Neither despair about the work nor doubt the value of being back about it

Despite trying to think through other things to talk about, coronavirus remains about the only thing going on. The only in-the-flesh, living, breathing people I have seen over the last two weeks are my immediate family and a handful of strangers who seemed affronted that we were trying to keep 2-metres apart whilst out taking our daily, state-approved walking exercise. What a time to be alive!

Anyway, in the middle of all of this, many of us are still trying to get our head around live streaming. I think Paul Levy speaks for most of us:

On top of that, we’re trying to keep in touch with our people as best we can. Whether that is virtual home groups or just trying to keep in touch, face to face, with members of our church, it is proving both time consuming and, speaking for myself, pretty unsatisfactory. As much as it is better than doing nothing at all, it is no substitute for actually meeting together in person.

But as we all begin to get our heads around serving our own people, what are we to do for those who aren’t members of our churches? How are we going to get the gospel out in our communities when we’re not able to see anyone? How are we going to be about the work of evangelism and mission – the call to go into all the world – when we can’t even go to the end of our own road?

The reality is with great difficulty. Let’s not dress it up. The work of mission and evangelism is now significantly harder.

Our Muslim-Christian Dialogue that takes place locally simply can’t happen now. I am in discussion with our imam friend to see whether we could do something virtually in lieu of our usual meetings. But it is obvious enough that this won’t work for everybody who usually comes. And, without putting too fine a point on it, it can be hard enough knowing whether South Asians will attend a meeting without the added barriers to having to navigate technology that folk aren’t used to using. Whether we will be able to do this on any level waits to be seen, but even using Zoom (or something similar) will almost certainly not replicate the quality of discussion that we are used to.

It may also be possible, by the same means, to provide some English Class provision online. Again, the same problems abound, with the added complication that those studying English are unlikely to be able to fully understand the required instructions to access anything online. Even if we do manage to sort something out, gospel input will necessarily be limited.

Apart from these two things, it is very hard to continue with anything else we usually do. In lieu of our community football, we have tried playing an online version of Fifa on our mobiles and holding a whatsapp call while we do it. Clearly, it is not the same but it is a way of maintaining some level of contact.

But there really is no way to hold a virtual open air in our town centre. We can’t virtually offer books and leaflets to people we can’t physically see. We can’t go knocking on people’s doors with a lock down in force. We can’t welcome people to any events we might have done at this time. None of these things are in any way replicable really.

Yet, what is interesting is that there have been some really encouraging things happening. For various reasons, I won’t go into specifics here but it is hard not to think that – with all our resources and best practice during normal operation – there was barely a flicker on some of these things. Yet now, in lock down whilst we’re unable to do most of what we usually do, the Lord is clearly working in ways that we have been praying about for some time.

There are any number of reasons why this might be. But my best guess is this. The Lord is showing us that he can manage just fine without our programmes and activities. We so quickly forget that the work of evangelism hasn’t been given to us because the Lord needs us to do his bidding as if he couldn’t save whomever he wants simply by willing it to happen. The reason we are given the work of evangelism is not for the Lord’s good, but for ours. The Lord isn’t asking us to do what he couldn’t, he’s graciously including us in what he can do far quicker and easier without us specifically because it serves us to be involved, not him.

It is not as though the Lord isn’t sovereign over this whole coronavirus thing. And I find it hard to believe it is mere coincidence (as if there is any such thing) that certain things we have been hammering away at for ages suddenly come good the very instance we can no longer work on them (or, at least, work towards them as we’d like). Surely, the Lord is telling us that the work is his, start to finish. He can manage without us. He built his church perfectly well before we were here – and in far worse circumstances – and he will continue to do it now.

So yes, evangelism and mission is now considerably harder. But the Lord has not been taken by surprise. Nor will it thwart his plans to save a people for himself and to grow them up to maturity in Christ. As much as he he graciously includes us in that work – and let’s be honest, we are still included even now; it’s not as if we can do absolutely nothing altogether – this is a stark reminder that the Lord will save whom he wills, will continue to grow his church and he doesn’t need us to do it for him.

Does that mean we throw up our hands? It shouldn’t. It should make us ask the obvious follow up question: if he can do it all himself, why does he include us at all? Because it works for our good. Our involvement in the work serves us. Just like my wife can cook the dinner far more easily without the involvement of our children, when she includes them, it builds them up. It is messier, it takes longer, it makes everything harder. But there is no denying that they meaningfully do the work with her and it serves them most of all. That is why the Lord includes us in his work. He could do it all without reference to us – and it seems that is (to some degree) where we are right now – but it should cause us to long to get back to it. We should recognise that the Lord calls us into ministry not because he needs us, but because it does us good and he wants us to grow up to maturity in Christ.

This means two essential things. First, we don’t have to despair about the current situation. The Lord has it in hand. He is sovereign over it and will be about the business of saving the lost and growing the found even as we are in lock down and unable to do very much at all. But second, it should make us all the more eager to get back to the work of ministry. Not because we will achieve something momentous for the Lord, but because we know we are included for our sake, not his. The work of ministry is for our benefit and so – whilst we know it is still going on without the added mess that we inevitably bring to it – we should long for those benefits that the Lord intended to communicate to us by calling us into this work.

We neither need to despair, because God has it covered, not wonder what the point of our involvement really is, because it’s for our own good. Instead, we can entrust ourselves to the manifold wisdom of the Lord and give glory to him in this time of rest as well as when we can get back to the business of our usual ministry.