It would be concerning if churches hadn’t found the Covid-19 pandemic extraordinarily tough.
In a challenge to western individualism, the Bible tells us that when we are born again we join a new family (Eph. 2:19-20). Meeting together is the earthly expression of the heavenly and eschatological gathering (Heb. 12:22-24) and a means of Christian perseverance (Heb. 10:24-25). So being constrained in our gatherings, or unable to gather at all, has rightly been painful and has had spiritual costs that may not be fully evident for some time to come.
Yet different local churches have had very different experiences through this period. Some have been torn apart by divisions over how to respond to ever-changing rules. Others have found their leadership teams exhausted or shrunken by the burdens of change. Still others have found members drifting away, the bonds of fellowship growing cool.
In God’s kindness, our own church has (so far) weathered the storm pretty well. And whilst the praise must all go to God’s grace, we can identify three particular aspects of his providence that have prepared us well over the years (and in one respect, centuries) for the storm that broke in March 2020. We are praying that he will use us similarly to hand on a legacy of faithful resilience to the generations to come.
1. Healthy church culture
Our church has had faithful evangelical ministry for more than forty years. Whilst there have been severe tensions at times in the past, in recent years our relationships have generally been gracious and warm. A reservoir of goodwill is an excellent investment for a time of testing.
What’s more, we have been able to develop plural eldership and shared decision-making. As a congregation of around a hundred, we have limited the church council to nine elected members and developed the churchwardens, standing committee and small staff team as key leaders. This small, committed leadership meant that decisions could be taken quickly but collectively – even when the minister was absent for hospital treatment for some of the first lockdown.
2. Teaching on tough truths
When a crisis struck, it probably wasn’t the best time to start teaching on the big theological underpinnings of a Christian response. We were so grateful to have studied through the book of Revelation in chunks over the previous two or three years. It meant that even the most un-theological of church members was able to say, “This is the sort of thing God was warning us about.” We knew not to be alarmed, and to trust God’s providence and promises; to keep the main thing the main thing. We had a one-off sermon on week one of the first lockdown, applying lessons from Revelation chapters four to seven – and then returned to our bread-and-butter weekly expositions. A teaching programme that was planned months earlier (including a series in Job) has proved time and again to be exactly appropriate for our changing circumstances.
3. An enormous building
Even if we were tempted to take some credit for the first two elements of God’s providence, the third is very definitely thanks to generations past. Our building was designed 300 years ago to seat 1,200 people. Often it has felt like a massive headache rather than a blessing. And yet in the era of social distancing, it has meant that we have been able to be open for services (without restricting numbers) since the end of the first lockdown, and even continue with most of our normal Christmas programme. Whilst church plants often need to use rented premises, and some long-standing congregations are having to leave established structures, there remain blessings in the resources that previous generations have laid up for gospel ministry.
The aim of this article is certainly not to discourage our brothers and sisters who have been having a tougher time. Nor is it to claim any credit for ourselves. Rather, it is twofold. First, to give thanks to God for his specific kindnesses to us when humanly speaking we have been out of our depth. And second, to remind ourselves – and perhaps encourage others – of the value of long-term investment in relationships, in teaching, and in resources, in good times as well as bad.
What can we be doing now, to help our churches weather the next storm when it breaks?