What Pastors See as the ‘New Normal’ for Preaching After the Pandemic

COVID-19’s ministry disruptions are generating lasting insights.

The sanctuary was empty. But that didn’t distract Claude Alexander. He had just finished preaching from Jeremiah 8 on the temptation to despair amid COVID-19 and the hope found in Christ. As he called on musicians to sing “Lead Me to the Rock,” Alexander was visibly moved to tears by his sense of God’s presence, and worship continued another 30 minutes on the livestream. For Alexander, senior pastor of The Park Church—a 3,000-member predominantly black congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina—that late-spring worship service exemplified his surprising experience of preaching through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have had some of the most powerful times of worship preaching in a sanctuary with no people,” he said. Preaching without a congregation became “an undistracted offering to God” without the temptation “to respond to what I’m seeing in the pew.”

Enduring Insights

As the coronavirus forced pastors around the world to begin preaching to cameras rather than live congregations, not all pastors experienced the same intensity of worship as Alexander. Indeed, some had many Sundays that felt quite the opposite. Yet a diverse array of pastors interviewed by CT reported that the COVID-19 pandemic refocused them on the God-centered nature of preaching.

Initially, the changes were at a surface level. Pastors went from scanning the room during sermons to looking at a camera. They transitioned from leading altar calls to asking those with spiritual decisions to text a number displayed on their screens. Alexander (who serves on CT’s board of directors) even found himself telling listeners to tweet their responses of “amen” and “praise ...

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Let My People Meet: Mark Dever, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and Inconsistent Government Rules

Real violations of religious liberty occur when the government singles out churches, not when everyone has to follow the same rules.

In recent news, Mark Dever and the members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church has filed a complaint against the mayor of Washington D.C. Muriel Bowser. The basic message of the complaint centers around “…the right to gather for corporate worship free from threat of governmental sanction.”

For those who may not be familiar, here are some of the applications of Dever’s (and CHBC’s) ecclesiology:

  • CHBC doesn’t offer multiple services,
  • CHBC doesn’t utilize a multi-site model,
  • CHBC doesn’t offer worship online (not even during the pandemic)

Since mid-March, CHBC has not gathered as a corporate body. Interestingly, because of their close proximity, they have fled the city limits of D.C. and journeyed over into Virginia to hold outdoor services during the summer. Moreover, during the summer they filed an application with the Mayor’s Office seeking a waiver from the ban on large gatherings. When they heard nothing, they filed again.

Finally, earlier this month, they received a response: rejected.

For months, Dever and CHBC tried to go through the proper channels in order to plead their case to be able to gather corporately as a body. Having exhausted their channels, and not wanting to incur civil and administrative penalties, Dever, the leadership, and the church have chosen to take their case to court.

Religious Liberty Needs Defending

One would imagine that the complaint would be rooted in the First Amendment—the right to assemble. While this is true in part, the primary issue that CHBC has with Mayor Bowser is her inconsistency in upholding the First Amendment.

In other words, the Mayor has been “discriminatory” in the application of large gatherings. The complaint notes, ...

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Mental Illness and the ‘Medical Theodicy’ Trap

Why do we feel such a palpable sense of spiritual relief when the problem is with the body rather than the mind?

Five years ago I received a telephone call from a friend. She told me that one of our mutual friends had taken his own life. No one knew why.

Brian was a successful health-care professional, with a wife, a family, and an apparently very bright future. Many of us had not seen any indications that something was wrong, although those in close contact with him knew there were problems. He just got up one morning and was never seen alive again. Everyone was devastated.

What do you do with such news? One of the most painful human experiences must be to say goodbye to a loved one in the morning and then never see that person alive again. I was asked to do the sermon at the celebration of Brian’s life. I preached on the psalms of lament and the unending, unfailing love of God. I tried to help people see that the joy that God promises includes suffering and that the psalms of lament offer faithful language to express our hurt, brokenness, anger, and disappointment at what my friend had done and what God had seemingly not done: save him.

