Being brotherly about online services
Dr. Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said at the end of March that, given the current coronavirus pandemic, it could be six months before life in the UK returns to normal. That means churches may well remain closed until the end of September. We may be talking about another 27 Sundays before we are likely to meet up again as congregations and resume fellowship and worship as usual.
The churches have responded splendidly to the crisis by going online and exploring many different opportunities to do that. In particular pastors have begun preaching in various ways online.
It has been good to be in contact with churches around the country, large and small, to see what different men are doing. Some are managing to keep to the government’s guidelines and still provide a live streamed service on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Other pastors are recording sermons from their studies or the dining room table and putting them on the church website to be accessed on Sundays at normal service time, so that even at a distance their church can still worship together.
This is very important. Weekly routine is our friend in the disorientation of the lockdown. And at a time like this people seem particularly to appreciate seeing their own pastor or hearing his voice – even if it is only digitally. It gives comfort and counteracts that loss of normalcy from which we are all suffering at present (cf. John 10:5).
But I know of some small congregations where providing any kind of online help has proved out of the question. There are churches without pastors. There are also churches where the pastor and leadership are simply not computer savvy. In such cases congregations have often, understandably, been encouraged to log on to the online services of a nearby larger church. That was the best they could do.
But pointing their members to the larger church has brought fears. ‘Will our people ever return to us? Is this going to be the end of us at ‘Dinky Chapel’? We can’t compete with what is on offer there.’ And in what has sadly become a market place of churches, where many are attracted by the ‘best’ product, such fears are understandable. Not to put too fine a point on it – this is a marvelous opportunity to steal sheep from elsewhere – even inadvertently.
I want to encourage you to avoid that kind of thing. In your daily Bible reading you may have come across Deuteronomy 22.1: ‘If you see your brother’s sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him.’ Maybe in the present emergency we will confront a 21st century, online version of this scenario.
Respect a church’s integrity
These are strange times. But the Lord would want us to be brotherly and, while seeking to help, to respect the integrity of weaker churches. How can we do this?
First, the leaders of ‘Dinky Chapel’ could email or call the pastor of ‘Big Church’ and explain that they are directing their people to log on to his services. This will give the heads up to the ‘Big Church’ pastor. Otherwise how is he meant to know who is listening to his sermon? His techies will just see that ‘2000’ logged on this Sunday morning – all anonymous.
Second, the pastor of ‘Big Church’ could then give a mention to these folk in the morning service. All he needs to say is the equivalent of: ‘Welcome to those with us this morning from “Dinky Chapel”. It is good to have fellowship with you.’ That will be an encouragement to those folk and be a way of honouring that little group of brothers and sisters.
Third, it may just be possible to mention a news item now and then from the little church and encourage all the online congregation to remember them in their prayers. It would be a beautiful way of showing Christ-like love and be a terrific boost to the weaker church.
Fourth, when the emergency restrictions are over, ‘Big Church’ pastor then needs specifically to say: ‘It’s been great to have you on board during this time, but it’s now time to return to your home churches. God bless you.’ Maybe it would be good at that time to close the general online streaming, and, if it continues, to provide an exclusive password for ‘Big Church’ members only.
Fifth, such things may well lead to deeper ongoing fellowship between the churches which could way outlast the Covid 19 catastrophe and be beneficial all round. Larger churches would do well to let Acts 20.35 take root in their hearts: ‘The Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’
This kind of love and respect will prove that we really are Christians and have a different outlook from the world. We want to be servants not superstars.
There is a statistic I came across recently which made me shiver. It encapsulates what can happen when big churches are happy to get bigger at the expense of others. It is from Michael Horton’s book, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centred Worship. It refers to North America, and addresses the situation as it was in 2002: ‘In 1970 there were 10 mega-churches (in the USA). Today there are over 400. And yet overall church attendance is down by 35%.’
I’m still shivering. Obviously there are other factors in play here but there is a point to be taken. Growing our own congregation at the expense of smaller churches damages Christ’s kingdom.
On the other hand, this present crisis provides us with perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen the bonds between gospel churches through brotherly kindness and service.