Why Return to Church In Person?

I have friends in places where the church is now able to meet again.  Here we are able to have small groups gathering for home groups (limited in number, and only outdoors).  Eventually we will be able to meet on Sundays as a whole church.  But even then, there will be limitations and hassle – social distancing measures, some restrictions, some unable to meet because of heightened personal vulnerability.  It is going to feel complicated for quite a while!

So, after months of “meeting” online, or even just watching some elements of church services online, we have all grown accustomed to a much freer Sunday.  It has become normal to just tune in on a Sunday, or if anything else is going on, to not bother at all without anyone knowing.  And most churches will presumably continue to livestream in some way because some people can’t be there in person.  So why return to church and meet in person if possible?

I was thinking about this and then saw David Gundersen’s article on the Crossway site giving 10 reasons to return to church.  His reasons are: we’re embodied creatures, the church is one body, the Spirit is drawing us, we’re a spiritual family, preaching is a sacred moment, there’s nothing like singing together, we need baptisms and communion, you have a job to do, our worship is a witness, and greetings change lives.

Without repeating too many of those good reasons, here are 5 more reasons to meet, in person if possible, from me:

1. To let your shepherds shepherd you.  I think I can speak for most in church leadership when I say that we have been trying, but it is much harder to care for people you can’t meet.  So we have been praying for you, trying to stay in contact with you, and learning how to put elements of church online for you.  But we’ve also discovered even more keenly how hard it is to shepherd without the regular interactions of normal church life.  That is where little conversations and interactions allow people to notice when each other are struggling, or just “not themselves.”  Meeting in person if possible is key to knowing where to pour pastoral energy.

2. To play your part in building the body of Christ.  What is true for those in pastoral positions of responsibility is true for us all.  Your brothers and sisters at church need you to care, encourage, ask questions, greet, smile, check in, share life, and every other aspect of lively fellowship.  A normal Sunday may not seem spectacular, but just as others can make a difference in your life, so you make a difference in theirs.

3. To show yourself who you are.  I’m not sure how to write this one, but let me try.  You can say you belong to Jesus and are trusting Him for your salvation and with your eternity.  But if active in person participation in the body of Christ becomes an option again, but instead you would rather be less inconvenienced and just watch a bit of church online, or maybe not at all … what are you really declaring to yourself?  I’m trying not to move into guilt trip zone and twist your arm to be there because you should.  I just mean what are you saying to yourself?  We are all capable of self-justifying with the “I can worship God just as much on a walk in the woods or in my living room at home as I can at church” type of statements.  But do you?  Maybe it would be healthier to be honest with ourselves, “I love Jesus and his people a bit, but I love my own comfort and this TV show more.”

Drifting spiritually is a danger for us all and being honest about it is much more helpful.  The red hot coal soon cools off when separated from the fire.  Maybe you have decided you aren’t trusting Christ for salvation any more and don’t want to be part of his people after all – that is desperately sad, but say so, say it so you can hear it yourself and make sure you are settled on that course.  Don’t just drift and deny you are drifting – that is such a rubbish way to go.  And if you aren’t giving up on Christ, then jump back into in person church when you can – its actually only a small statement to yourself in the big scheme, but it is an important one.

4. To reconnect with family.  Your church may have handled the lockdown differently.  We have combined livestreaming with some Zoom gatherings.  But some people really struggle with Zoom for various reasons.  You may not have interacted with those choosing to only view the church service elements for months.  In person if possible will be a family reunion.  You are part of the family and it will be precious to be together.

5. Because the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.  John Wesley said that and he was right.  As you read through Acts and the epistles you will see reference after reference that assume ‘in person if possible’ is the context for church life and health.  Lockdown hasn’t changed that.

5 Insights Into Your Feelings Under Lockdown

As we live through this lockdown, we are being given a unique opportunity to observe ourselves under different and difficult circumstances.  It is as if we are in a laboratory, with lots of normal elements taken out of our lives.  What we may be discovering is that we are experiencing emotions in a way that we are normally too busy to notice.

Traditionally the church has not been very good at talking about the subject of emotions.  Many of us were raised to feel bad about feeling, as if good Christians should not really feel a whole lot of anything.  Others of us were raised with a modified view that we should feel bad about feeling bad.  It is as if there are some acceptable feelings, but also some that are automatically bad.  If we feel these “bad” feelings, then we may blame ourselves and confess these feelings to God, looking for a quick escape into the good category.  Or we may blame the person that made us feel that way, convinced that they must be wrong because of the feeling that was stirred up.

