At a time when churches are restricted in their activities, here’s 8 things we can be and do
Across the world, the physical doors of church buildings have been closing as lockdowns increasingly affect many nations. As Christians we all know that the Church is not the buildings, but the people, but when you take away the main meeting place and withdraw the ability to gather at all, it certainly raises interesting issues about what it means to be God’s people.
As a pastor, my mind, and those of pastors everywhere, have been hugely occupied in the last few weeks about what the local church can look like in the midst of draconian social restrictions. Even though we are so conscious of what we cannot do, I have been turning over in my mind what we can be and do as lockdown church. The ideas I came up with are certainly no exhaustive list. But, using the letters of the word “lockdown” as a guide, here’s 8 things we can be and do as local churches.
Lockdown church is:
Naked – yes, I know this is an interesting word, but please read to the end to find out why I have chosen it!
No amount of physical restrictions can affect the attitude of the human heart, if we choose to hold on to what is right. Just as the imprisoned Apostle Paul said that God’s Word is not chained (2 Timothy 2:9), so the same is true for the human heart. Love for God and for our neighbour remain the same priorities for us, whether we are able to meet together or not. To demonstrate this primary mark of love shows that we refuse to allow the physical walls that close around us to turn us inward for selfish ends. The New Testament teaches that we cannot love God who we cannot see, if we are not loving others who we can see (1 John 4:20). The interesting dynamic of lockdown society is that we see other people less. But seeing less should not mean loving less. In these lockdown days, we must in some ways make others “visible” to us, through phone calls or online contact. In this last week I have found myself reaching more for the trusty telephone to speak with people just to be more personal than email. The way we love may need to change, but our heart of love should be always present.
Lockdown church has an opportunity to re-think what generosity looks like, particularly with our immediate neighbours. In a free-moving society, the best contact we might have with our neighbours is a cheery wave as we drive off in our car in the morning. Now that our movement is heavily restricted, the world is not so much a global village; our focus has become our backyard. And it’s a moment to recognise that commodities like time are some of our most valuable treasures with which we can be much more generous. National restrictions may have taken some resources from our hands, but this provides a moment to innovate with what we do still possess. This leads us to the next point.
Lockdown church must necessarily be creative. So much that we do as a matter of routine has been taken from us: we cannot meet for gathered worship, we are prevented from meeting as smaller groups in homes or for prayer. All forms of face-to-face support and interaction have been curtailed. To obey the New Testament injunction not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25) now requires creativity. What has been routine must now take form with new reality. Sometimes with organisations there is not sufficient motivation to try new approaches. It is too comfortable to keep doing what we’ve always done. One advantage of the current crisis is that every church is being forced into fresh thinking. Old habits are being broken, tired wineskins are being shed, former frameworks are undergoing redefinition. When we finally find ourselves on the other side of this crisis, we might just discover we’re a Church less inclined to get stuck in a rut again.
Where I currently live in Auckland, New Zealand, it’s interesting that the word “kind” has been used a lot to try and guide people through this current crisis. The supermarkets have enjoined us to be kind as we go about our shopping. Even our Prime Minister has directed us towards the same sentiment. Of course, for the Church this is not a new message. We have always been called to kindness (Colossians 3:12). We’re told it’s one dimension of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). So, although it’s not a new message for the Church, I see kindness as one of the chief ways we can demonstrate God’s love to others while we are in lockdown. Creativity combined with kindness is a delicious cocktail that cannot fail to refresh the wounded soul. Imagine the incredible effect across our communities if every scattered Christian every week performed even one act of kindness towards someone.
These are not days for the faint-hearted. Local churches will come under new stresses and strains across the coming days and weeks. John Wimber, who founded the Vineyard movement of churches, said that faith should be spelled R-I-S-K. On many occasions when God’s people entered a new environment, the encouragement was to find courage (for example Joshua 1:9). Now is such a time. This is a moment when trust in God becomes real, not just something we talk about. How often do we live in ways that wouldn’t be much different if you took God out of the picture? This is a time to watch what God is doing and join in. Such a church is a daring church, whose hand is firmly placed in God’s guiding hand.
