Letter from Australia 56 – Church Leadership in Covid
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This is my favourite headline of the year – so far! “Man punches shark to save wife”! You can read the full story here – https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-53792016
I smiled at one tweet which ironically suggested: “Toxic masculinity at work again!”. Having celebrated our 34th anniversary yesterday I ask myself would I jump in and punch a shark if they were seeking to have Annabel for dinner? Without a doubt! Although I suspect the number of shark attacks this year may make the likelihood of Mrs R heading into the water less likely than the New York Times endorsing President Trump!
At the risk of being called a toxic patriarchal male – let me offer the old fashioned opinion that I think this is what men should do. In a sense, this is what leadership in the home is about. Which brings me on to the reflection for this week. What about leadership in the church in this time of crisis throughout the world? I have received a number of messages from Christians who are struggling and who are crying out for leadership. I have a great deal of empathy with them, but also with those who are church leaders. Just like political leaders, they seem to be in a lose/lose situation. I am conscious as someone who is no longer directly involved in church leadership how easy it is to snipe from the sidelines and make judgements based upon ignorance, frustration and the security of knowing that you are not responsible for what you are proposing. It’s a bit like being a politician in opposition – you can say and propose whatever you want- because you are not in a position to enact what you propose!
Having said that I have found myself wondering what I would do if I was still the pastor/minister/shepherd of a local church. Any elder/minister/bishop/pastor (take your pick) should surely take on board the following biblical principles. Each church leader is to be a shepherd under the head shepherd, Jesus Christ.
- The under-shepherd job is to feed the sheep – Peter was told “feed my sheep”. “take care of my sheep” “feed my sheep”. (John 21)
- The under-shepherd is to protect the sheep – “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30). The devil goes around like a roaring shark seeking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).
- The under-shepherd is to care for the sick – “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” James 5:14
What does that mean for the church leaders in Covid? How do we feed, protect and care for the Lord’s people in this context? There seems as much confusion in the church as there is in the wider society. Everyone is an expert and no one knows anything. When government says churches must not meet, some respond with defiance; others with reluctant obedience; others try to outdo the secular authorities in Covid righteousness. Some see it all as a government/satanic conspiracy; others as an opportunity to show that we care for human beings. Still others see only lament, confusion and despair.
I find the case of John Macarthur interesting. On the one hand I think it is unwise to defy the civil authorities and to turn church worship services into political rallies. When I heard Macarthur speaking on American TV he seemed to be more defending the American constitution than the Bible. But on the other hand his pointing out the hypocrisy of the secular authorities is correct. Churches must close because they do not provide an essential service, but shops, pubs and abortion clinics can open? Perhaps Macarthur is not that far of the mark?
In the UK it is bizarre to see government telling us how many people can meet, what we should wear, when we can sing and using their secular authority to dictate to us in all these areas. The obsession with detail leads to the kind of craziness where the bride and groom at a wedding are told to wear masks! Do they really expect them to ‘social distance’ on their wedding night?!
We are to follow Christ – not follow the trends or political leaders of our society. So lets come to Scotland as an example. Apparently the government has decreed that whereas in pubs and restaurants the social distancing requirement is 1m, in churches it must be 2 m. Could someone explain how this is the scientific advice which the government is following? Of course it isn’t. This is a matter of politics, economics and philosophy. The fact is that churches are not as important as pubs, restaurants and shops- and so governments can exercise their authority, virtue signal and limit their populace by making these kind of restrictions, without any economic consequences. But as church leaders we should be concerned about all the consequences – emotional, spiritual, psychological, social as well as physical health. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2020/08/09/show-evidence-nonsensical-restrictions-church-services/
This is how detailed and authoritarian and irrational the government is becoming…They tell you how you can get round their rules if you change your theology!
If I was in pastoral ministry back in Scotland – the situation I know best – I would suggest the following. Firstly we must, as far as possible, obey the law of the land. Partly because of conscience, partly because of the consequences and partly because we understand the wisdom of limiting meeting together in public in the time of a pandemic. Secondly we would seek to provide all that the church does – in a different way. This is not a time to shrug our shoulders, retreat and say ‘what can we do?’ in a resigned fashion. There are opportunities to be taken. This is not a time for us to zoom out, or chill out, it’s a time for us to roll up our sleeves and work even harder.
Thirdly when the government oversteps the mark we must challenge them. I don’t believe that the government has the right to mandate what we wear, whether we can sing etc. They can advise – and the churches should take that advice on board. But to make it illegal to gather, to baptise, to take communion, or to worship in the way God tells us is outwith the prerogative of the State.