In real life it is not so easy to categorize every feeling as good or bad.  Good feelings can come from bad choices.  Bad feelings can be a good thing.  The fear I feel when I hear glass smash downstairs in the night is a good thing – it wakes me up, keeps me awake and gives me the focus I need to go downstairs and confront whatever is going on.

Feelings are like the lights on the dashboard of your car.  They indicate that something is going on, and they prompt you to connect.  I don’t drive my car better by covering over and ignoring all the lights on the dashboard.  Nor do I drive my car with my head through the steering wheel looking only at those lights.  But when a light comes on, I take that as a prompt to action, a prompt to connect.  With my car I call the mechanic who can figure out the issue and fix it.  With my life, I need to seek out other believers and I need to seek out God.  He created us with an incredible set of emotions to help drive us through the challenges of life, but he never intended us to travel that path alone.

Biblically, we could look at the Gospels and see the emotions of Jesus, with dozens of discernible emotional reactions evident in his life.  We could look at the people who met Jesus, and notice how the numbing effect of this world was reversed by encountering Jesus – people left Jesus feeling so much more alive!  But instead, I’d like to look at an old favourite Psalm for a few more observations to help us – Psalm 73.

This Psalm was written by Asaph, a worship leader in Israel.  Let me just make some quick observations about this text that may be helpful to us today:

1. Conflicted – The believer, even the leader among God’s people, can experience contradictory and conflicted feelings.In the first two verses we see Asaph, the worship leader, declaring that God is good to Israel, “but as for me…” He has almost slipped over to the other side, almost stumbled into giving up on God. Even though we are in ministry, we can still feel conflicted on the inside.  We can know and even feel the truth of God, but also struggle with contradictory feelings pulling us away from Him.

2. Convinced – What we feel is often based on what we see, and so we can be convinced that the feeling reflects reality. From verses 3-15 we see Asaph’s “reality.” He saw the prosperity of the wicked, how they arrogantly dismissed God, and yet thrived.  Their lives were a contradiction to all he knew, and yet they lived long and happy lives, without being held to account, without consequences.  He knew this was wrong, but it felt so true.  Our issue today may not be envy of the wicked, although it could be.  Maybe we only see difficult financial circumstances due to the pandemic, or we only see grief and people unresponsive to the gospel, or we only see and feel the hopeless tension in our homes.  What we see feels so complete and so real.  But it could still be wrong.

3. Clarity – We only see clearly when we come to God.In verses 16-17 everything changes for Asaph. He comes to the sanctuary of God and suddenly the whole Psalm turns upside down.  The reality of who God is, where He chose to dwell, and all of the history and reality wrapped up in that tent pierce the balloon of Asaph’s despair and flood his heart with perspective.   Actually, it is helpful to remember that only as we come close to God can we see reality clearly.

4. Confusion – With hindsight we often see how confused we were, even though we felt so convinced. From verse 18, Asaph now is seeing how precarious the wicked are, how their day of reckoning is coming. And in verses 21-22 he looks back on how he was before.  Now with clearer perspective he sees that he was brutish and ignorant, like a beast.  Maybe you and I have been there too.  After a big mess up we can so easily look back and say, “I was so stupid, what was I thinking!?”  Knowing our capacity to be so convinced, and so wrong, maybe it is good to not linger long away from God!  Maybe this lockdown is causing you to consider something that later will cause you to cry out, “I was so stupid, what was I thinking!?”  Starting a foolish relationship, ending a God-given relationship, restarting a problematic drinking habit, or whatever.  People under pressure feel all sorts of things, and those feelings are based on something going on, and those feelings feel so real.  Be careful.

5. Comfort – God’s presence is the comfort we need in the midst of difficult times. From verse 23-28, Asaph seems to be almost triumphant, but that would be to misread this passage.  It is not saying everything changed when he came into the sanctuary and now those circumstances were all different.  They weren’t.  Everything that had bothered him before was still true.  The difference is that now he is facing difficult circumstances with an awareness of the comfort of God’s presence.  God holds his right hand.  God guides him with counsel.  These assurances wouldn’t be necessary if everything was now perfect.  And so he finishes with another “But for me” – unlike in verse 2, in verse 28 Asaph can now say, “But for me…it is good to be near God.”

