What does church success look like during a global pandemic? For at least a generation, success in churches was based largely on numerics, on this, we can agree. Every year in my denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention), for example, churches must fill out the Annual Church Profile (ACP), which asks churches nearly every conceivable question regarding their numbers. It was easy to get sucked into this being a type of self-reflection on whether or not you and your church were “successful” that year. Now, this is not to denigrate ACPs, they serve a purpose, of course, but it has been clear for at least a half-century that numbers purportedly told the story about the health and success of a church.
And what pastor hasn’t attended associational, state, or national convention meetings where they were asked multiple times, “Hey brother, how many you runnin’?”
Numbers are important, but they do not always tell the full story of church health and success. Big churches can be unhealthy, small churches can be healthy. We know this in every season, but this especially comes to the fore in the midst of a global pandemic.
If numbers = success/health, a majority of churches right now are likely not getting a passing grade. Churches everywhere are seeing decreases in attendance: once-a-month attendees have become non-attenders, the vulnerable cannot attend because of health concerns, and some regular attenders have abandoned the fellowship, perhaps for a different church that fits their preferences better. This can be quite disheartening until you remember that Scripture does not define success or health according to numbers. Rather, what we are called to is faithfulness, and God will take care of the results.
This is good news for pastors, churches, and faithful church members. Better still, it applies whether or not we are in a global pandemic. While saying “just be faithful” seems overly simplistic, it really does not have to be as complicated as we might try to make it. Does this resolve all questions we might have right now in terms of having in-person service versus online-only or mask versus no mask or any number of questions the Bible is silent on? Of course not.
What it does do is (1) help us keep our hand to the plow, (2) fend off discouragement, and (3) protect our hearts when criticized.
Preach the Word, study the Word, pray, love unconditionally, serve sacrificially, rest in the gospel, gather with the saints in the church you have covenanted with (if possible), love your neighbor as self – these are all things we can do at all times, COVID or not.
Last year I wrote a post here at FTC pleading with church members to give their pastor grace. Pastors need grace (just as much as you do, by the way) in and out of global pandemics and my goal there was to speak to church members to be understanding and gracious as their pastor navigated a unique situation with them. Of course, some will not heed this call to grace. Grumbling and criticism are inevitable, but a shield against being struck to the heart by these flinging arrows is resting on Christ and striving by the Spirit’s power toward faithfulness.
Do you remember when the Israelites had been in the wilderness for a little over a month and began to grumble against Moses and Aaron because they were hungry (Ex 16:2-3)? Moses asks them twice “What are we?” (Ex 16:7-8) and says, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Ex 16:8). This is ultimately where all grumbling is directed. Grumbling exposes an underlying discontentment with God, says Moses.
In his excellent book Revitalize, Andy Davis draws off this picture in the work of revitalization (though this applies to pastoring on the whole) when he says, “As the work is progressing, Satan will rouse his servants to bring fierce opposition and poignant criticism, and some of those flaming arrows will find their mark with stinging potency. But as Moses said to the bitter Israelites, ‘What are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord!’ (Exod. 16:8). We are nothing! If we are standing on Scripture and leading the church toward spiritual health, the opposition is to Christ, not to us. My opponents at FBC did not even know my name two years before that time, and the only reason they were yelling at me in church conferences was because of the Lord’s work. I am nothing; Christ is everything” (emphasis mine).
We must remember that if we are being biblically faithful as pastors or church members, the grumbling, criticism, and gracelessness is not ultimately against us, but against Christ. After all, the church belongs to Him, and if we are following the calls in His Word, then we are being faithful. Even if others have ideas about how the church ought to operate, they will always be bad ideas compared to the One who ultimately owns every local church.
So, pastor and church member, are you being faithful to what the Word calls you to be? Of course, it will not be perfect faithfulness, but are you resting in Christ as your hope, and leaning on Him? Are you striving to be what the church is called to be according to Christ? Then that’s all you are called to do. Be encouraged! Ultimately, your hope rests in Christ, not your performance and there is a lot of freedom in that.
So keep watering, God will give the growth (1 Cor 3:7) on His sovereign time, in His providential wisdom, in ways we might not expect or even choose, for His glory, pandemic or not.
 Andy Davis, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping your Church Come Alive Again (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 52.