Last week Andy Stanley—pastor of North Point Church in Atlanta, GA—announced that in light of the recent spike in COVID-19 infections his church would remain closed until January, 2021.
His statement sent shock waves through American church life and affected every pastor I know. As a respected leader and bestselling author, Stanley exercises enormous influence and whenever he sets a course, others soon follow. A case in point is yesterday’s announcement by JD Greear, pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh, NC and President of the Southern Baptist Convention, that his church also plans to delay reopening until 2021.
Stanley’s real impact, though, may result less from his decision itself than three key tensions that lie beneath it—and that’s where the leadership lessons are for the rest of us.
A Gathered Church or a Scattered Church?
Public health concerns were the first reason he gave for his church’s closing. With the current wave of infections showing no signs of slowing and the complexities of secondary infections through his large congregation so daunting, Stanley felt he had little choice.
Instead, his church plans to minimize the risk of infection to their people by dividing into smaller groups and spreading out their various gatherings and ministries into the larger community. The gathered church must become the scattered church.
It’s a reasonable plan and may well be adopted by many other churches, but it’s not as clear cut as people may think.
The norm for the New Testament church is gathered worship; and even on those occasions when because of persecution or other forces the early Christians were scattered from their churches, it was always so that they could regather. That’s the principle behind the admonition in Hebrews 10:25 of “not giving up gathering together.”
A spiritual synergy takes place in the physical gathering of believers in corporate worship that can’t be reproduced by other means. Those times or seasons when scattering happens serve as an extension of the gathering and not a substitute for it.
In a time of pandemic, how much risk are we pastors and our churches willing to take on as we try to balance our people’s spiritual need to gather for worship with their physical need to scatter for safety?
Live or Online Worship?
The second reason Stanley gave for closing his church was the difficulty in the present environment of providing a quality live worship experience for adults and children. Because of social distancing requirements, he said, his church wouldn’t be able to accommodate its usual large crowds. Online worship was therefore the best choice for his congregation’s weekly services.
There’s no question that services with smaller crowds are less energetic and engaging than those filled with worshipers, and Stanley isn’t the only pastor who feels that low attendance translates into low quality. But if worship is matter of the heart—something most everyone in church agrees with—is the number of worshipers the best way to decide whether to hold live worship?
On the other hand, if numbers play a role in how we allocate resources in order to achieve our overall ministry goals, shouldn’t we take them into account as we make decisions regarding worship?
And if fears about the virus reach the point where only a handful of people are willing to attend live worship services, wouldn’t it make sense to go to online worship only?
All pastors feel the tension of what to do about worship—live, online or recorded—because worship is the face of our churches. While Stanley’s solution has the advantage of being neat and clear, most of us haven’t followed his example, at least not yet, because our hearts are burdened for the spiritual needs of our people that are best met by live worship.
Pragmatic or Spiritual Leadership?
Third, Stanley pointed to surveys taken of his congregation that revealed a majority preferred to close the church because of the virus’s threat.
Surveys have a place in congregational life. If nothing else, they can help a pastor move forward with a leadership decision by knowing if he has a solid majority of his people supporting him. But surveys have a downside if they become more concerned about gaining people’s approval than discerning God’s will for a church.
The difference may be best described as pragmatic leadership versus spiritual leadership.
My biggest takeaway from Stanley’s announcement was that the reasons for closing his church were essentially pragmatic. They were good pragmatic arguments, to be sure, but little different from what the leader of a business, school or non-profit agency would say under similar circumstances.
The ministry that the Lord has built through Andy Stanley is evidence of his spiritual maturity and commitment to biblical leadership principles, and I’m sure that he spent untold hours in prayer before arriving at his decision. I wonder, though, if his own people as well as the many pastors who will be influenced by him might have a higher degree in confidence had he assured them that his decision was based not only on pragmatic concerns but also on the Holy Spirit’s direction.
The truth is that the situation pastors and churches are in right now require both spiritual and pragmatic leadership skills and pastors who lead effectively are figuring out how to live in both worlds.
Whether you agree with Andy Stanley’s decision or not, he succeeded in at least clarifying a few of the tensions all churches and pastors must negotiate in this COVID-19 world. Maybe our best way forward is by returning to the simplest leadership skill of all: the humility that comes when we admit we don’t have all the answers and are willing to trust God for our present and future.
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