This lockdown is stirring all sorts of emotions and feelings in us.  We will be tempted to trust those feelings because they are based on the reality that we see all around us.  Our problem is not the feelings.  Our problem will be if we leave God out of processing the feelings he created us to have.  Our feelings indicate something about what is going on in our hearts.  Our feelings should prompt us to connect – with trusted others, and especially with God himself.

God’s Great Story and You – Part 4 … What is a Christian?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1, click here for part 2,  click here for part 3.  And here is the final part:

What is a Christian?

The name was originally an insult – a “mini-Christ.” But today the word gets used in so many ways. To really understand what a Christian is, we need to be clear what Jesus invites people to be and what he offers to people.

A follower of Jesus. Jesus invited people to become his followers. That is, to become like apprentices, following him, learning from him, copying him, becoming like him. A Christian is a follower of Jesus.

The problem is that naturally nobody really wants to give up their lives and live for Jesus. Take the example of Nicodemus in John 3. Nic was at the top of the religious, social, economic and cultural totem pole, as it were. He was highly educated, influential, wealthy and successful. But when he came to Jesus to talk about the kingdom of God, Jesus told him that they couldn’t have that conversation until Nic was born again. He literally told the teacher of Israel that he hadn’t even started living as far as God was concerned. In the same passage Jesus says that where the Spirit of God is, you can see the effects (but the implication is that Jesus saw no effects in Nicodemus!)

The bad news for every human is that we have sinned, which means we are guilty and need forgiveness. More than that, we don’t have the Spirit of God uniting us to God in the way we were designed to be connected. And there is more, our hearts are hard, cold and dead toward God.

The good news is that Jesus came to die on the cross, to rise from the dead, and to offer us the solution to these, our deepest problems. Because Jesus died and rose, we can have our sins forgiven, we can have the Spirit of God come to live within us, and we can have our hearts transformed so that we start to love God and want to live for him. When we accept the offer of forgiveness and new life from Jesus, this is called salvation, or being born again.

In light of this amazing offer, what is a Christian?

A Child of God. The Bible speaks about this new life in terms of both birth and adoption. A Christian is someone who has been both born into and adopted into God’s family. We have the Spirit of God within us, meaning that we gradually grow to resemble the character of God and look more and more like Jesus. (But we are also desperately flawed and while we may look nothing like our God at times, our status is secure with him!)

Part of the Bride of Christ. The Bible speaks of Christians as the bride of Christ. This is an amazing image in that it speaks of the closest union possible between Jesus and his followers. The millions of people who have trusted Christ and accepted his offer of forgiveness and life are not just an army of servants, but actually constitute his bride. We are united to him by his Spirit, and we are his most treasured beloved.

A Christian is someone who knows they are not good enough and that they deserve the righteous judgment of God. A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus was who he claimed to be and believes that Jesus fulfilled the mission his Father gave him when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. A Christian is a forgiven sinner, more than that, they are a child of God, part of the bride of Christ, brought into a close and personal relationship with God through Jesus.

A Christian is a follower of Jesus – someone who is both transformed and in the process of being transformed. Christians are works in progress, but works in progress with absolute confidence – not in themselves, but in what Jesus did for them that first Easter, and confident that whatever this life may throw at them, the embrace of Jesus is waiting at the end of this chapter of our story!

God’s Great Story and You – Part 3…Why Does It Matter To Me That Jesus Rose?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1, click here for part 2.  Here is part 3 of the series:

Why Does It Matter To Me That Jesus Rose?

In part 2 we saw how Jesus’ death on the cross achieved so much for us. But in order to see that his sacrifice had been accepted, that his victory had been won, that his mission had been accomplished…Jesus did not stay dead. The hero of the story walks out the tomb victorious and history has been completely changed by that fact.

After Jesus died on the cross, his followers did not assemble to plan the greatest ruse in history and spread a fake rumour about Jesus conquering death. They went into hiding as they mourned his death. They were shocked to meet him again. They didn’t see a ghost, or get a vague apparition. This was not the vain hope of Elvis fans that the king might still be alive somewhere. No, the risen Jesus purposefully met with them and rocked their worlds forever.

