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Prioritizing Community in a Pandemic

By Stephen Blandino | Posted In Ministry Tools

COVID-19 has disrupted everything, and social distancing has become the new norm. Unfortunately, community has been one casualty of this global pandemic. Many people are feeling less connected, and the impact is showing. Struggles with anxiety, depression, and hopelessness are on the rise.

While social distancing is necessary in this time of uncertainty, so is community. In fact, we need relationships more than ever. We need the life-giving emotional and spiritual support of fellow believers.

Community was an important habit for the early Christians. Acts 2:46-47 says this about them:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The Church found strength, encouragement, and spiritual nourishment as members met together regularly.

Unfortunately, some followers of Jesus today see no need for community. They’re content to do life alone, convinced their me-and-Jesus approach is enough.

Even C.S. Lewis took this view early on. However, he later came to realize the value of the body of Christ. Lewis described the change this way:

When I first became a Christian … I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls … . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit in it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

God did not design us to be islands. In fact, isolation robs us of the richness of community, and it robs the body of Christ of the gifts God gave to us — gifts meant to serve and strengthen the body.

I’m not suggesting we should ignore safety guidelines, such as social distancing. That would be irresponsible. I’m simply saying we need one another more than ever. Community looks different right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s less of a priority. It just means we have to be that much more intentional about finding ways to connect safely.

The words of Hebrews 10:24-25 are still true, even during a pandemic: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

“Meeting together” may mean socially distanced sanctuary seating, parking lot services, or virtual gatherings, but community must remain intact. Again, we need one another.

Several years ago, Ivan Fernandez Anaya was in a long-distance race in Navarra, Spain. Anaya is from Spain, and he competes in cross-country and marathon races. In this particular race, just as Anaya was approaching the finish line, he noticed Abel Mutai, an athlete from Kenya. Mutai had been in the lead, but he slowed down right before he crossed the finish line.

We need the life-giving emotional and spiritual support of fellow believers.

In that moment, Anaya realized what was happening. Because Mutai didn’t speak Spanish, he misunderstood the signage and thought he had already won. What did Anaya do in that moment? Rather than running past Mutai and winning the race, he slowed down, came up behind Anaya, and pointed him toward the real finish line.

When journalists asked Anaya why he let Mutai win instead of taking the first-place finish himself, Anaya said, “He was the rightful winner.”

Then Anaya said something powerful: “My dream is that someday we can have a kind of community life.”

When we live in community, we have someone who can come up behind us, point the way, and help us cross the finish line. Isn’t that what we all need?

We need people who will stand with us, pray for us, and encourage us to continue forward in our spiritual journey. Community doesn’t happen by accident. It takes great intentionality, but it makes all the difference in the world.

As a leader, how can you help the people in your church rediscover community — even in a socially distanced world? Here are six ideas:

1. Diversify Small Groups

Although many leaders moved their small groups online via Zoom months ago, some still have not yet taken this step.

Depending on where you live, all groups may need to be online. If you have an option — as well as a plan for safe, in-person small group meetings — you may want to let your small group leaders choose whether to gather online or in-person.

During our most recent semester of groups, two-thirds of our leaders hosted their groups online while the other third chose in-person gatherings — some of which were outdoors. Some groups are sermon aligned, others are book discussions, and still others utilize the screen share feature on Zoom to watch a video and then discuss it with the group.

2. Organize Pastoral Care

With so much focus on services and programs, it can be easy to lose sight of pastoral care. Yet this is a crucial time to mobilize staff members and leaders to provide regular follow-up care to members of the congregation. If your pastoral care list feels overwhelming, start with the elderly and vulnerable.

3. Prioritize One-On-Ones

Many people are unable to meet in-person; others simply don’t feel comfortable meeting at this time. Respect those boundaries, and provide the follow-up necessary to stay connected.

At the same time, some are willing to meet for coffee or a meal. If you feel comfortable doing so, engage in one-on-one meetings. As Andy Stanley often says, “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.”

4. Leverage Serving Opportunities

Many churches are mobilizing people to serve their community through food distribution and other opportunities. The beauty of these moments is that they meet two needs — the physical needs of the person being served and the need for community among those doing the serving.

Serve projects are great ways to create community as people serve the community.

5. Invest in Your Team

Your staff and key leaders still need connection. If your team is small, perhaps you can do socially distanced in-person staff meetings, occasional lunch gatherings, or even an outdoor family activity. Keeping a sense of cohesion and comradery is important during this time.

6. Look for Open Doors

Finally, look for the opportunities in your context that make connection and community possible. Every church has unique programs, strategies, and ministry contexts. Just because something is shut down doesn’t mean everything is shut down. Pull your team together, brainstorm the options, and use wisdom in the process.

Take the lead, model the way, and find ways to elevate different expressions of community so people can remain spiritually, emotionally and safely connected.