Church leaders from the UK and overseas have been sharing the highs and lows of the coronavirus lockdown with Evangelical Times. At the time of writing, government instructions for churches not to assemble to minimise the spread of Covid-19 remain in place.
From the outset ministers had big decisions to make. Revd Jeremy Bailey (Bethlehem Evangelical Church, Aberavon) recalled, ‘When we first heard that churches would be closed we had to decide whether it was right to obey the government or whether this was an occasion to “obey God rather than man”. We soon concluded that this was a health issue and that we couldn’t risk the lives of the congregation and members of the wider public by gathering normally.’
Thanks to modern technology, churches have adapted to the drawbacks of social distancing. Connecting with congregations using online services such as Zoom and Google Meet have been common. Revd Andrew R. Allan (Partick Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) highlighted a particular benefit of Zoom: ‘Those who only have a landline telephone can still connect and hear the services.’
Maintaining fellowship with those unfamiliar with modern technology, often the elderly and vulnerable, posed a challenge. More traditional means of contact have proved important. At Bethlehem Evangelical, a weekly briefing was distributed to the congregation. ‘Those who don’t have email receive theirs by post,’ said Revd Bailey. ‘We also linked those without internet to particular church officers who could phone them every week and check on them. Pastorally, the challenge is to make sure that everyone is contacted and encouraged to keep close to the Lord.’
Challenges aside, the period of lockdown has opened new doors of opportunity for pastors. Carl Muller (Trinity Baptist Church, Ontario) told ET that ‘the biggest positive of this pandemic is the interest we have seen from unbelievers. Several non-Christians have joined us for livestream services. This, I believe, is a direct result of the pervasive fear of death gripping our country and the world. The reality of death has seldom been so impressed upon the collective human consciousness. It is our hope that this drives people to tune in to Christian services around the world.’
Pastors have been forthcoming in providing online material to engage newcomers as well as church goers. Alan Hill (Lausanne Free Church, Switzerland) began an online series he entitled ‘Daily Bread’. Livestreaming via Facebook each morning, he is providing a bitesize survey of the entire Bible — one book at a time, one day at a time. He has been surprised by its popularity: ‘Up to 300 people are watching every day from all over the world, some of whom are completely new to us. On Saturdays the livestream is aimed at children — some get really involved and send us photos of the activity sheets they have been sent. A further benefit is that several people who had stopped attending church have now reconnected with us.’
Reaching out to children was a common concern. Chris Hand (Crich Baptist Church, Derbyshire) uploads a weekly ‘school assembly’ sequence for children to view. Revd Bailey shared that at Bethlehem Evangelical a deacon’s wife records Bible stories for children and uploads them to YouTube each week.
What broader, theological issues has the pandemic raised for pastors? ‘The biblical emphasis on the sovereign control of God has been made apparent,’ reflects Pastor Muller, ‘and Job’s pointed question, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” It has been my greatest joy, in these days, to proclaim that the Lord God omnipotent reigns!’
Subjects on which to preach has been another matter for reflection. ‘This was a difficult question,’ said Revd Bailey, ‘but after consideration and discussion among the elders, we decided not to continue with the regular series I had been preaching. Instead, we believed it necessary to address the issue of the crisis during the Sundays running up to Easter. After Easter, we decided that believers needed a distraction from the horrors of the virus and the 24/7 news coverage it receives. We felt they needed to be taken to the word of God to hear its message on other subjects.’
On a more personal note, Pastor Hand perceived that this unique period of isolation is a hidden opportunity for spiritual growth. ‘I think this is a time for accelerated learning and deepening. For myself and for all believers, this could be a period for sanctification like no other that I have known in my 40 years as a Christian.’
Pastors also shared their priorities for prayer, not least for strength for ministers themselves: ‘I am finding that I am more in demand than ever before,’ said Pastor Hill, ‘with many phone calls, especially from those living alone. We also need to pray that Christians will not lose the habit of church attendance. I fear that some may begin to think that online messages are a suitable replacement for church attendance.’
Praying for the day when normality returns, churches are reopened, and fellowship is renewed went without saying. ‘Of course, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media are immensely valuable,’ remarked Pastor Hand, ‘but there is much that we miss that goes into making true Christian fellowship. So much of what we do as pastors — nuances of posture, tone, and expression, — are things technology cannot convey perfectly. There is no true substitute for the gathered church of Christ, fellowshipping in the flesh and worshipping God together.’
John Tredgett is elder at Grace Evangelical Church, Carlisle, and Church News Editor at ET.