June 2021 – Since COVID-19 spread to the United States in January 2020, the question of getting back to “normal” has been voiced by Americans of every age and walk of life, including frontline workers and virus victims, students and teachers, nursing home residents and family members, businesses and employees.
At first Americans believed life would return to normal relatively quickly, but that hope soon dwindled when each of the 50 states, governor by governor, issued emergency executive orders to address the pandemic.
Washington was the first state to do so on February 29, 2020, more than a month after the first national case of COVID-19 was officially confirmed there. Florida followed suit the next day, and within a week, California, Maryland, and New York declared statewide public health emergencies.
Now, 17 months later, the question has changed for most Americans. Even church and ministry leaders are beginning to wonder, Will things ever be normal again?
AFA Journal spoke with Dr. George Siemer about this and other questions surrounding the pandemic’s impact on the church. Siemer is dean of Faith Theological Seminary and Christian College (FTS), a post-secondary educational program of Faith Outreach Center (FOC) in Tampa, Florida.
Programs offered by FOC, besides vibrant Sunday school and worship, include a K3-12 school called Faith Outreach Academy, a faith-based counseling center, and active local and foreign mission ministries.
The reality of pandemic
In fact, Siemer and his senior pastor, Dr. George Walters, were returning from one of FOC’s annual college mission trips to Korea and Thailand when the pandemic first became reality.
“At the airport in Korea,” Siemer explained, “we were given masks and told that a virus had started in China. We had no concept of what was about to happen to the world.”
Siemer had no idea what was about to change for his own family either: “When we arrived back in the United States, I received a text that my oldest son, Joshua, had suffered a massive heart attack while at a conference in Washington, D.C. He had to be flown by helicopter to a special hospital due to the severity of the attack.”
Though Joshua recovered completely, the end of that mission trip also marked the end of life as Siemer had normally known it.
The rules of pandemic
With Florida one of the first states to experience the pandemic on a large scale, FOC leadership, including Siemer as dean of the seminary, decided early on that it was crucial to maintain a good testimony in their community.
“We observed the 10-person meeting limit imposed by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis,” said Siemer. “Almost all other activities at the church, academy, and college went virtual.
“Our church was already video-streaming Sunday and midweek services, so the meeting limit was enough for the band, video person, and pastor. However, all students had to do online courses with virtual teaching sessions. All regular fellowships, Bible studies, outreaches, and mission trips were canceled.”
For months, restrictions continued, but by fall 2020, Gov. DeSantis (R) started easing limitations on crowd sizes. At that point, FOC invited the congregation to come back and the students to return to the classroom.
“However,” Siemer explained, “we maintained our testimony by taking temperatures at the door, social distancing, and following mask requirements for congregants, staff, and students in the academy. Virtual attendance was still offered for students who preferred to stay home.”
Eventually, FOC’s ratio of in-person instruction to virtual learning increased to a 60-40 split in both the academy and seminary, though numbers are still not back to pre-pandemic levels.
FOC leadership consequently adapted more to meet the needs of their people by strictly cleaning and sanitizing buildings, constructing barriers, rearranging furniture, and conducting most individual conferences virtually.
The fears of pandemic
Siemer and other ministry leaders also sought the Lord through regular times of prayer and intercession in order to address the fears that sprang from the avalanche of information, both true and false, coming out about the virus and attempts to combat its effects. Siemer described this “fear of the unknown” as perhaps the most negative impact of the pandemic.
“It seems as if people have forgotten how to trust God,” said Siemer, “which, in turn, causes them to live in fear. They have forsaken ‘assembling together,’ even through Bible study or church attendance at home.”
In contrast, Siemer offered evidence of equally positive side effects of COVID-19 on the church, especially in the area of communication. Though current conversations may not always be face-to-face or by phone, people are taking time to talk with each other via texting, messaging, or other forms of social media.
“The conversations have also gone deeper and are not just superficial,” Siemer said. “People want to know if they are seeing Bible prophecy being fulfilled.”
Siemer thinks these conversations are necessary to address the question of whether life will ever be normal again.
The plan for pandemic
“I really think we are focusing on the wrong question,” Siemer explained. “If we believe the Bible, and we do, then we know this is part of God’s plan. And according to Bible prophecy, it has been part of the plan from the very beginning.”
Siemer continued: “COVID-19 did not take God by surprise. Neither did the quarantine, social distancing, masks, vaccines, or even the deaths. God is still on His throne. So we need not ask if life will ever be normal again; this is normal life.
“Now, we need to search the Scriptures, search our hearts, and ask ourselves how we should live as followers of Christ during this time. And I think a good place to start is with the ‘wee little man’ named Zacchaeus.”
Siemer laughingly recounted the Sunday school story from Luke 19 in which Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see Jesus as He came into Jericho.
“Through the simple act of climbing higher above the clamor of the crowd and finding a clear place to see and hear the Lord,” Siemer explained, “Zacchaeus was radically changed.
“And the prophet Isaiah declared that those who wait on the Lord will ‘mount up with wings like eagles.’ In both of these passages, we see that a powerful transformation occurs in a person when he changes his altitude.”
Likewise, after 17 months of ministering and teaching during this pandemic, Siemer believes the church must change its altitude. He encourages Christians to climb higher, above the clamor surrounding COVID-19, for a better view of Jesus.
“As believers,” Siemer concluded, “we must follow the mandate of Colossians 3:2 and set our minds on the things above, rather than the things on this earth. That’s the perspective we need to live victoriously – even in the midst of a pandemic.”
Dr. George Siemer first came to FOC in 1993 as a youth pastor with his wife Valarie and their two sons, Joshua and Andrew. Their son Aaron was born in 1998. In addition to his initial role at FOC, he has taught adult Bible study groups, discipled young men, and played bass for the church’s praise and worship team.
For more information on Faith Theological Seminary and Christian College or the other ministries of Faith Outreach Center, go to faithoutreachcenter.org.
For more insight into how churches can successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic, Thom S. Ranier has written The Post Quarantine Church. Read a review here.