Pastoring a Non-Online Church During Lockdown
Lockdown has affected every one of us, including churches and the way we pastor them. All religious gatherings, including churches, have been prohibited under the present lockdown regulations at the time of writing. We can either fight this regulation or ask God what he wants us to do within the parameters of it. Many churches are going the online route by streaming their Sunday services on YouTube, Facebook or other platforms. Cell groups, Bible studies, and prayer meetings are held on Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, besides others. These are excellent ways to keep the church worshipping, hearing the word, and interacting with one another. However, not all churches have the privilege of watching online services or meeting on an online platform due to various factors. Many of our poorer church members have smart phones, but most don’t have wifi and using their own phone data is too expensive for them to engage in ongoing online church activities. Some others don’t even have smart phones and they can receive brief text messages by SMS at the most. The challenge, therefore, is “how do we pastor a non-online church during lockdown?”
As pastors we cannot throw in the towel and say that we’ll wait until we can meet again before we do anything for the church. God has given us a trust to care for the flock. Our care for our flock continues regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether we can meet or not. Not being able to meet may mean that we will need to put in extra effort to make sure that our members are being adequately cared for, remain steadfast in the faith, and not going astray.
What to do
1. Meet with church members / adherents personally or with the respective families
Personal interaction is vital as many of our members live isolated lives. They long for fellowship and some even become depressed when they’re separated from other people for extended lengths of time. Although they might go to work, they don’t normally have the encouraging interactions there that they have with the other church members. I have found that every person that I’ve visited during lockdown was delighted to have had the visit and felt encouraged by it.
When visiting take care to adhere to all lockdown protocols of wearing a mask, sanitizing, and social distancing. This can be difficult when the family has children. On a recent visit to a family the children were excited to see me and came running out and all hugged me enthusiastically before anything could be said. If this happens don’t dampen their enthusiasm by scolding them. Respond with delight to them. Ask the parents to explain the dangers of Covid and the need to adhere to safety protocols to the children.
Keep your visits short and so prepare beforehand what you would like to share with each family. As you would want to ask them about themselves and their families what you had prepared might change as there may be something more relevant to share according to their circumstances.
Pray with them before leaving.
2. Keep in touch by phone calls
You can’t always visit everyone regularly, but you can call more often. A quick phone call means a lot to people. Find out how they’re doing and encourage them. If you discover that there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with in their lives then schedule a personal visit to speak about it rather than talk about it over the phone.
3. Send regular personal messages
Sometimes a short one-line message can let a person know that they’re being thought of. It can be anything like “praying for you” or “congrats on your new job”, or anything else that’s relevant to the person receiving the message. When someone receives a message, they know that they haven’t been forgotten somewhere in isolation.
4. Send text devotional messages
People who don’t have much data don’t watch online sermons. There are some that do everything online for a few days until their data runs out then they’re cut off again. There’s a lady who is very active on the church WhatsApp group when she has data then we know when she has run out of data because she suddenly goes silent.
One church uses YouTube but also sends out a “low data” version of the message in MP3 format. However, even those MP3’s are about 35MB each, which is a lot for someone who might only get 100MB data a month.
Typing out a short devotional message, along with the accompanying Bible text, and sending that out to the church members on WhatsApp is something that is very low data and that they can read instead of listen to. Recording the short message on WhatsApp itself will probably be about a 1MB message, which is also doable for most.
For those who don’t have smart phones I normally send Bible verses to them. If they aren’t English speaking I use the Bible app to send the Bible verses in their own languages, such as Tswana or Sepedi. Sending an SMS that is too long changes the message into an MMS, which we aren’t sure that they will receive on their basic phones.
5. Encourage them to be disciplined in their Christian disciplines
Although Christians ought to be practicing the Christian disciplines of worship, prayer, reading and studying the Bible, giving, and being a witness to others anyway, they may need to be reminded and assisted to do so even more so at home with their families when they can’t meet together as the church.
Although many members in wealthier churches give tithes and offerings via EFT, in poorer churches this isn’t a common means of giving. Some church members have given me their tithes and offerings in cash when I have visited them during lockdown. Care needs to be taken that we remain beyond accusation of pocketing the money and the giver can be requested to notify an elder or treasurer that cash has been given to the pastor or whoever has done the visitation.
6. Include all members of the family
We have a tendency to contact the man of a household and leave it to him to pass on our messages to the rest of the family. The problem with that is that we start losing touch with the wife and children and take the man at his word that everyone else in the family are doing well. We can ask our wives or other women in the church to give the wife a call. If they have teenagers or young adults in the home we can contact them directly to find our how they’re doing too. Even if they aren’t honest and tell us that they’re fine when they’re not, which would likely be the case with teens and young adults, they will still appreciate the personal contact. When visiting the family don’t only visit with the adults. Ask them to bring the children, teens or young adults in as well. Everyone in the family needs to know that they’re important to you.
7. Take care of their practical needs
Lockdown has had a detrimental effect on many people in our churches. If people are struggling financially and don’t have food in the house the least that we can do is to give them food.
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-16)
Find out if they have any other practical needs, but don’t promise anything that you can’t deliver.
8. Outreach is essential
When death is staring us in the face this is the time when people need to hear the Gospel of hope all the more. The world is full of fear and traumatised. Peace that surpasses all understanding in the midst of all this turmoil comes through Jesus, the Prince of Peace. We have a God given duty to share Him with the world at this time. However, this should be done wisely within the stipulated protocols to keep ourselves and our hearers safe. Personal outreaches are advised rather than group outreaches. Small groups can be arranged but then split into pairs.
9. Do all things within your limited capacity and time constraints
All the above can be daunting and unrealistic, and it is unrealistic if we try to accomplish all this every week. Know your limitations and schedule in what you are able to accomplish in a week. Don’t try to do more than you’re able to do. Set a realistic pace for yourself.
You can’t do everything. This point goes hand in hand with the previous point. Get others in your church to make calls, send messages, do visits. Encourage church members to contact each other. Although the Pastor is overall responsible that doesn’t mean that we need to do all the work. Share the load.
Most poorer churches don’t have cell groups and so we don’t have cell group leaders to check up on their cell group members. This means that others in the church need to be given responsibilities to reach out to someone else. Ladies can message or call other ladies. Young people can be encouraged to keep in touch with the other young people.
What not to do
1. Don’t fob them off on someone else
When we aren’t sure what we should do when our churches close and find out that another church has good lockdown programs we could be tempted to tell our church members to link up with them during lockdown and come back to us when services resume. This is a bad idea and practice. God has entrusted our church members to us to care for, not another pastor. Besides that, it’s possible that they will decide to leave your church for the other church if you do that. It doesn’t demonstrate a caring attitude.
2. Don’t tell them to watch services on TV or listen to services on the radio without guidance
As our members can’t watch online services it would be easy to tell them to watch services on TV or listen to them on the radio. However, telling them to do this without knowing what they’re watching or listening to is a dangerous practice considering the amount of bad theology that’s propagated by many TV preachers.
3. Don’t burn yourself out
In our attempts to serve our people well it is easy to overdo it and burn ourselves out. Go back to points 9 & 10 above.
4. Don’t become lazy
On the other hand when our routines change a lot and we aren’t sure what we should do it’s easy to become lazy and not do anything leaving our people without pastoral care.
Alan Wainwright is the pastor of the Westpoint Baptist church in Laudium, Pretoria. He serves with his wife, Joan and is the father of three children.