Two Affirmations

Brian was a Christian; he was a lover of Jesus, as were his family and many of his friends. And yet, despite the profound consolation of the gospel, for some, the first response to his death by suicide was not comfort but fear. In spite of the apostle Paul’s firm assurance that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39), they were afraid for Brian’s eternal future. I guess that is the problem with hypercognitive theologies that assume ...

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Mark Dever’s Capitol Hill Baptist Sues to Not Forsake the Assembly

Without online preaching or multiple services, the DC church crossed state lines to gather legally during the pandemic.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church this week became the first house of worship to file suit against Washington, DC, for its ongoing restrictions on religious gatherings meeting indoors or outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post reported.

The move by Capitol Hill Baptist—a 1,000-person congregation led by Mark Dever, the founder of the 9Marks church network—resembles arguments for equal treatment and First Amendment rights launched by churches in Nevada and California amid COVID-19 shutdowns. However, the DC congregation’s legal fight is uniquely tied to its theological beliefs around how a church should gather.

Dever has long resisted multi-site, multi-service models of church, though they are very popular among fellow Southern Baptists. The DC Baptist church does not stream services online, and hasn’t made an exception to that rule during the pandemic.

As noted in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, “Gathering as one church in a single worship service is an essential component of [Capitol Hill Baptist]’s exercise of religion.”

In the current phase, the District’s coronavirus precautions limit socially distanced indoor or outdoor gatherings to 100 people or half of a building’s capacity, whichever is fewer.

The city has, however, let non-religious groups gather far beyond the COVID-19 limits. The suit points out that the mayor allowed outdoor rallies that numbered in the thousands over the summer and even attended some of these events.

The church supports the mayor’s participation, but argues that religious gatherings should not be treated differently. According to the lawsuit, “the First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship.”

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Why the Supreme Court Makeup Matters Beyond Abortion

Legal experts cite religious freedom and free speech among the major issues for evangelicals in a post–Ruth Bader Ginsburg court.

Last week’s death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg represents the third opportunity for President Donald Trump to nominate a Supreme Court justice.

A third of evangelicals by belief cited Supreme Court nominees and abortion stance as reasons for voting for Trump in 2016. Many evangelicals and pro-life Americans have celebrated the possibility that another conservative justice could shift the Court toward overturning Roe v. Wade and reshaping abortion law in the country. Yet the new makeup of the Court will address crucial issues for the church that extend far beyond abortion.

CT asked legal experts how a new Supreme Court appointment replacing Ginsburg stands to affect evangelicals outside of Roe v. Wade. Here are their responses, calling out issues such as religious freedom, racial equality, child protection, and free speech.

Barry P. McDonald, law professor at Pepperdine University:

As it stands, the Supreme Court is controlled by a majority of five solid conservative justices who either have a strong record of supporting religious freedom rights or give every indication that they will develop such a record. If President Trump succeeds in appointing Justice Ginsburg’s successor, that will likely add one more justice to this coalition. While an additional vote is not necessary to maintain this trend, it could prove important to religious freedom proponents in cases where Chief Justice John Roberts might moderate his vote in an attempt to shield the Court as an institution from charges that it has become too political and divisive (or where any conservative justice moderates his or her vote for whatever reason). This is most likely to occur in cases where religious beliefs might conflict with laws prohibiting discrimination ...

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Pandemic Denial Sows Division and Endangers Others

When pastors and church leaders deny that we are even in a pandemic, it can cause wide-ranging problems.

Yesterday, as the United States passed a grim milestone, I tweeted:

As of today, 200,000 dead in the United States. Just a reminder that we are still in a global pandemic, even if your pastor says it is not.

Most pastors were overwhelmingly positive—the tweet was widely shared, with hundreds of retweets and thousands of likes. Many pastors and church leaders indicated they shared the same concern.

However, some were upset. Some pastors felt attacked, which may be understandable if you denied a global pandemic.

If not, there seems to be no reason to see my statement as controversial.

Let me explain.

Pastors who deny the pandemic are wrong and spreading misinformation.

I’ve been trying to understand why some pastors would deny that COVID-19 is a global pandemic. I had hoped that pastors would not be easily fooled by a recent Facebook meme saying this pandemic has been downgraded to an outbreak.

