Sign of the times?

Why pastors should ponder the pandemic

‘Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?’ The prophet Joel lambasted the ‘elders’ of his time for their failure to reflect on the unique disaster of their times. Why had God hit Israel with this locust plague (Joel 1:2)? Before they came the land had been like Eden, afterwards it was a desert (Joel 2:3). He tells them to ‘Wake up!’

The pandemic, which has taken so many lives, should cause us to stop and think. Has it ever happened before that churches have been closed virtually across the whole world? Have we been so concerned about how to organize ourselves and handle the technology to get us through it that we haven’t given much thought to why God may have allowed it?

There are those who are asking the government to call a national day of prayer. I respect them and sympathize with their hearts’ concern. But our nation today is deeply divided and does not have the unity around a Christian ethic which it had in 1940. However, although it seems anachronistic to call the nation to prayer, surely it is not out of place to call the churches to prayer. Surely we ought to be humbling ourselves, mourning the loss of life and asking the Lord to give us some clarity concerning what he wants us to learn from this tragedy.

Sifting the churches

Pastors have worked hard to keep churches together and to continue biblical preaching and the worship of God online. At the same time they have been trying their best to encourage and shepherd their scattered congregations through the ongoing ups and downs of life. Many have gone out of their way to care for the elderly and those having to isolate. It has been a labour of Hercules which is not yet finished.

But at the same time something of a sifting process has been going on. Many churches have seen people drifting away. Maybe some have been attending church simply for the social side of things – to meet friends and have a cup of coffee together. Perhaps others didn’t mind coming on a Sunday because they enjoyed the music and the singing. But deprived of these because of lockdown they have gone missing. Pastor, you see nothing of them on Zoom and who knows if they are logging on to the live stream. When you open up for a socially distanced service, they don’t want to come. And maybe they will never return.

During these difficult times God is asking who is true and who is false. Would we still go to church if our friends weren’t there? He is sifting those who are attracted by the trappings of church rather than by the gospel. Christ is asking: ‘Do you truly love me?’ (John 21:16). The genuine is being separated from the faux (Mark 4:19).

And that leaves us asking the question as to why the Lord may be refining his church. I can only speculate, but perhaps this is worth considering…

Preparing for persecution?

Even apart from Steve Chalke reportedly calling for the prosecution of pastors and churches which teach biblical sexual ethics [1], the forces of ‘social justice’ are beginning to target conservative evangelicals.

It had to happen. We believe in God in a society that doesn’t. We take our ideas from the Bible when that is the last place the majority of our fellow citizens would look for help. We preach Christ as the only way of salvation in a country that has come to insist there are many ways to find God. We stand for male-female marriage at a time when marriage has been redefined. We are pro-life in a land that is militantly pro-choice. We believe in male servant-headship in both family and the church, because that is what the Bible teaches, at a time when gender is said to be fluid and all authority oppressive. We believe that parents have the right and the responsibility to care for and decide on their children’s education, when governments are arrogating that right to themselves. And we could add to that list. We are on a collision course with the powers that be.

Think it through

If persecution is coming in some form, then it would make sense of the Lord sifting his churches and separating the wheat from the chaff. It is from fringe ‘Christians’ who are not really committed to a congregation that the media or the lawyers are most likely to get a damning comment about a church that could be used as ammunition.

As I say, this is speculation. But it may be worth thinking this through. Apart from rightly comforting and encouraging church members, maybe a short series giving an overview of the Bible’s teaching on persecution wouldn’t be out of place pastor? Passages like John 15:18-27 and 2 Timothy 3:1-17 could be very pertinent just now.

And if there is anything in this speculation then how much more we need to be calling the churches to prayer for wisdom, obedience and strength.

[1] Evangelical Times, November 2020, p. 10.