For instance, one of his followers, Mary Magdalene, met him on that Easter Sunday morning. She didn’t look up and recognise him until he spoke her name. That moment of recognition was powerful and deeply emotional. Then Jesus said something amazing, he told her that he would be going back to ‘‘my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Jesus always spoke of God as his Father, but this is the first time he spoke of him as ‘your Father…your God.’ Jesus’ death on the cross had achieved what it was meant to achieve, and the resurrection confirmed it … God and humans could now enjoy a reconciled relationship! (See John 20:11-18)

That evening Jesus came to ten of his disciples and filled them with joy. He told them that he would be sending them out to continue his mission from his Father. But one disciple was missing. Thomas heard their report, but he was sceptical. He wanted proof. You probably should too. After all, claims of Jesus rising from the dead are nice, but we can’t live our lives and head into eternity based on fact-less claims. The next week Jesus came to them again, this time Thomas was there. Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas for wanting proof. Instead, Jesus invited him to come forward and touch for himself. This was no ghost, no apparition, no vision. This was Jesus literally raised from the dead. We can’t touch him like that today, but we can investigate the evidence and test the fact of Jesus’ resurrection just like any other fact of history. In fact, if we do we will find the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. (See John 20:19-29)

Because Jesus rose from the dead, this means that the claims of Jesus, and the teachings of Christianity, are built on the foundation of a fact that can be tested. We are not asked to blindly believe in fairy stories. The Christian faith is founded on fact.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, God has confirmed that all Jesus aimed to achieve on the cross was successful. He had paid for sin and satisfied the justice of God. He made a way for humans to come to God and defeated the enemy of our souls and death itself!

Because Jesus rose from the dead, death need no longer be the end of your story. Every other religious figure could teach his followers, but all of them ended up dead and buried. Jesus rose from the dead and so is in a category of his own. If he conquered death himself, then he can conquer death for his followers too.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, it means that this life is not all there is, but also that this life really matters. Christians have been willing to not only live for Jesus, but also to die for him, knowing that there is a life to come that gives great hope in this disease-ridden and violent world. No matter what happens, nothing can take away the hope of a Christian that reaches joyfully beyond suffering and death to the hope of being home with Jesus and more fully alive than ever.

At the same time, because Jesus rose physically, it means that human life is incredibly valuable. The world is not yet made right, but we can fight for what is right and good as we wait for God to purge sin and selfishness from this world and renew the wonderful creation again!

God’s Great Story and You – Part 2…What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this CoronaVirus crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1.  Here is part 2 of the series:

What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. It may look shiny and perfectly shaped on a necklace today, but two thousand years ago it was a symbol of execution, agony and shame. Nobody would ever choose to die exposed and humiliated on a Roman cross. But Jesus did. Why?

The simple answer to that question would be that Jesus knew it was the mission given to him by his Father in heaven. But still the question remains, why did Jesus have to die?

If Jesus’ death was somehow significant, let’s begin by asking why is there death at all? Death was not part of God’s perfect design for this world. In the beginning God created everything as an overflow of that generous love and kindness that exists within the relationship of the Trinity. He created a world that was both diverse and unified, a world of abundance and colour and vibrant life. And the pinnacle of God’s creation was the creature made in his relational image—the humans. Male and female, diverse but unified, ruling everything as God’s representatives. It was so so good, but sadly that didn’t last long.

God did not force his creatures to love him. So when opportunity came, they desired to pull away from God’s good rule and try living as independent mini-gods, setting their own rules and living for their own desires. In that moment, as God had warned them, they discovered only the inadequacy of their own nakedness. Turns out humans separated from God are not the super-beings we would like to be. Curved in on ourselves we become black holes of selfishness, draining the life from everything around us as we ourselves have lost God’s life within us.

What did God do in the face of this rebellion and mess? He promised to send a human to rescue us and defeat the enemy who had led humanity into this living death. For centuries the Old Testament unfolds the story of God’s anticipated deliverer who finally arrived that first Christmas just over 2000 years ago.

Jesus was God’s rescuer, sent to stand in the gap between a good God and a rebellious humanity. He came to reveal God’s goodness to us, but more than that, he came to do what we could not do for ourselves and make a way for us to come back into relationship with God.