USAToday easily debunked this claim with, “Fact Check: COVID-19 is still a pandemic, even if CDC site calls it an 'outbreak'

We rate this claim as FALSE. The meme is wrong. No element of it is true. The COVID-19 outbreak, while often described in that way, is still a pandemic and has been since March 11.

And, I hope they did not join in the misunderstanding of the 6% stat, which was not “quietly updated,” and has been clearly debunked by just about everyone in the medical establishment.

As a professor of epidemiology and statistician explained in USAToday:

None of us will live forever, so death is always a matter of when, not if. That many people who have died of COVID-19 may have been closer to death than the rest of us does not change the fact that the virus killed them before their time.To argue that ...

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Some Things Mean More: The Friendship of Ginsburg-Scalia

How do we foster friendships that transcend polarization?

“He is something of a pagan, and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.”

This was the reflection of G.K. Chesterton on his friend George Bernard Shaw. As was characteristic of his biting wit, Chesterton simultaneously poked fun at Shaw and those who devalued his friendship with an atheist.

Just as in Chesterton’s day, these friendships continue to befuddle us. How would that even work? Like a rotary phone, they appear to be a relic of a bygone age that is no longer available.

Yet with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her relationship with the late Justice Anton Scalia provides us with a fresh example of a friendship that transcended our polarization. Revered by liberals, Ginsburg was the ideological opposite of Scalia in nearly every respect. Despite these differences, the two were “the best of friends,” dating back to their time on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In recent weeks, the Ginsburg/Scalia friendship has become a central narrative in the celebration of their lives and legacies. In articles, on social media, and in person, people across the political spectrum will praise the friendship as a role model for civic engagement in a liberal democracy. When asked how they were able to maintain a friendship despite profound differences, Ginsburg answered:

“We know that even though we have sharp disagreements on what the Constitution means, we have a trust. We revere the Constitution and the Court, and we want to make sure that when we leave it, it will be in as good a shape as it was when we joined the Court.”

This is part of why the friendship of Ginsburg and Scalia rings so powerfully in our ears today. The questions that fill interviews and articles ...

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The Supreme Court Needs to Be Less Central to American Public Life

Here’s what evangelicals should expect—and not expect—from the highest court in the land.

Every summer I get reacquainted with the sound of bullhorns. That’s because every June I find myself on the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States, waiting with crowds of other people for a high-stakes decision. The crowds there are mostly peaceable, but there are always the fringes on both sides screaming into microphones at one another. While waiting for the Obergefell decision on marriage, I witnessed Westboro Baptist Church types screaming that they would delight in the others going to hell, while men dressed in drag as nuns shouted obscenities right back.

Regardless of the year, every June brings the certainty of large and contentious crowds. And that’s because, even for people who give no thought to legal philosophy, the Supreme Court is at the center of virtually all our national fissures.

Now with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we are on the precipice of another fiery dispute between the competing halves of the country about the future of the Court, maybe even fierier than the debate over Justice Kavanaugh two very long years ago.

As evangelical Christians, what should we hope is the end result of these transitions? Ultimately, we should hope for a future where the Supreme Court plays a less central (and less divisive) role in our public life. But the more immediate answer depends on our having a realistic view of what can change and what will not change under the current circumstances.

What will not change—barring some unimaginable circumstance—is the question of whether a justice will be confirmed. As with the death of Justice Scalia, this vacancy comes in a presidential election year, this time even closer to the election. Americans debate whether President Trump should ...

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Rediscovering the Pedagogical Power of Narnia

C. S. Lewis’s fiction can teach virtue, according to a new curriculum. But the true potential is so much more.

My mother read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at night, while the four of us—my father half-listening while reading a novel of his own—lay on my parent’s enormous bed. I remember such strong emotion. When we got to The Last Battle, the final installment, I felt warm affection for the foolish donkey Puzzle, grief at the fall of Narnia, sharp frustration at the dwarves who couldn’t see the truth of a remarkable feast set before them.

