How God revitalized my church during the pandemic

Written by Jesse Kane

When my fiancée’s dog Thor died, it hit us hard. What struck me the most was the finality and weight that death brought on us.

No longer would we be greeted by a bounding Bernese mountain dog, or feel his happy nuzzles. There would be no tug at the end of a leash on meandering evening walks. There was an immense silent nothing.

We prayed from my favourite prayer book, Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey (Rabbit Room Press, 2017):

“Be near us, O God. Be near each of us who must reckon with the sorrow of death and the sting of separation, for what we feel in this loss is nothing less than the groan of all creation.”

Many have lost so much more than a dog in this season, and the weight of absence has been a far greater burden for them. If there were a theme for this pandemic, it might be absence.

Not only have we found loved ones absent, but we ourselves have been absent from our workspaces, our churches, and our families. In our solitude, we may also find ourselves praying alongside the psalmist:

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2)

Feeling like God is absent stings. Recently, my church went through a period where some of us felt like God had abandoned us. We were divided over issues on women as leaders, and after a congregational vote, the lead pastor’s contract was not renewed by a dishearteningly narrow margin.

For many, it felt like God had left the building. As a pastor, I felt like I had failed to lead. Maybe I was the reason He felt absent here?

But then, what had started as frustration with doing endless Bible studies ended up being a crack in the ceiling for divine grace to spill through.

We’d been frustrated with Bible studies because it seemed like attending them was our sole purpose as a church. I believe God speaks through his Word, but He felt absent and our discussions grew hollow. Something was missing. We took a break from Bible studies and prayed.

We experimented a bit, and eventually, we landed on a practice that suited us well: we sat quietly and listened for God speaking to us. We waited for a picture, a word, a verse, anything God had to give us, then discerned it with the group.

As we turned our attention to God, we were surprised to find He had lots to say. God reminded us of our Bible study in Ephesians and spoke new life into a call for unity. He resurrected our church leadership in a season when they were falling apart.

We took a retreat as a leadership team and listened for God to speak. He reminded us that we needed to rely on Him and on each other and that our frantic hurry to fix our dying Church was silly. Only He could accomplish what we needed.

All of this happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m bewildered as to how our Church has flipped directions in the middle of so many limitations. We’re careful to follow social distancing protocols and have met online as much as possible.

Our in-person attendance is as scattered as it’s ever been. Yet, we’re full of a life that’s not our own. God wasn’t absent like we thought; we had just forgotten Him. That might not have been the only issue, but it was a foundational one.

It’s ridiculous to imagine a church running around as if God doesn’t exist—like a chicken with its head cut off. Yet it’s so easy to get caught up in a secular frame of mind where everything is on you to accomplish. If your church attendance is dwindling and people’s spiritual lives are floundering, who doesn’t start strategizing about how to fix those problems?

We were never meant to save the Church. We are the Church because God is saving us.

Whatever you’ve lost during the pandemic, nothing is beyond the reach of God’s redeeming presence.

As McKelvey writes, “We know that the final working of your redemption will be far-reaching, encompassing all things in heaven and on earth, so that no good thing will be lost forever, so that even our sorrow at the loss…will somehow, someday, be met and filled, and, in joy, made forever complete.”