One time Jesus told the story of two men: a righteous religious man and a nasty traitorous tax collector for the occupying forces. Both of them went to pray. The righteous religious man prayed a prayer full of pride, describing how good he was in comparison to others. The traitor stood off at a distance, beat his breast in desperation and pleaded with God for mercy. Literally, he asked God to provide the kind of sacrifice that would cover for his sin, the kind of sacrifice that took place inside that temple every day. Jesus shocked his listeners by declaring that only one of these men went home justified, or declared righteous, in God’s eyes. And it wasn’t the “good” guy—it was the desperate sinner. (See Luke 18:9-14)

Fast forward a few stories and we find another tax collector (See Luke 19:1-10). This one is called Zacchaeus and he wanted to see Jesus, but couldn’t because he was short. He ended up climbing into a tree for a secret vantage point. To his shock Jesus stopped and spoke to him. The crowd hated Zac. But Jesus rescued him from their anger by showing kindness to him. Zac was blown away by Jesus’ kindness and his life was changed at the tree.

Later in Luke’s gospel we find that Jesus travelled to another tree, the cross outside Jerusalem. There he voluntarily died, taking the anger not only of the crowd, but also of God in heaven, against the sins of humanity. Jesus died hanging on a tree to set us all free from the righteous judgment of God against sin, to buy us out of our slavery to sin, to win a decisive victory over sin and death, and to reconcile us back to God.

Jesus offers us all a great exchange. He wants to give us all of his righteousness, goodness and life, in exchange for all our sin, wrong, death, shame and brokenness. He is willing to take our great debt on himself and die—in fact, he already did.

5 Post-Lockdown Regrets

The initial novelty of lockdown has worn off.  Now people are settling into this new normal and understandably longing for it to end.  Pastorally we are probably being drawn to people suffering with grief, loneliness, marital difficulties, financial hardship or mental health struggles.  But even those who seem to be doing well need to be shepherded.

What regrets can we all anticipate already and pre-empt with changes now?

Lockdown initially stirred feelings of concern and uncertainty at levels that are rare for most of us.  Some commented about how helpful this time could be, and how they don’t want to come out of lockdown without being changed in the process.  Now as we settle into the rhythm of it, that internal sense of having our world shaken may start to fade.

As I spoke with a good friend yesterday, we were pondering how lockdown does not create new spiritual or emotional issues for us.  It is the kind of pressure that merely reveals issues more blatantly.  So now is a good time to anticipate how we will feel coming out of lockdown.  Why?  Because now we still have time to make adjustments.

Some will emerge grieving.  The very nature of the pandemic means that many will lose loved ones during these weeks.  If you have not lost anyone yet, don’t just cross your fingers and hope you won’t.  As Christians we can do more than just avoid spreading the virus.  Be sure to get close to the One you will need when death does strike closer to home.

Some will miss the simplicity of lockdown.  I don’t think this is as simple as extroverts craving interaction while introverts love pottering around at home, although there may be some truth to be found there.  So much of life is stripped away right now that some people are discovering joy in time with family, or in time spent in the garden/yard, etc.  For some who emerge untouched by personal grief, the lockdown may well be remembered fondly.

But many will emerge saddened by missed opportunity.  I don’t mean the missed opportunities in “normal life” that we are missing by being at home.  I mean the unique opportunity this time is presenting to us, but that we may miss.  How much time are we not spending travelling, commuting, running errands, watching sport, participating in activities outside of work, church ministries, etc.?  And for those furloughed from work – how many hours a week does that add?  When does life ever present us with extra tens of hours in a week, for week after week?  How easily those cumulative hours have already filled with other things!

Here are five post-lockdown regrets to anticipate and act on now:

1. Bible time.  In the busy swirl of “normal” how often do we say, “I was just too busy to read my Bible”…?  Don’t emerge from lockdown saying “Actually, I regret to announce that I have discovered I just don’t have any real appetite for what God has to say.”

2. Prayer time. Again, normal life can so easily squeeze out times of extended prayer, or even any prayer at all.  But with hours added to our weeks, are we finding ourselves to be Daniels normally thwarted by the modern world, or actually just not very prayerful?  That too can be changed now.

