This blog represents the thoughts of the author. While they may reflect the theological position of The Renewal Fellowship, they should not be seen as an official statement.
One of the most-encouraging aspects of church renewal is seeing the Holy Spirit work in surprising ways. When all appears to be without hope, a Saviour appears.
When churches around the world were forced to suspend in-person worship in mid-March, I was blown away by how many of my colleagues immediately opened their virtual doors and continued to provide weekly teaching and worship online.
With lightning speed, para-church organizations offered pastoral support to church leaders. The Centre for Missional Leadership at St. Andrew’s Hall starting ongoing one-hour weekly gatherings for church leaders on Mondays with a different presenter each week. Ligonier Ministries has been offering its online teaching for free. And so on.
It has pushed many of us to learn new technology.
It has allowed people to worship who otherwise might be shut in. In my congregation, a person with crippling arthritis is now participating for the first time in years, thanks to Zoom. A young family now tunes in regularly.
It has prompted a new ecumenical drive. Witness “The UK blessing” chorus, which has sent shivers through the bodies of believers everywhere since it was released May 3. I now watch and listen to it daily.
I may be a minority voice, but I believe the forced and unexpected shutdown of in-person activities may end up being a good thing for the church.
There are the immediate benefits mentioned.
Then there’s the “time will tell” department. I believe with all my heart that God’s hands are working all the time, and particularly so in times of trouble.
The longer this goes on, the more we can think about the true expression of church in the 21st century. For too long, we have clung to a worship practice with roots deeper than the industrial revolution. Our organizations were designed prior to Confederation, and even these were modelled on something out of the Reformation.
In the same way that rural municipalities are no longer tied to the township – a geographical area that a 19th century municipal worker could have covered in one day on horseback – why do churches remain so tied to their buildings, which sit empty 95 per cent of the time? (Yes, some are bustling seven days a week, and that’s great. But the majority are just struggling to pay the utilities and/or cough up enough for pulpit supply.)
Are we truly serving Christ? Few congregations today are focused primarily, if not exclusively, on the Great Commission, the parting words of our Lord, to “go into the world, baptize and teach.” That command closely followed our Lord’s words to Peter: “Feed my sheep” – take care of believers as a dedicated shepherd would protect and provide for a flock: ensure they are equipped to do the work to which they are called. To do that work, they need to know Scripture and its essential message, to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, was raised from the dead, to model their lives after His and be in agreement with His command to “deny yourselves, pick up your cross and follow me,” and to receive the Holy Spirit, like the apostles did on that Pentecost Day and to use the powerful gifts that He has provided.
And yet, too many of us are preoccupied with the negatives. This week, a petition to Reopen Ontario Churches was presented to the Premier of Ontario asking that churches be allowed to open their doors sooner than later.
It reads, in part: “Never before has the church been denied the opportunity to be with the sick in the hour of their death. Never before has the church ceased to celebrate the sacraments, pray together, offer counsel to the afflicted, visit the prisoner, officiate weddings and funerals, or fellowship together. The inhumanity of abandoning people in their deepest hour of grief or need is gut-wrenching for followers of Christ.”
Whoa. Who says we are abandoning people? Many of us have rediscovered the phone. We have re-learned the art of postal delivery. Who says we are unable to practice the sacraments? Well, baptism yes. But the Lord’s Supper, for those of us in reformed circles, can be celebrated online. This was done by a colleague of mine in a very powerful and memorable fashion in a Maundy Thursday service. I wish I had recorded it. (Note to self: enable automatic recording of Zoom gatherings.)
Yes, the radical downsizing of funerals is tragic. Families and friends have been prevented from sharing and receiving comfort and hope. But again, that’s only physical. We can still meet in small groups of five or fewer and keep our distance. True, that physical touch, which Christ embodied, is absent. But do we truly believe that Christ can’t work via telephone, email, and virtual communication? I hope not. But the plaintive petition suggests otherwise.
It continues: “The consequences of the lockdown on people’s lives are far-reaching. We know as pastors that addictions are resurfacing, and that isolation, unemployment and economic ruin are taking their toll on family relationships and physical and mental health. Our service to the poor and disadvantaged in the community has been curbed, with serious implications for the most vulnerable. To save lives are we actually sacrificing lives? In short, we implore you that we must start meeting very soon because of our obligations to God and because our people need us. We cannot delay.”
True that. But again, reach out in other ways. I’m going to suggest that the social upheaval – and emotional, mental, spiritual and physical impacts – won’t actually be felt until autumn and winter. Churches will then be open again in a limited fashion. This time of closure is actually a God-given opportunity to get our acts together and plan for the social breakdown.
The last thing the church needs to be doing is putting one more piece of pressure on our governments, who are already weighed down by demands from business and industry to lift restrictions.
Thankfully, I haven’t seen any news coverage of the petition. That’s good, because I know how many unchurched people will react. All they care about is money, they say.
But again, will our good, good Father not provide what we need in good time and in bad? Yes and yes!
I don’t need the agreement of a co-operative secular government in order to be the church.
In the big picture, what we are enduring in the Western World is nothing compared to the daily threat of persecution and violence against believers in the rest of the world. In those places, the church – pure and authentic, Holy Spirit-filled and wholly submitted to Christ – is actually thriving.
May this be our inspiration – and may it bring true renewal.