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.
Among the notable features of orthodoxy is the belief that God is always at work. He didn’t create the universe and walk away, nor does He just show up from time to time. Our triune God’s hands are in this world, constantly.
In that light, what are we to make of the unprecedented reaction to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus that – we are told – is about to infect millions? We can immediately put aside the belief that it’s Darwinian natural selection, the random but inevitable virus that keeps our numbers in check. If there is some divine reason, then what might it be?
Some perspective first.
Consider all the measures that are being taken – the urgent pleas from sober scientists and physicians to end all public gatherings, to self-isolate, for Canadians to return home immediately, to close schools indefinitely, and to establish strict controls over hospital entrances – one would think we’re facing imminent attack from a foreign nation. The belligerent party may be flesh and blood, but it’s microscopic.
This is not the 20/20 vision we were optimistically looking for at the closing of 2019. It’s the opposite, in every sense of the word.
Look out upon our land, sea, and sky, and we see the coming of spring. Snow is melting and bulbs are sprouting. No devastation caused by earthquake, wind, lightning, fire, mountains of snow, or even military aggression. Just an invisible pathogen. Our only defence is isolation, social distancing, and washing of hands.
Better personal hygiene this time of year is something that we should be doing anyway. But the lack of face-to-face human contact is a catastrophic wound to the restaurant and bar industry, to retailers, to musicians who perform live, to event organizers, and to the church.
Yes, the church.
On Monday, the chief medical officer of health in Ontario recommended an end to gatherings and provided a long list of examples. Church was at the tail end, almost an afterthought. Some news reports listed the major players – bars, movie theatres, and restaurants – and didn’t mention worship. Which should not be a surprise given the fact that active and organized religion no longer plays a role in the lives of most. Don’t fault the news media.
But it begs the question. What if church services – the centrepiece of our existence and for many the only tangible thing we do – were no more for a significant time – not just weeks but months?
Yes, we can turn our sanctuaries into TV studios Sunday morning and live-stream our worship, or at least record a message and post on our hastily-created YouTube channel. But experience shows that while it might meet the need of some congregants, many won’t partake.
Here’s where I see the opportunity.
If the social upheaval is big enough, unchurched people will reach out. We’re only a few weeks into the dire warnings and extreme measures, but we’re seeing a rise in stress levels.
(Take me for example. On the one or two occasions so far in my life that I’ve experienced personal trauma, I get painful tightness in my left neck/shoulder area. That’s what happened a few days ago. Then bang! The same thing in my lower back yesterday. That’s unprecedented. Age might be a factor. But I can’t be alone.)
If the preventative measures aimed at flattening the curve continue, and especially if there is an actual wave of illness, make no mistake: people will be looking for peace and strength that they cannot find in this world.
Without the benefit of Sunday morning open house, we need to be creative and open our doors in a different way. Those YouTube channels I created for Renewal Fellowship and for my congregation a few years ago that have seen little or no use are going to get fed regularly. That Facebook page is going to get more posts. Old can be new again: who doesn’t appreciate getting a letter or card?
And not just for our own people. Do it for random strangers who pass by the church and see the sign we’re posted with our website, social media identification, phone numbers and email addresses. Pray and watch what happens. If you genuinely have a heart to reach the lost, to be an effective Gospel witness and see others awaken to new life in Christ, and if you earnestly pray into that in righteousness, then expect powerful prayer to bring wonderful results. (See James 5:16)
We’re not talking about mountains being lifted up and thrown into the sea here. (See Matthew 11:22-25.) Just people seeing the truth, that our lifestyles and values are in the wrong place these days.
After a prayer meeting attended by a group of ministers and elders a few months ago, one of the participants motioned for the pastors to gather around. He told us that a time is coming when the world will face devastating upheaval. It could be economic collapse, war, cyber-terrorism, environmental or climate change or disease — whatever. It might not happen for 100 years. But when it does, churches need to be ready for an onslaught of people knocking on their doors.
These were not the words of a fringe conspiracy theorist. He’s an investment advisor with a blue-chip firm, a man with a solid education and community standing. The guy you trust with your investments.
His words got my attention. His business card has been sitting on my desk as a reminder.
And here they are for you to ponder.
Dear church: We are called to go into the world, to baptize and teach, to give people reason for the hope we have. Stuff we know we should do. But, too often, it takes a crisis for anything to get done.
Dear Father in heaven, we ask that You guide those in authority and care for those on the front lines of health care. We pray for peace and order. At the same time, we thank You for Your hands which are always at work. May this time of upheaval shake us and wake us.