable are two very different categories and each have reasons attached. For example, there are big differences between the one who is fearful to return, the one who is immuno-compromised, and the one who simply wants to stay home and watch a live-stream because it’s more convenient. Identifying the core reasons and the personal circumstances of the individual will be essential to shepherd well.
2. EXHORT FROM THE SCRIPTURES
To those who are unwilling to gather there is a great opportunity to open the Scripture and winsomely explain the true nature of the church as a gathered people and why it is so important to physically gather. Promoting a biblical ecclesiology comes in the form of reminding and interpersonal teaching that can be wonderfully encouraging for the Christian.
3. HAVE GRACE AND PATIENCE
It takes time for conversations to sink in as the Word does its work and as the Spirit leads and convicts. Grace and patience help those who might be weaker sheep. This is a way we can display love for our brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 13:4) and model the work of God, who has been so patient with us (Col. 3:13; 2 Pet. 3:9).
4. DON’T GIVE UP ON THEM
In the flurry of activity surrounding reopening it might be easy to leave behind the sheep who have wandered off. However, part of our pastoral task is to care for people in an ongoing fashion. If a person is unwilling to return, assigning an elder to make regular contact to provide encouragement could be helpful.
If a person is unable to gather due to health reasons or other circumstances, we can care for them like we do for those who are shut-in and we can find ways to continue ministering to them. If a church is live-streaming the Sunday service during the pandemic, it would be helpful to continue the live-stream during the transition period until restrictions are lifted and the risk has decreased. Some congregations are setting up specific rooms in their buildings so that those at risk can still gather in some fashion. In either case, ongoing care and encouragement is needed for both the unwilling and the unable.
5. DISCIPLINE IF NECESSARY
If a person has professed Christ and committed to church membership, but even after the COVID-19 crisis has ended decides not to return to corporate worship for reasons that the elders identify as sinful, then the church will have no choice but to exercise discipline for that person’s decision to live in the ongoing sin of forsaking the assembly (Heb. 10:24–25). This assumes they have not began attending another gospel-preaching church. Of course, the elders and the congregation need to exercise patience here, even as we continue to warn, admonish, and eventually discipline those who refuse to gather with God’s people.
Gathering together again will be a great joy for many and a unique challenge for some. Let’s make sure that no one is left behind.
[May 19, 2020]