On the 14th of March, as I was grinding out my sermon draft in preparation to preach in a couple of weeks time, I received the following text message from my pastor at 10:30pm with some rather unpleasant news…
“Heads up for you. Tomorrow will be the last Sunday we will meet for the rest of the month and possibly the foreseeable future.”
This was going to be the last Sunday we would gather together publicly in corporate worship. And to be frank, this was not news to me. A couple of days prior to this message, I was part of a conversation with our pastors, where they were discussing how they would implement the livestream as a pre-emptive strategy to continue hosting our regular Sunday church services in the event that the Australian Government would at some point ban mass gatherings.
But I didn’t realise how soon the pastor-elders had to make the call. I immediately called my assistant pastor to discuss the issue in further detail. And as we spoke, my heart sank as I thought of the imminent complications facing the life of our church.
After a few more moments on the phone with him, I asked my pastor,
“But what about my sermon? Should I still keep working on it?”
He replied, “I think you should put it on hold for now and we’ll discuss later in the week what is going to happen to our sermon series.”
After I hung up, I immediately strolled out the door to get some quick exercise and blow off some steam. And as I was resting in-between my working sets, I sighed and thought,
“Lord, what on earth are you doing right now?”
Disruptions all around the globe
I’m sure I’m not the only one who is frustrated by the unprecedented disruptions caused by COVID-19. This one malicious microbe has single-handedly brought wide-spread havoc to lives all across the globe: numerous countries have closed down their schools and universities, stock markets are crashing, sporting matches and concerts are being canceled, and airline businesses are closing down.
The impact on our world’s economy is catastrophic to be certain. But it seems as though the secular world is not the only thing that has been severely hit by this crisis.
Christians all around the world can no longer physically meet together for Sunday worship. Ministries of all sorts have been suspended. Upcoming training conferences and retreats have been postponed until further notice. Evangelistic events to reach out to the lost have been axed. It would seem also that the scale of the impact on our churches’ ecclesiastical unity, spiritual maturity, and evangelistic witness have also reached catastrophic levels.
I’m fortunate that my church has been able to resort to streaming their services online in compliance with the government directives to cease mass gatherings. These online services are a compromise between our desire to, as a community, mitigate the spread of the disease, and the paramount need to ensure God’s community can continue to meet and dwell under God’s Word. But some smaller churches don’t even have access to basic technological resources in order to live stream their services online!
Believers are already feeling restless from not being able to gather. The coronavirus is not only causing bodily symptoms of respiratory distress within those whom it has infected, but it is also seemingly causing spiritual unrest among those who are united in the universal body of Christ.
“Lord, what on earth are you doing right now?”
What God has taught me about ministry during this pandemic season
Many are beginning to ask questions about the future state of our world. And I am finding that it isn’t only the secularists who are asking these existential questions: believers are also pondering and wondering what God might be thinking for allowing this viral predicament to grow to the extent that we are currently facing.
“God, why have you allowed this to happen?”
Satan must be smiling at the little victory he is having, with COVID-19 not only ravaging the world that God dearly loves… but also stunting the growth of His heavenly kingdom…
…or is it?
What is God doing in the midst of this pandemic season? By God’s grace, I’ve been able to reflect profoundly upon these things and am beginning to see a glimpse of a number of different ministry lessons that He is trying to teach me during this global health crisis:
1. Ministry growth does not depend on our agency
It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves believing we are indispensable people in our churches when our ministries are healthy and growing. But those who believe that the vitality of their ministries heavily depends on them are in for a rude awakening when they realise their flawless ministry structures, meticulous budget planning, and sophisticated evangelism techniques have been quickly undone by the destructive work of one lonesome contagion.
Our Saviour-complexes quickly vanish when we realise we can no longer solve this problem that is bigger than ourselves. It is a grave reflection of the reality that we are not sovereign, but indeed, creatures of the dust who are destined to return to that state once more. The psalmist paints the fickleness of our existence with a brilliant analogy:
“The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.” (Ps. 103:15-16)
Ministries do not run and flourish solely upon our agency. If we have understood anything about God’s sovereignty, then it should lead us to conclude that we do not rule over His kingdom – He does. God will continue to grow His church, even in the midst of uncertain circumstances, and He doesn’t need our counsel on ministry strategy.
2. The church is not a place; it is a people
Our lives had to undergo numerous adjustments throughout the last couple of weeks and we anticipate that this trend will continue as our nation is potentially moving into a total lockdown. As I scrambled all week with our leaders to try and get our online meetings up and running for our university students, the number of drastic changes that are happening in our church have only just begun to dawn on me.
Church will never be the same again…
…But has it really changed?
Yes, it is terrible. We are all feeling the loss. But let us remember that though we might not be able to gather in the same format as we previously did, we will still meet every Sunday.
So long as we continue to gather to hear the voice of our Father as He speaks to us through the preaching of His Word, things haven’t changed.
So long as we continue to serve one another with our God-given gifts in community, things haven’t changed.
So long as we continue to magnify God, pouring our heart and soul into worship and praise, things haven’t changed.
We will continue to assemble together every Sunday as a church, because church is not defined by the place we meet, but by the people whom God has redeemed. Sunday gatherings may take on any shape or form, but we would never stop being God’s people.
Nothing has actually changed, has it?
3. There is no silver bullet for doing evangelism
And yet the perspective that the church is not a place but a people changes everything, as we foresee the limitless possibilities that worship and fellowship can create amidst the fluctuating circumstances.
The leadership board of our university student ministry has made the collective decision to axe our upcoming Good Friday evangelistic event. Needless to say, we were all disappointed. How are we going to continue witnessing the gospel to our non-Christian friends, if we can’t even invite them to church?
It didn’t even occur to me that perhaps different situations call for different measures. And I think the changing terrain is encouraging us to foster our imaginations to assess the plethora of new ways that we can be ambassadors of the Most High King in our broken world. No doubt it will be challenging… but not impossible!
In addition to abiding by healthcare regulations (such as washing hands and social distancing), we can display God’s love by helping to buy and deliver groceries to those in self-isolation or those who are physically unable to go themselves. Perhaps you could assemble care packages for the vulnerable and the elderly. Or you could financially support those whose income is under threat. Call and message your neighbours who are feeling lonely and isolated. And you could pray dearly for our government that they may make wise decisions to continue protecting the life of our nation. All these acts of charity must be done whilst also witnessing to others that the love that compels us to give and serve selflessly, comes from the One who gives His whole life as a ransom for many.
The alarmingly fast spread of COVID-19 into the world is a red herring that detracts from the real problem that would prove more lethal to the health of our global church. What’s potentially more concerning than the spread of this infection… is the spread of this contagious attitude of self-preservation among the members of our faith community. Times of anxiety and desperation seem to be the best conditions for people to thrive in the depths of their selfishness.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe this is the change we need to shake off our complacent habits and recognise that the world doesn’t revolve around us. Let’s not be afraid of serving our King and sharing His mercy and ministry to everyone around us.
So then, who is your neighbour? There is no better time right now to model Christ by loving our community in self-sacrificial giving!