I hate the way Netflix take down their content without any notice. You start a series, sit down some night to watch the next episode and it’s gone! COVID-19 withdrew from us what we as Christians thought we would always have. Suddenly, overnight, church as we knew it wasn’t possible and we don’t know for how long.
Yet I believe that God knew the schedule even if we didn’t and that he wants to teach us something even through this rough ride we’re currently on. Here are some thoughts from our experience in Sloan Street of things God is teaching us about worship and fellowship during this weird time.
God deserves it
‘Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion.’ Psalm 65:1
Our first instinct may be to ask, “how can we do something that helps our people?” That is not the starting point for worship. If we learn anything from this time at all, it must be that God is worthy of worship and we are so dependent on him. When I’m preaching to a computer screen, when we’re singing along in our living room on a Sunday morning, the audience cannot be other people, but has to be the God that all life is about. When our world dissolves so quickly, worship brings us face to face with a God who is worthy of our attention and praise.
We need it
‘…not neglecting to meet together.’ Hebrews 10:25
Minister panicking about numbers alert! How many people will watch the online service? Will people drift away from church altogether?
The reality, as we have found it, is that there is an increasing desire to be connected to God in worship and to each other in fellowship. Regardless of what mainstream media might assert, people are designed to worship and perhaps to feel the pull to that more keenly during this season.
Our average congregation before all of this was 220. The views of our online service reach six to nine hundred. Our people are watching and so are their friends, family members, work colleagues that they share the service with. We need to have no fear that people have outgrown worship. How can we outgrow our God?
God is in control of it
‘Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.’ Proverbs 19:21
I’m a bit of a control freak. I need to know what’s happening and how, way ahead of time. But here’s the thing we are learning. My planning of the next six months’ services ahead of time, our schemes as a church to develop relationships and evangelism, while not wrong in themselves, are not essential to God’s purposes.
Some folk in Sloan Street précis every date in the future with DV, if God is willing, and they are right. Time after time we have found that God is ahead of us, changing our plans, modifying our structures and demonstrating he is in control. God is bigger than our plans.
One example of this is our preaching schedule, drawn up, as I said, six months in advance. We do very simple things in Sloan Street. We pick a book of the Bible and preach through it - because that stops us avoiding the difficult bits - and yet consistently we have found God speaking directly into our circumstances as we have come to him in worship around his Word. It’s almost as if God knew where we’d be on any given Sunday.
God is using it
‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.’ Ephesians 3:20
I’m sure God is at work in ways we cannot see, but also in tangible ways too. We are becoming more focused on Jesus without other distractions. As we have grown closer to him, we have grown closer to each other.
The congregation’s desire to remain in fellowship has meant that cards have been sent, phone calls made, deliveries passed on, often with people that know very little about the person they are serving in these ways. God has grown our fellowship together through this time.
Week after week, I hear of people having really emotional responses to our worship online. Often these are Christians who are reminded of the goodness of God and the glory of the gospel. Sometimes it is people who were not followers of Jesus beginning that journey of faith in the privacy of their living room. God is at work building a worshipping people.
God is also teaching us to think in new ways, which we never would have considered if this crisis hadn’t arisen. Our zoom prayer time last week was attended by around 50 people. Our regular prayer time in the church hall averages 15. We are now trying to think through how we will incorporate this into the normal life of the church in a way that wasn’t even on our radar. We will not be the same church when we return to meeting together.
God is glorified through it
‘…our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ Galatians 1:4-5
We have been reminded as we worship together that God may be chastening us through this experience. Perhaps we felt too self-sufficient, too keen to help others and feel strong rather than accepting help and appearing weak. Perhaps we felt our package of church, worship and fellowship was strong - even impressive - and it has been taken away from us. Over-reliance on tradition, or even our building, has been shown to be foolish. But God is sovereign, and we have been forced to reshape our life as a congregation around that core truth. That has been good.
The gospel works
‘…the gospel… is the power of God’. Romans 1:16
As we worship, the grace given us in Jesus is all we need. As we reach out to others, the gospel is what they need. As we fellowship together, the gospel is what binds us together.
Rev Andrew Faulkner is minister of Sloan Street Presbyterian Church in Lisburn.
This blog is part of a wider series under the campaign, These Three Remain to help members and congregations during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Visit the These Three Remain hub here.