We aren’t the first Christians who have missed gathering during difficult times, but we are the first Christians who have so many other options to occupy our “away-from-one-another” time (see Netflix, social media, 24/7 news coverage, summer outdoor activities and millions of other things). As such, maintaining spiritual growth during a pandemic takes more effort and discipline than in previous eras of separation from the body of believers.
Paul’s words from prison are as important now as they were to the original recipients, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13). Paul’s point: God will work in the life of an individual in prison stays, persecution, pandemics or anything else, but the responsibility for spiritual growth and development rests with the individual. Therein lies the problem.
The dilemma for many pastors throughout the pandemic is the truth of the old proverb: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” The proverb dates back to the 12th century, but maybe is more relevant today than ever. A modern pandemic discipleship revision would be: “You can tell church folks the importance of becoming better disciples in a pandemic through Bible reading, prayer and service, but you can’t make them better disciples.” (Other adaptations of the parable during a pandemic include: “You can show people all of the data on the importance of wearing a mask, but you can’t make them wear one” and “You can point out the dangers of too much social media, biased news and partisan politics, but you can’t make them turn it off and tune it out.”)
More than anything pastors want his/her parishioners to grow in the Lord. Pandemic or no pandemic. If there were a discipleship magic wand, they’d bop each church goer on the head and instantly turn them into little Mother Teresas and Jr. Billy Grahams. It doesn’t work that way. There is no magic wand. Becoming a better disciple is an individual’s responsibility. Pastors can lead folks to the living waters, but they must drink.
Discipleship takes work—with fear and trembling. Lazy discipleship has led many on-fire believers to fading away from their faith. It happens slowly over time. Church attendance drops. Participation in service opportunities become less and less. Giving falls off. It doesn’t happen like a light switch. One minute on, and the next minute off. It’s cooling off slowly. Other things besides Jesus start to take priority.
Our current pandemic with its stay-at-home orders and legitimate concerns over safety has exacerbated the conditions that contribute to a fading away of faith. Millions of church goers are at home on Sunday mornings. They aren’t gathering with fellow believers. There is little accountability. Maybe they watch an on-line service. Maybe they listen to Christian music, pray and read their Bible. Maybe they continue to give. Maybe they are growing deeper in their commitment and service to the Lord. Maybe the flame is burning bright. Maybe not.
The faithful at-home believer will need to be diligent to keep the Jesus flame burning. It’s more than simply tuning in for an on-line sermon. Efforts to connect with fellow believers and encouraging one another—even from home– are essential. Find opportunities to be socially distant but still serve. Prioritize prayer and Bible study. Believers have more tools than ever to facilitate a growing relationship with Jesus during a pandemic, but it’s up to the individual “in fear and trembling to work out their salvation.” In other words, pastors can and should provide spiritual growth opportunities (lead people to the everlasting waters), but the individual must decide whether he/she will drink from that well.
Discipleship in a pandemic is tough. Not impossible. It takes effort. It always has. With fear and trembling work out your salvation…