3. Fears Revealed But Unaddressed. So much of “normal” life and busy activity insulates us against deeper feelings like fear – we are often simply too distracted.  Don’t emerge from lockdown simply having discovered a fear of death, or of change, or of financial lack, or whatever, but without having gone to God for help to process that fear.

4. Being a Taker More Than a Giver.  “Normal life” may have filled your week so full that one volunteer role at church felt like you were giving a lot.  Don’t emerge from lockdown and realize that you did even less during these weeks.  Inhaling multiple series of a show on Netflix is no achievement.  If you only consume, it will feel empty.  What can you do for others, now?  Practical help?  Prayerful support?  Personal encouragement?  Pastoral concern? (That also applies on social media – don’t just moan personally or politically, don’t simply purvey time-wasting opportunities, instead look for ways to build others up.)

5. Idols Still Standing.  God has stripped away so many things that may have stood as idols in our lives, even without us realising it.  Are you craving clothes shopping, or live sport, or travel, or hobbies, or socialising?  Maybe this lockdown is letting us see the flashing lights of warning on our personal dashboard.  When lockdown ends, will we hold these privileges with a looser grip and more gratitude toward God for every blessing?  Or will we rush to bow at the feet of our dear missed idols that could and should have been smashed during this unique time?

Feel free to add more to this list of anticipated regrets we can adjust now.  The bottom line is really this: Some will look back on lockdown with a deep sense of regret at having missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow closer to God.

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Here is the latest video playlist … Bible highlights from 2 Corinthians:

And a short sermon highlight that may be encouraging (originally preached several weeks before lockdown began, but increasingly relevant)…

Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.

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This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

7 Ways Our World Has Changed, But God Hasn’t

We are gradually coming to terms with the massive changes that have gripped our world in the last few weeks.  I have written about 7 temptations we will face in isolation, 7 spheres in which we should be confident in God’s Word during this time, and 7 tips for preaching online.

Now, here are 7 changes that we should pray through at this time:

1. New restrictions on travel– My calendar has suddenly cleared for several months. It used to be so easy to jump in the car and drive, or to book a flight and visit another country.  Hopefully this restriction will ease in time, but let’s not simply focus on what we are missing.  God remains omnipresent, even if our attempts to be omnipresent are thwarted.  Maybe this change can stir us to pray more fervently for situations we would love to influence, and to be more present where God has put us (our families are our primary ministry, after all).

2. New humility in plans– Will we be able to hold that conference next year? Will we be able to fulfil that preaching commitment in October?  We don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will … do this or that.” (James 4:13-17) God knows what is coming; He always has, and we never have.  Maybe this can stir a greater humility in us all, even when restrictions ease.

3. New uncertainty of life– What James writes in 4:13-17 includes reference to our lives being like a vanishing mist:  “If the Lord wills, we will liveand do this or that.”  When this crisis started, so much was said about only the over-70s or people with underlying health issues dying from COVID-19.  Somehow many people felt relieved, until they started to think about who that might include.  Now we are hearing more stories of younger, healthy people dying from it.  In actuality, death has always been a real and present threat for us all, even before this crisis. And God has always been God.  We may well be immortal until His work for us on earth is finished, but it probably doesn’t hurt us to feel our mortality more and to let that drive us to our knees.

4. New concerns about money– Will we be able to survive these next weeks?  Will our income disappear?  Will government help be enough?  Will our countries recover after this?  The certainty we felt financially just a few weeks ago has evaporated for many of us.  Whether we have a stable salary, or live on completely unpredictable support from others, let’s remember that God is our provider.  He always was, and He has not changed.  Our lives may change.  Our fervency in prayer may change.  But remember John 21, when the disciples were getting used to the fact that everything had changed for them following the death and resurrection of the soon departing Jesus, and then Jesus cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish beside the Sea of Galilee …I provided miraculously when we fed the 5000 here, and I continue to provide for you now.

5. New recognition of need in our churches– I remember a few weeks ago when I could say, “Things are going well in our church … of course there are one or two difficult situations, but generally things are going well.”  Seems like a long time ago now.  Now every family unit that I think about is facing threat of death, loss of income, no work or overwhelming work, marital tensions, parenting complexities, loneliness, etc.  God has always seen our need as it really is.  Maybe this crisis is making vivid to us all just how needy the flock of God’s people really are.  Perhaps this insight should go with us as we carry our people before God in prayer, whatever a future newfound cultural complacency may suggest.  Our people need God.  So we pray.