We shut our buildings because we were told that it would help us stop the NHS being overwhelmed – now that the number of cases are down to a handful, that the death rate is now down to less than one in two hundred people who have Covid and that the damage (emotional, mental, spiritual and physical) from the lockdown is likely to cause even more harm than Covid – we should be opening our buildings. We should be telling the government that enough is enough- we have done as required for several months – now we are asking you not to abuse our obedience and trust. Worship, bible study, prayer, Sunday school etc are not peripheral activities, to be reduced to the status of a social club. They are essential activities for the good not only of the church, but of society. Just as it is seen as a priority to open up schools, so it should be a priority to open up churches.
But perhaps there is another angle to this – one I don’t even want to contemplate. What if the problem is not the government but the church leadership? After all the Scottish government are permitting us to meet – so why are some churches so reluctant to do so – even with government restrictions? What kind of message does that send? Are we too lazy? Is it too inconvenient for us to meet with all the restrictions?
There are of course church leaders who don’t think like this. The idealists, pietists and dreamers will tell us that we don’t need physical buildings, meetings, communion, holy kisses (hugs or handshakes). We can pray, worship, read online. To which my response is simple. Do you? Some do – but an increasing number of your people are not tuning in – rather they are dropping out!
The Oxymoronic Church
To me online church is an oxymoron. The church is incarnational. Online is a great tool to help us communicate and to evangelise – but it is no substitute for us meeting together. At a time of emergency we have had to use it. But this virus is not going to go away soon – no matter how great we think we are in dealing with it. Are we seriously going to permit government to tell us how, when and where to worship over the next couple of years?
So lets jump through the hoops and comply even with unreasonable and overreaching laws – but let us challenge everyone that is unreasonable and arbitrary. Why limit churches to 50 people – but allow pubs 100’s? Why should people be forced to wear masks – encouraged yes – but compelled – no. Why are schools permitted to meet but not Sunday schools? If we have to move from two services to three – to comply with restrictions – lets do it. If we have to hum instead of sing – lets do it. Let’s have registration, badges, handwash etc. But let us not give up meeting together as is fast becoming the habit of many.
(After publishing this I watched Andrew Robertson’s sermon from Charleston Community Church – it was live – in the building – if you want to know what I mean watch this and see the difference between something that is just online – and the filming of a real service – with real people interacting….brilliant!
Care for the Sick
And in terms of care of the sick – we would insist upon our right to visit and pray with people (subject to all the suitable and sensible hygiene requirements). One of the absolute worst things about this crisis has been the view that ministers and elders should not be visiting anybody. It is possible to take suitable precautions and visit the sick and dying. I cannot think of anything crueller than leaving people to die alone because you are afraid that they might get infected, or that they might infect you.
One final aspect. I may have been listening in all the wrong places – but I am struggling to hear church leaders calling us to humility and repentance. Instead, I hear the echo of the world’s voice – ‘we are great and we can deal with this’. We should be crying out to God in humility, pleading with him for deliverance from a virus that we cannot handle or control. A virus that has brought the world’s economies to their knees, should have brought the Lord’s people to our knees. I may have missed it but where was the call to the nation for a day of prayer – and a time of repentance and ‘humiliation’? We need the pastoral, we need the practical, we need the prayer – but we also need the prophetic. Our social and mainstream media are filled with millions of words – we need the Word of the Lord.
These are just a few thoughts from afar – but not only from afar – we are wrestling with the same issues here in Australia. Here is an insightful and helpful talk from one pastor here – Dominic Steele – I think his insight that we should be in this for the long haul is correct.
We give thanks for our spiritual leaders – may the only Head of the Church endow them with wisdom, love, strength and boldness – and enable them to fight off the sharks!
Yours in Christ
A couple of further things for you to read –
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6-11)
And then this superb article from Michael Ots – used with permission….Feel free to pass on to your church leaders – I think it is insightful and helpful
Reflecting on Coronavirus and how the Church has responded to it I have mixed feelings.
On the one hand I am excited by the way many churches have responded creatively to the challenge of lockdown. Technology has been embraced and we realised that we could reach people who wouldn’t normally come to church. A widely reported survey revealed that during lockdown 25% of the UK population had been to an online church service. Given that the normal percentage of church attendance in the UK is much lower this is very encouraging. Another survey revealed that the number of people praying had increased. Many churches reported a rise in attendance. Alpha reported a huge number of people are doing the course online – far more than would normally being doing it. During this time, I personally spoke at 40 live evangelistic events for churches and student groups across the world. It was a brilliant opportunity and one that I am thankful for. I am sure that many people have heard the Gospel as a result.
