Pastor Lockdown Speaks
In early November, Matt wrote an article outlining two different approaches to lockdown from two different pastors: Pastor Sceptic and Pastor Lockdown. Pastor Sceptic thought that lockdown was a bad idea for the nation generally and that, for the church, it caused us to contravene God’s explicit command to us to gather in worship. He seemed to be preparing to chain himself to railings, defy the law, storm parliament or suchlike.
Pastor Lockdown, on the other hand, understood PS’s concerns but opted for a middle ground. He wanted to be a father and a shepherd. He wanted unity and peace. He was unsure of the right course of action and thought we should ride it out. He probably wanted to lead his church to pick daisies in a meadow (or preferably their own gardens) and hum ‘Let it Be’ behind their surgical-grade masks.
The two characters weren’t real, of course, and I have caricatured them further. However, as an avid reader (and sometime contributor) of this blog, I felt that the tone of most of TT’s output in 2020 had been from the Pastor Sceptic camp.
I, on the other hand, side more with his cautious and patient imaginary companion and I feel that the time has come for me to leave my meadow (it has been getting quite chilly of late, after all) and put some flesh on the bones of Pastor Lockdown’s position.
The churches that I am involved with have chosen not to resume meeting in person yet, even though it is now permitted. What follows is not intended to be either a defence or a criticism of the Government’s handling of this crisis. Rather, my point is that God may well be trying to teach us something important through these restrictions and, if we invest too much energy railing against them, we may miss what He’s saying to us.
The potential blessings of lockdown
A portion of my ambivalence towards the government restrictions on us as churches is admittedly down to the fact that my pre-lockdown assessment of the state of the church in the UK was not particularly positive. I mean, what could the government do to us? Stop us from earnestly seeking God? Stop people becoming Christians? Prevent our congregants from digging deep into God’s word? To me, it appeared that sadly those wheels were already fully in motion.
With that perspective, I was probably going to be favourable to any change that came our way. However, as an elder of a church, and in my role helping to oversee a small number of churches in Birmingham, I’ve seen real and tangible growth in our congregations since March 2020.
Again, it may be a reflection of what we were doing wrong beforehand, but COVID, and the government restrictions that have accompanied it, have forced us to go back to basics and, on the whole, we’ve benefitted substantially from that. In the past 10 months I’ve met every weekday morning to read the Bible with a group of friends from our churches. Never done that before. Our church prayer meeting has gone from 10-15 every other week to 20-30 every week, without even bothering to break for school hols. Community groups used to gather 5-10 each week and half the church opted out entirely. Now, we have close to 100% church engagement and have maintained this throughout. Again, this was a pipe dream 12 months ago.
Yes, this has involved us sacrificing physical meetings for Zoom, and I do recognise the cost of this and I miss all the sideways hugging, laying on hands, back patting, etc, etc. But if the pace of 21st century life made the aforementioned engagement impossible when we were relying only on physical presence, then maybe we should stop complaining about Zoom fatigue and going on about how we’re missing everyone all the time. I love the fact that my church is praying more! I love the fact that many of us have been forced to be proactive in more intentionally ordering our homes towards the goal of discipleship! No ifs or buts. I LOVE IT!
Like other writers on this blog, we have lost people in this season. Some good friends have left our churches and every one has been hard. However, rather than wallowing for too long in the sorrow of that, I’d prefer to train my attention on those who are opting into our community at this time, and that number is increasing. Here are some interesting pandemic stats at Churchcentral South, the church that I am based in. A handful of people saved and added in Alphas we ran in the Spring and Summer. Thirty guests joining in with our community groups last term through a course we ran in these groups. About half of these guests coming back for more in the New Year. Six people who are asking to be baptised (and we haven’t even trawled the youth group yet). A new site, proposed at the beginning of 2020, now almost ready to launch.
This kind of stuff may be normal for you but, I’ll be honest, that’s probably the best New Year review I’ve ever experienced as a leader in our church.
I don’t think we’ve done anything particularly special. I’m certainly not intending to boast. However, if you’re finding it hard to see God at work in your situation at the moment, I hope it’s an encouragement. We’re seeing clear signs that God can bring good from this pandemic, and I know that we’re not the only ones. And all of this despite not being able to meet together on a Sunday morning.
Actually, that last sentence may not be correct. It seems like God has not been working despite us not being able to meet, but because of it!
Were our meetings doing more harm than good?
This blog flows out of a church tradition that puts huge value on the church’s gathered times of worship (and I place myself within that tradition). Therefore, it has been no surprise to see that the loss of those times has been felt acutely by the Thinktheology contributors and that there has been a strong push to get the show back on the road. I definitely don’t think that post-COVID, we should ditch gathered worship for online church, but, at the same time, I don’t think this is a time to hanker for what Sunday gatherings have become in recent times either.
Even before the pandemic, I was finding the culture that surrounded our Sunday meetings increasingly bizarre. We’ve all had a giggle at hipster worship leaders and rolled our eyes at ‘worship’ songs that barely mention God. We’ve mused at our people faithfully bringing their reusable coffee cups to church each week but no longer bothering with their Bibles.
But now, with a bit of distance, I’m wondering whether those Babylon Bee articles weren’t just reinforcing prejudices on our social media feeds after all. Perhaps they were pointing out some serious problems.
I’m increasingly beginning to wonder whether, for many of our people, our meetings have been less an aid to discipleship and more an excuse for them to avoid discipleship altogether.
People don’t need to develop their own devotional life; the church will do it for them in that 30 minute slot just before the sermon. People don’t need to drink daily from the depths of God’s word, they can simply get their fix once a week. People certainly don’t need to disciple their children, the Sunday morning kids’ work will do that. Failing that, there’s always Newday!
As a good friend recently said to me, we can’t batch process discipleship. But perhaps we’ve been trying.
Obviously, Hebrews 10:25 has been frequently trotted out in opposition to government restrictions on church worship over lockdown. Meeting together is not something we should neglect. It’s there in black and white. However, the context is worth spelling out:
‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…’
The reference to meeting together seems certainly to be a reference to the gathered meeting of the church community to worship, that’s for sure. But the context gives some explanation as to the services to believers that such meeting together should provide. As William Lane points out in his commentary:
The reason the meetings of the assembly are not to be neglected is that they provide a communal setting where mutual encouragement and admonition may occur… The entire community must assume responsibility to watch that no one grows weary or becomes apostate. This is possible only when Christians continue to exercise care for one another personally.
Before we quote this verse as a basis for criticism of government policy, then, it’s important that we ask – did our Sunday worship gatherings do these things? Or did they just give us a bit of a warm buzz (which at times may have coincided with the work of the Holy Spirit) while providing an accessible and inoffensive shop window into the church for noobs? These kinds of meetings may have value, but they are almost certainly not the kind of meeting together that the author to the Hebrews had in mind!
As a church, we’re finding that our church has been encouraged and stirred up in love and good works while not meeting together physically. In fact, in many ways, puzzlingly, it has been easier in this season. When we do meet altogether in the flesh again, I’d love to imagine that we will thank God for lockdown, which has given us a helpful and necessary realignment towards structuring our gatherings to do these things even more.
So, to paraphrase Matt’s Pastor Lockdown, I guess what I’m trying to say is that: I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that I’m wrong, but I’m grateful for the dialogue. May God give us all much grace and wisdom at this time. We need it.
Jonny Mellor is an elder at Churchcentral, Birmingham and also helps run Sputnik, a network of Christian artists. Sputnik works with artists and churches, and aims to rebuild the often damaged bridges that exist between them. To find out more, try: https://sptnk.co.uk/about/faqs/