6. New feelings of restriction and inadequacy in ministry– As the five previous changes hit us, we realise not only the difficulties of those we serve, but also our own inadequacy to really help.  We don’t even have regular church meetings for face-to-face fellowship and those opportunities to sense that someone isn’t doing so well.  As people who minister to others, we should be feeling a profound sense of inadequacy at this time.  We can’t protect anybody from the virus (although we can help by not breaking government guidelines).  We can’t financially carry every situation in our church (although we are called to stand together and share what we have).  We can’t do the job of doctors, nurses, vital delivery drivers, etc. (although we can support them in prayer and encouragement).  We are significantly limited.  But our God is not.  He never was.  He hasn’t changed.  Our experience has just clarified to us that we are not God.

7. New awareness of gospel need all around –Remember when people were comfortable, secure, invincible, and happy in their hobbies?  Now we are surrounded by people with a genuine fear of death, combined with genuine concerns about how they will provide for their families in the coming months.  Our continent is humbled.  And we are stuck in isolation with some restrictions on spreading the gospel.  But God’s Word is not chained.  Over the garden fence, through the internet, by phone call … the good news of Jesus has always flourished most in times of real struggle.  God has faithfully carried His people through pestilence, plague, persecution, and war all through history. And all through history it has been the most difficult times that have led to the greatest growth in the church.  It feels like we are living a key moment in history right now – may it be a key moment in the history of church growth too!

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During this Coronavirus crisis I have started making short Bible reading highlight videos. If you find these helpful, please share them with others.  Thanks.

7 Temptations During COVID-19 Isolation

The vast majority of us have no experience of living in these new and challenging circumstances, and as church leaders we have to figure out how to feed, lead, care and protect our flocks on the job.  To begin with there is a novelty element, and also the sense of focus that a crisis generates in us.  But there will be temptations and we would be wise to anticipate them for ourselves, as well as for others:

1. Despair – For many of us, words like, “give us this day our daily bread” have always been somewhat theoretical.  Suddenly our vulnerability as humans is vividly real.  For some the virus itself is a fear, for all of us the impact on society and life is challenging.  It is probably not good to develop an obsession with news updates and constantly refreshing the global death count.  Be informed, but be far more hungry to fill your heart with hope from God’s Word – you need that, and so do those around you.

2. Depression – Don’t let the initial social media enthusiasm for “time to do odd jobs” fool you.  Life on lockdown will quickly become very challenging.  Even with the blessings of video calls, the reduction in face-to-face human interaction is not something we are created to enjoy.  As Christians we may not realise how much meeting together each week matters until we can’t (and churches that plan to meet against government advice need to seriously consider the damage this will do to our shared witness!)  Carrying the weight of a crisis for yourself, your family, and others, will be more than you can bear and depression in its various forms will be a very real and present danger. We need to learn to find strength, hope, rest and wisdom in God.  And remember: technically depression is not a temptation because it is not a sin – be sure to seek help from other people too, God often works best through others.

3. Blame – When the personal comfort of humans is challenged, blame tends to spill out. We can see it already on social media. Remember that Churchill was widely criticised early on, but lauded for his leadership with hindsight. I don’t know if this generation will fully unite under crisis – the early signals are both yes and no. But let’s be sure that we don’t join in and make this about politics. Let’s set a different tone and show how good is the God who sits on the ultimate throne (and humbles himself to suffer life, with, and for us).

4. Distraction – For decades our western culture has increasingly found sophisticated ways of distracting itself and numbing the routine of a dull reality.  This crisis will initially flag the insignificance of much of that distraction.  There may be a sense of relief at the sudden lack of appetite for unimportant things that felt too important a month ago.  But our human nature will crave distraction … binge watching TV series and sports highlights, numbing fear and loss through alcohol and substance abuse, and the temptations that we struggled with before all this are not yet gone for good.  Don’t run from the situation before us, run to the throne of grace to find help, and be sure to be open with your sympathetic high priest about your own struggle with distraction – whatever form it may take under pressure.

