In A Shepherd’s Life, real-world shepherd James Rebanks tells of the real-world value of the shepherd’s crook, a vital tool in caring for real-world sheep. The crook remains the best tool to catch a sheep and enables the Shepherd to draw skittish sheep near so he can care for them.
How shall spiritual shepherds guide their flocks when God’s common grace shepherds — doctors and presidents — enforce isolation and distance, real absence, upon God’s people? How can we shepherd when our crook is broken?
There are a few ingredients necessary to begin to make an answer at this question: honesty, context, and the means of grace.
First, I think it is essential that we acknowledge that anyone writing pastoral guidance in the seventh week of a radically new circumstance doesn’t really yet know what they are talking about. The world is flying blind with minimal data in the face of the coronavirus, and spiritual leaders are equally ignorant in grappling with its fallout.
Including myself. Full stop.
However, like a true fool, allow me expand on my ignorance.
We must acknowledge that many of our guiding lights from Christian history faced plague and pestilence with less knowledge than we have today. Calvin and countless others often showed great compassion and courage in desiring to visit the plague-stricken. They knew there was personal danger, yet they were willing to entrust their lives into God’s hands for the sake of caring for others. In Calvin’s case, he was prohibited from visiting the sick by the Geneva city council, mindful of this risk to his life and his immense value as a teacher to the church.
But we know a lot more about infectious disease today. We know, for instance, that visiting a sick person during a plague endangers not only the visitor and those she lives with, but also the community. We also know that even visiting a well person poses widespread risk during a pandemic. They too may spread disease. Selfless risks taken by heroes of earlier ages may rightly be judged selfish today. Thus, the Christian minister faces a more widespread distancing and isolation today than ever before, with fewer options. No visitors at deathbeds, no graveside prayers at burials.
So any advice today is a best guess. We must return to first principles, humble ourselves, and be able and willing to learn quickly and adapt.
Before the coronavirus struck we were already living in an age of extraordinary isolation and individualism. That is perhaps the key context we must grapple with.
Before “Alone Together” was the Orwellian motto of government medical experts, it was the title of an important book by Sherry Turkle.
Turkle chronicles the pandemic of isolation that a generation born into a digital world is facing. This book is worth re-visiting today. We are surrounded by ubiquitous communications devices that are designed by the marketplace to give us the stimulating patina of “connection” while further isolating us — and isolating our dollars from our wallets. Sadly, most of those born as “digital natives” prefer electronic communication to face to face conversations.
During this pandemic it has been a commonplace for commentators to worry about the impacts of isolation, but who are we fooling? Our response to this pandemic is merely accelerating what we have been proactively trying to accomplish with technology for the past century.
It is true, isolation flies in the face of fundamental human nature and our longing for physical presence, communication, and contact. But it is not true that it flies in the face of the denatured humanity that increasingly populates our sin-stained world. Digital media gives a whole new meaning to Augustine’s descriptive phrase for sin, “curved in on oneself.” The real danger of enforced isolation is not that it is contrary to our wills, but that it gives us just what we want by nudging us further within.
Case in point: One of the great pastoral challenges of my ministry before the pandemic was scheduling a coffee. Or actually trying to talk with someone on the phone. I know that I often would prefer sending a text or email to picking up the phone, or sitting down with someone, when confronting a touchy issue. Or even when just catching up. It’s so easy. I can check that box, now they know I care. No need to send a thank you note — I gave their text a thumb’s up!
One of my greatest worries about pandemic isolation is that it plays to my sloth, it runs concurrent with the ethos and ease of electronic communication. “Look, I finished all my pastoral visits and I’m still in my pajamas!”
So here’s a practical tip, that also serves as a warning.
One of the first things we did in our small church was assign a deacon or elder to every member of our church. We set a goal of contacting everyone at least once a week and built a shared spreadsheet online for tracking our contacts. But I worry, is it enough? Would a personal visit, perhaps from the front porch, though less frequent, be better?
How would we manage this crisis without technology? How would we manage if it were permanent? Perhaps it would be healthy for us to ask those questions, and seriously consider the old paths before celebrating the victories of the new.
