We started a church in the Bronx. Then … COVID.
When it was clear that all of New York City (NYC) was going to shut down, I still remember my first thought on what it meant for our young church: This hardship will reveal the quality and integrity of what we have built. Pressure reveals the integrity of the pipes, and storms test the stability of the foundation.
Nevertheless, as I look back on this past year and consider what it means to plant and pastor through the COVID-19 pandemic, what I feel the most is gratefulness. I am tired and weary – and frankly ready for a vacation. But I am more humbled and grateful primarily because God helped us aim to build something healthy in our church that could outlast pressure. By His grace, doing this has tremendously helped me and our young church through this difficult season. Actually, we continue to grow.
Let me share four ways in which aiming to build health into our church has turned out to be a tremendous blessing through the hardship of this past year.
1. Aiming at health meant prioritizing the Gospel.
In the world of urban church planting, there is a myriad of ways people approach the work of starting a new church. In a city like NYC, especially in an under-resourced and marginalized borough where we planted like the Bronx, there can be tremendous pressure to grow the church quickly in order for it to be viable. Along with many other pressures and the natural hardships of life in NYC, it’s easy to prioritize the planting of something that attracts the most amount of people the quickest.
The beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, though, is that it calls sinners, the poor, the downtrodden, and the broken to come and feast at the banquet of the Father as he extends forgiveness and new life to those who believe. That message is extremely and beautifully attractive. Since it requires an acknowledgment of spiritual poverty and brokenness before God’s holiness, however, it is also offensive.
I realized when COVID-19 hit and we could only have church online that, since people who were gathering in our church were used to being fed this Gospel of substance, the transition to navigating this new quarantining season was easier because the things attracting them were not the frills. Additionally, while COVID-19 has clearly removed every natural thing that gave us a sense of security (jobs, health, mobility, etc.), we learned there is no true safety and security outside of hiding in Jesus. Finally, in a day and age when preaching is often more about accomplishing your goals and becoming a better “you” while God comes alongside to help you get there, focusing and feeding on the Gospel was healthy because the Bible normalizes suffering as a reality for Christians. The Gospel reminds us that Jesus, who is the only perfect man, suffered. Therefore, being a follower of Jesus involves suffering.
Finally, there is hope in our suffering because Jesus defeated death, and He knows how to make suffering our servant as He accomplishes His good purposes in our lives through it. The Gospel reminds us that we will one day join in His victory when He returns for us. All this gave us a framework through which we could endure suffering and not be crushed under its weight. I am thankful for the Gospel in a pandemic year.
2. Aiming at health meant a focus on community over “come and see” attraction.
Sometimes in church planting, we see a desire to pit kingdom growth and reach more people against the desire to build deep, relational church communities. I think this is a false dichotomy because a biblically healthy church can do both. Acts 2 is a great example.
Nevertheless, I am very grateful that by God’s grace we aimed at planting a church where deep, family-like relationships were the goal. Do not get me wrong. I have spent plenty of time walking alongside people who feel disconnected within our church and believe their church relationships aren’t as deep as they had hoped. Still, having the biblical aim of community versus a “come and be entertained” emphasis helped us clearly aim for community even through a season of quarantine and isolation where everything is mainly online. It has helped our young church know what to fight for, what to hold each other accountable to, what to pray for, and what to value. For that, I am grateful.
3. Aiming at health gave me clarity.
I know I am not alone in believing that 2020 was one of the most difficult and challenging years to be in the ministry. As our churches felt isolated and alone, pastors kicked into a new gear to try to minister, but were left to become the most isolated members of their churches. I myself felt the loneliest I had in years during the first three months of the pandemic.
On top of this, there was a major shift we all had to make by going online. This meant learning all kinds of necessary technology in order to pivot successfully toward online ministry. It is easy to have role confusion. Is it my job to be a communications and technology expert or to reimagine the entire scope of missional strategy for all of Christianity?
In the midst of all this haze, it helped me tremendously to gain clarity about what my job was before the Lord. Since the aim was church health, it was clear that I was to shepherd. Therefore, I spent a lot of time weekly calling every single member and regular guest of our church to pray with them and care for them. My priority was to sow the Gospel, so teaching the Bible remained my most important and ultimately most powerful tool to lead with wisdom and love and also care for everyone’s physical and spiritual safety. I am not at all sure that I did the best job. I just know God helped me seek to be faithful to this, and, in the midst of such a crazy and confusing year, I am glad that the task was clear.
4. Aiming at health provided a point of reference from which to pivot.
We all had to pivot this past year to survive and do ministry differently. Many are asking how this uniquely hard season will shift how ministry is done moving forward. As I look back, that is clear to me. What I am grateful for is that knowing what a healthy church looks like has become an anchor and point of reference from which to pivot without setting sail in a completely different direction. Having this point helped us pivot to do online ministry.
Still, we realized the church can’t only be online. Sunday gatherings matter not merely as events, but also as family gatherings. The mission of sowing the Gospel and making disciples through new churches must go on because it is God’s “Plan A”. And His “Plan A” won’t fail. In a year of hardship and loss, I am grateful for God’s grace helping us aim to build a healthy church.