5. Compromise – The added pressure of isolation, or of extra time with your family (which can also be really difficult), or of grief, fear, uncertainty, loss of income, etc., will potentially cause us to consider compromises that we would not have considered when life was the old normal.  Typically civil people have become aggressive in supermarkets.  Typically honest people are out there trying to make dishonest gain by selling their vast stocks of toilet rolls online at a high mark-up.  Typically kind people are and will be tempted to steal, to lie, to cheat and to look out for their own interests as their top priority.  And before we simply condemn sin in others, let’s be sure to recognize that we may feel a pressure to compromise that we have never felt before.  Again, read the Bible with open eyes and an open heart – seek the Lord before the pressures ramp up higher.

6. Burnout – Most of us are used to a certain level of stress from family and ministry life.  But doing family and ministry in an ongoing crisis situation is a whole new level of pressure.  You will be tempted to burnout by giving, giving, giving and not letting God refill your tanks, not looking after yourself with rest, sensible food, etc.  Our inner Martha will rear its head in this time.   That putting others first mentality that is so needed for the church to exist and for ministry to happen.  But when our attitude starts to reveal an empty tank, then it is clear that we have not heeded the Mary example: be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you then pour out to others.  Martha service will prove to be important, but lest we let that Martha tension undo the good, let’s be sure to keep the Mary style devotion as a first priority.

7. Retreat – When everyone is socially withdrawing, it will be tempting to retreat into our own homes and look out for family and church family.  Remember the rest of the world needs Jesus, and many of them have never been this close to realising it!

What else would you add to this list? What other suggestions would you offer?

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Youtube – I have decided to use Youtube for no-frills video versions of some blog posts.  I don’t read the post, but follow the same structure and offer it in spoken form.  To take a look at the video, please click here (and thank you for engaging with either the blog post here or the video there … and I appreciate any sharing of either format to help others find the content.)

A New Not New Experience – COVID-19 Response

There have not been many times in my lifetime when things have been changing so quickly.  Maybe around 9/11.  Maybe when the Iron Curtain fell apart.  But this week the spreading realisation of the seriousness of the Coronavirus situation has been striking.

One day I am seeing Christians on facebook moan about college sports being suspended due to “a silly virus” and the next day they are commenting about the seriousness of the situation.  (Maybe some people should go back and delete some comments that could soon look very uncaring?)

What we are facing is new to many of us.  Uncertainty from one day to the next; travel being complex and restricted; health being under threat; questions over personal income; inability to gather freely for church; potentially inadequate access to healthcare; neighbours living without confidence; people worried about being able to get basic supplies and so on. 

This may be new to most of us, but it is not new for most people, in most of the world, for most of history.

And what does this mean?  It means a unique opportunity to shine like stars in a dark time.  The Roman Empire was all this and more, but the gospel spread like wildfire.  Living under communism with all its restrictions, such as in 20th century China, had many of these features, and unprecedented church growth.  Whether we go back centuries or think more recently, difficult times make for wonderful opportunity for Jesus followers to spill the love of God into a needy and disrupted world.

So what will this season look like for you and me?  Will we mourn the loss of sports, indulge in comfort binge watching of Netflix, complain about all the inconveniences to our usually so comfortable and indulged lives, pour energy into hoarding random grocery items?

Of course it will be a genuinely difficult season for many of us.  Loss of income will hit many. Loss of loved ones will hit some.  But what if we make this unique season an opportunity to proactively love God, love one another and love our neighbours?

Love God – Time in the Bible and prayer can become so routine when life is normal.  Why not let this time stir a greater appetite for time with our God?  Let’s get to know Him more, trust Him more, love Him more.

Love One Another – We may not be able to meet on a Sunday and in home groups, but church is still church even without the meetings.  In fact, it is a great opportunity to think through how we can love one another, shepherd one another, support one another, look out for one another, etc.  The way the church loves is supposed to be noticeable to a world full of people living “me-first.”  This is an opportunity for us to really look different.

Love Our Neighbours – The government will do what it can, probably.  Community spirit may kick in and be helpful.  But the greatest force for on-the-ground love and selfless care should be the followers of Jesus.  A confused, disrupted and increasingly hurting community is what we are here for – what can we do to be ready?  What steps can we take to be bold?  Wash your hands, wash their feet, and tell them the good news about Jesus.

This situation is new to us, but it is not new to God’s people.  Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus and embrace this taste of a more normal life in this broken and hurting world.