This context makes me worry that even as much as we miss and complain about the loss of public worship, an extended isolation will not in fact make the heart grow fonder for it. It will in fact chisel away bit by bit, mortar from the crumbling façade. It will weaken the tenuous bonds we share with the church, the visible body of Christ on earth.
Word, Sacrament, and Discipline. These are the old paths, the marks of Christ’s church on earth.
All three of these marks require physical presence. The sacrament anchors this truth, but the preached word as well requires that an assembly of sinners sit still and corporately receive the saving message of God’s envoy, together acknowledging that apart from this grace we are in the same sinking ship. Discipline, in its extreme exercise, is fundamentally exclusion from the sacrament and its shared presence.
I have probably thought more about the means of grace in the last two months than anything else. The two big questions are the flip sides of a coin: “How shall we keep people from them?” and “How shall we bring people to them?”
Reflecting upon our real absence from the means of grace, I was reminded that whatever workaround we can come up with in our human wisdom can’t compare, can’t replace the divine wisdom of the means of grace. They are unique, and irreplaceable.
Like many church leaders, our church initially scrambled to come up with solutions to canceled gatherings on the Lord’s Day. We wrestled with whether to stream the entire liturgy, or just send our members a pre-recorded sermon. We wondered, are people really participating in corporate worship from home, is there true communion of the saints at a distance? I think not. Then why stream a service? Don’t we risk leading the flock astray by encouraging them to emulate the divine service in their living room?
Perhaps the most counter-cultural claim here is that the preached word cannot be fully received remotely. It would require its own article to defend, but I think the claim is this: so long as the viewer at home is in control, he is not sitting under the word. He is in charge so long as he can pause and fast-forward and schedule his consumption, can dress and position and wander his body in whatever fashion pleases him, and need endure no limits on distractions. The sinner that remains in the drivers seat has not truly been summoned before the judgment seat of a holy God.
At the end of the day, I don’t think absence will make the heart grow fonder. I don’t believe the lack of the means of grace will strengthen our confidence in the means of grace. If these are God’s chosen methods of blessing his people, starving us of them can only lead to less blessing.
Yet there is an opportunity in this loss, an opportunity to teach via negativa. In streaming our services, it has therefore been a priority to convey to those at home what they are not receiving. Viewing a remote feed of a Christian worship service is not worship. You are not a participant in the divine dialogue, you cannot stand and renew your covenant oath, you cannot taste, smell, and feel your participation in Christ.
Why, then, provide a simulacrum of a service online? Ultimately, we believe even this image of a service can serve as a crutch, an extreme measure to be used only until one heals. A crutch is a temporary help that no healthy person ever wishes to adopt as a permanent means of conveyance.
The next phase of our response resulted from this experience and reflection upon real absence, and from the limitations being extended. We began to ask ourselves how we could provide the genuine means of grace even under severe constraints?
In our context, this has meant restoring the Lord’s Supper and holding two small communion services, feeding 17 saints each Lord’s Day (due to the order not to gather in groups of ten or more). We have been mindful to make attendance voluntary, preserving each member’s liberty to measure the risks of small gatherings and their potential risks to others. Theoretically, a church with multiple meeting spaces could easily multiply this number by two or four or six. In a month of Sundays our small church can spread a table in the wilderness for 68, though one can imagine other churches communing and gathering many more in small worshiping groups.
We may not be able to commune our entire congregation in a single gathering. But we can commune them once or twice a month, and in the intervening times reaffirm how important those irregular meals are. This is like intermittent fasting for the soul: real hunger satisfied with real food.
In the face of future restrictions, we are likely to move immediately to maximally preserving word and sacrament under limited offerings, rather than suspending the sacrament in total.
Yes, being a pastor is more than administering the means of grace: visiting, praying, counseling are all integral parts of wielding the crook. But the means of grace are the building blocks, the foundation, the medicine we feed our sheep when the crook draws them close. Without a regular flow of their life-giving power all our other efforts are in vain. The best counsel, the best prayer, ultimately relies upon the means of grace, it points sinners to Christ in them, and brings them closer to him in his word, his table, his holiness.
A pastor’s official title is Minister of Word and Sacrament. My provisional advice is simple: Pastors, do not abandon your post. Stand firm. Do your job.
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Washington, DC. In addition to occasional writing and teaching, he formerly worked for the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Defense.