(A few thoughts from Rev. Dr. Ryan Tinetti, Trinity Arcadia, forwarded to our congregation by Pastor Jason Bauer.)
All the pastors around the table were thinking the same thing.
I recently had the opportunity to get together with some fellow brothers in ministry and to break bread together—the first time doing so in months. The time together of conversation, confession and absolution, and prayer was deeply enriching. It’s along the lines of what Martin Luther called “the mutual consolation of the brethren.”
In the course of the discussion about our families, football, and forthcoming Lent, the question was raised: “What’s keeping you up at night nowadays?” Sighs and knowing looks at one another. Then one of the group finally piped up with what we were all thinking: “That they’re not coming back.”
This is what is keeping pastors up at night right now: the concern that the people of God who have drifted away from the church over the last year aren’t coming back.
The devil delights to have sheep who are content in their ruts.
The concern of the shepherds
Surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that less than half of Christians who would regularly attend worship—not to mention those of more tenuous connection—have returned to the gathered fellowship. At first some of those folks, perhaps many, were engaging with online and virtual services. But those numbers too have plummeted as the months have worn on.
To be sure, many have stayed away out of health necessity or on otherwise reasonable grounds. We are all adjusting and adapting to extraordinary circumstances and doing what we believe is best for ourselves and our families. So please know that, for myself and for the other pastors in this conversation, there wasn’t a hint of being judgmental or unsympathetic. To the contrary, to a man, all these pastors and countless others across the country have gladly gone above and beyond the call of duty to reach God’s people.
And so why do I bring this up, if not for a guilt trip? I want to let you all in on the concern of your shepherds. We became pastors because we are devoted to God’s Word, and delight in applying it and imparting it to His church. We became pastors because, as Jesus enjoined Peter, we want to “feed [His] sheep.” But we fear that many of those sheep may have fallen into ruts over the last year that they won’t soon be escaping.
Escaping our ruts
And so allow me to offer this gentle pastoral admonition, motivated by concern for your spiritual welfare. Take stock of the habits that you’ve developed over the course of the pandemic (both good and not-so-good). Be mindful about what you want to encourage and what you want to discourage—especially when it comes to the life of faith. Think about what has changed over the last year for the better, and also about what you wish to curtail at the earliest opportunity.
And this is the key. Press yourself to answer this question: what will have to be true for me to change? I have in mind here especially with respect to resuming regular communion in the church, but you could certainly broaden your scope. It is helpful actually to consider what your “tripwires” are, so to speak. Is it when you receive immunity, whether by vaccination or infection? Is it when certain governmental restrictions are lifted? Is it when particular benchmarks are reached? Whatever it is, be honest with yourself and stick to it.
Because here’s the thing: for better and for worse, we’re creatures of habit. We get into ruts rather easily. And without trying to sound too dramatic, the words of The Screwtape Letters seem relevant: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” The devil delights to have sheep who are content in their ruts.
But you don’t have to stay there. Christ has pulled you out of the eternal rut of sin, death, and hell. The Spirit of God dwells in you, continually giving new life. Your brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ are walking with you through this ordeal. And your pastor is here for you and is praying for you—not least on those occasions when he finds himself kept awake in the night.
Rev. Dr. Ryan Tinetti, Trinity Arcadia