However, we need to be a little careful about being too triumphalist.
A more detailed reading of the surveys shows that for every person who started praying during lockdown someone else stopped praying. Coronavirus might make some people more open to the gospel but it can also cause other people to turn away.
We also need to be careful about how we count numbers. Given that 3 seconds is all that someone needs to watch a Facebook video for before it is counted as a view, perhaps we haven’t had quite such a big audience as we like to think. It would be like an openair preacher claiming that 1000s had listened to his sermon because they had happened to pass by. Whether they have engaged is another matter. I also wonder whether the massive growth of some churches has been at the expense of others. How many of the new people are actually members of other churches who have suddenly discovered they can attend any church in the world! I think we may discover that some churches have grown after this but others will have shrunk and others will have died. It will be interesting to see what church attendance is like a year from now. While I hope that it may be higher than before Covid, I fear it may also be lower as many Christians get into the habit of watching an online service at their convenient (or have just stopped watching all together).
Perhaps my greatest concern though is with the way that Churches seem to have a desire to go above and beyond what is required by law or even what is recommended.
The Church of England seemed to trip over itself in its hurry to close its churches, even banning their own clergy from going in to them. Despite the fact that Justin Welby has a chapel in his own home that he could have used, he chose to broadcast from the kitchen table! What if they had lobbied the government to keep churches open for socially distanced, Covid-compliant, private prayer? For those stuck, locked down in high rise flats or in abusive or difficult home situations they could have become a real sanctuary.
Despite the fact that church services are now allowed (with restrictions) many churches seem reluctant to re-open physically. On the one hand I get this – what is church when you can’t sing and aren’t allowed to even talk to each other. It doesn’t sound great. We may wonder what is the point, especially when we can do things more easily online. I have every sympathy with pastors who are having an absolute nightmare wading through pages of government guidelines trying to work out what they can and can’t do. It’s incredibly frustrating.
But I am also concerned that we may too quickly opt for the online option. While we should certainly keep things online for those who can’t come, I do believe that we should be trying to do we all we can to make it possible to meet again within the parameters allowed.
One of the biggest concerns I have is for teenagers. Everyone I speak to says that this is the group that has been least engaged during lockdown and so much of the material that churches have been producing has not connected with them. While we may think of teenagers as being online animals, we forget that they actually crave real community.
Last week I should have been leading a youth camp near Leicester. While we had tried hard to try and make the camp happen, the local lockdown finally put paid to that and we had no choice but to run it online instead. We worked incredibly hard to create fun and engaging content and for those who did get involved it was really appreciated and helpful. But I still felt incredibly sad as this was not a patch on what a real camp is like. I know from personal experience how vital the yearly summer camp was to my own spiritual walk.
We talked about the possibility of trying to do a shorter and smaller camp for the oldest teenagers at the end of the summer and there was a great desire to try and make this happen in way that fitted with the government guidelines. However, new regulations from the organisation of which the church is a member, state that overnight stays are not allowed.
Why are they being stricter than the government? (Note: It turns out that the government do not now allow teenage camps to meet).
Yes I can hear the argument that people will make. What if a young person catches Covid, goes home, gives it to their granny and they die? Yes that is a possibility – running a camp is not without risk. But then nothing is without risk. Yet you have to ask how big is the risk? At the moment it is far lower than it once was and the chances of this happening, while not nill, are low.
But I would also suggest there is another question to ask. What is the risk of not doing it? What if we just do nothing for fear of what might happen. How many of those young people will disengage with church in the coming year? How many will still be walking with Jesus? And what about those who might have come to Christ (as many do each year on camps) who won’t now?
I don’t expect the government to be concerned for the spiritual health of teenagers in Britain today. But I do expect that Christian organisations might! I am concerned that we have become so like the world in our concern for physical health and safety that we have lost sight of people’s desperate spiritual needs.
In view of these trends I was especially encouraged by Oakhall – both the church and organisation. As soon as it became possible for churches to reopen for private prayer they opened their doors all day every day. They worked hard to set up art work, music and refreshments and had people on hand to chat to those who came in as well as free literature that could be taken away. They have also organised for Covid-compliant camping weekends at their manor in Kent which will allow up to 600 people to gather every weekend for much needed fun, fellowship, live music and Bible teaching. What a brilliant idea! They have worked hard to do everything they possibly can, within the current guidelines, to provide encouragement and fellowship for Christians and to reach out to those who are not.
We can never eliminate risk all together and we need to abide by what is permitted, but within that lets do all we can. The risk of not doing it will be eternally greater.