As a parent myself, now, and a teacher and an Anglican priest, I’ve been revisiting the Lewis of my childhood. What did I learn in Narnia? Did the stories of the Pevensie children encourage me towards virtue? More importantly, through loving Aslan was I better prepared to love Jesus?

According to a new character curriculum, Narnian Virtues, the Narnia stories can powerfully move, mold, and direct young readers. Designed by education professors Mark Pike and Thomas Lickona, the curriculum teaches “universal virtues” to children ages 10 to 14 using The Chronicles of Narnia. It is supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and has been taught at a variety of schools, both secular and Christian, as part of a pilot program designed to test the possibility of teaching virtue in Narnia.

This program is not aimed at mere “behavior management,” according to the educators. Rather, it is designed to teach students “to know the good, to love the good, and to do the good” based on the belief that “the Narnia novels have the capacity to motivate a wide range of readers to make efforts to develop the will as well as the skill needed for good character.”

The pilot program’s qualitative results show ...

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Thai Church Holds Record-Breaking Baptism Despite COVID-19

“We believe it is the merciful hand of God to allow the gospel to spread at this crucial time.”

Things weren’t looking good for the Thai church at the start of 2020. The southeast Asian nation was the first outside China to report a coronavirus case, and analysts feared a long, overwhelming outbreak.

Instead, Thailand is now being praised as one of the only places that was able to effectively contain the pandemic. After a countrywide lockdown in the spring and continued precautions, it celebrated 100 days without a case COVID-19 at the start of September.

Later that week, an evangelical church-planting movement in central Thailand celebrated a milestone of its own—one that wouldn’t be possible without the word of mouth conversations, house gatherings, and in-person testimonies it relies on to spread the gospel.

The Free in Jesus Christ Church Association (FJCCA) held the largest baptism in its history and, it says, the history of the church in Thailand. FJCCA, a Thai-led movement that focuses on village-level evangelism, baptized 1,435 people in a single day on September 6.

Twenty ministers lined up across the same waist-deep reservoir waters that some of them were baptized in, waiting for new believers to come one-by-one from the shore to proclaim their faith and be submerged for the sacrament. The event took two hours.

CT covered FJCCA’s historic growth in a 2019 cover story. That year, the association held a baptism of 520 people that national church leaders said was the largest they’d ever seen in their majority-Buddhist country. This month’s baptism was nearly triple its size.

“It is truly a mystery to the world as to why Thailand has been spared during the COVID pandemic,” said Bob Craft, whose Reach a Village ministry supports FJCCA. “We believe it is the merciful ...

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The Kingdom of God and the Supreme Court of the United States

Thoughts on the kingdom of God and the common good.

The phrase, “The Kingdom of God,” has been in the news recently given Amy Coney Barrett’s reported use of the phrase. She is, it appears, on President Trump’s short list of nominees to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died last week.

The Kingdom of God was even trending on Twitter.

As one can imagine given our tense and toxic political environment, many Democrats (and a few Republicans) are unhappy about the prospect of President Trump nominating a Supreme Court Justice between now and the election on November 3rd. Many of them, including former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, believe that President Trump should postpone the nomination until after the election.

Not only are many Democrats upset that President Trump may proceed with a nomination, some are uncomfortable with Amy Coney Barrett, the supposed front runner for the nomination.

Why would many Democrats be uncomfortable with Barrett? There are many reasons, I am sure. Aside from being mentored by Antonin Scalia and a proponent of originalism, statutory interpretation, and stare decisis, we also know (from a past hearing) that some are uncomfortable with her devout Roman Catholic beliefs. As I wrote during her last nomination hearing, for some Democratic senators, this dogma won’t hunt.

See my full article: This Dogma Won't Hunt: Feinstein, Durbin, Sanders, and the New Religious Test for Office

For Barrett', her faith clearly intersects with her vocation. While speaking to graduates of the Notre Dame Law School years ago, Professor Barrett addressed what it meant to be a “different kind of lawyer.” She stated, a “legal career is but a means to an end. . . and that end is building the kingdom ...

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