At first, I slightly recoiled to choose this adjective, because it can infer a sense of being cunning or devious. But here the meaning I employ is that of resourcefulness, the sense that the Church is making the most of every opportunity (Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5). The days of lockdown church are definitely a call to be opportunistic, simply because many of the usual chances we have for ministry and outreach have been prevented. But we should not let paralysis set in. Creativity (mentioned above) is proactive innovation; opportunism is reactive innovation. To be opportunistic is to see significance beyond what has just been experienced, to seize the moment through a particular response that will achieve much.
The current global crisis is making people ask big questions about life and as local churches we certainly have a great opportunity to open up safe spaces where people can explore those questions. The Alpha Course has recently moved to offer an online format to take advantage of the current situation and I’d love to offer this through my church in the coming weeks.
In these days as local churches we must expect to be surprised at when and how we may have opportunities to partner with God at work with His transforming love and power. In these days it should become more common that we find ourselves saying, “Today I had the opportunity to do something for God that I’ve never done before.”
Lockdown church has gone online! How fortunate that this crisis has befallen us in times when the internet and communication technology allow us to stay in touch in so many ways. Over the last few weeks, most churches have been on a steep learning curve about live-streaming services. But beyond the practicalities of broadcasting services to scattered people, lies the deeper work of what creating online community looks like. Although churches have used social media for many years, we’ve never been in a situation quite like now, where face-to-face contact is so limited and we are relying on online communication so much more. It is too early to say how our online endeavours will go, but we all know how important a role the web will play in how we communicate and foster relationships across these lockdown days.
I use this word in a similar way to how it appears in a phrase like, “the naked truth.” Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver coined the phrase, “The Naked Chef” for his first book. He wrote, “The title The Naked Chef sums up the idea: it’s basically stripping food back to the bare essentials. It’s me cooking at home, sociable, simple food with my friends, stuff you can put in the middle of the table, on real occasions.” (1) The lockdown church is naked in the sense that our current circumstances take us back to the core of who we are. Stripped of our church buildings, our usual structures and resources, we will become whatever our core vision and values have really been. This is a time when any discrepancies between what we have said our values are, and what they really are, will become more noticeable. Lockdown church cannot hide behind the paraphernalia of our services, meetings and structures. Lockdown church is undisguised church. We’re stripped back to the true treasures of the church (as St Lawrence once said) – the people themselves, and their hearts and lives before God. I find myself wondering if this time could look quite different from church to church. For some, the previous clarity of their core will now lead to even greater effectiveness of their mission. But others may discover that in stripped back form, their heart as a church is not as clear as they thought it was. In that case, this time should help to bring greater clarity and that could be a most beneficial outcome. One way or another, for the Church to become “The Naked Church” could be an unexpected blessing.
The current Covid-19 crisis may cause us all kinds of fears and anxieties as we try to redefine what being God’s people should look like. Church in the midst of lockdown sounds like it could only be a negative experience for us. In my view, not so. Although there are some things we cannot do, there are good options that are only a decision away. We can excel in love and kindness, with a creative open-handedness that mirrors the heart of God. With courage we can seize every new opportunity, including what the internet offers in ways that reflect the undisguised core of our vision and values.
Two thousand years ago, some friends of Jesus found their lockdown world blown apart by the entrance of a risen Saviour who specialised in walking through walls (John 20:19-20). The One who Himself had been in the lockdown of the grave, now had triumphed over death and spoke a peace into their midst which transformed their fear into joy. The Church’s ministry can never be curtailed since its Lord cannot be pinned down. The physical walls and doors we must close around ourselves at this time cannot keep out the Lord of life. So may the Church find creative ways to transcend our physical restrictions, within our respective national requirements, so that the presence of the risen Christ would be powerfully known within the households of our nations, bringing peace, life and hope.
1. Oliver, J, The Naked Chef, 1999, Michael Joseph publishers, London, 1999, back cover text