Christ, COVID-19 and the Church

I’ve been involved in ministry for slightly over three decades now. I remember sitting in a strategy meeting in the year 1990. Our leaders were passionately sharing about what they wanted to accomplish by 2020. Most Christian organisations or churches have used a phrase like Vision 2020 sometime or the other. Back then, 30 years looked like a long time, but here I am thirty years older.

What an opportunity to look back and see what God has done and is still doing. I’d like to do a high-level reflection on the last 100 years in light of what Jesus said in Matthew 16: 17 & 18,

“Jesus replied, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it...”

I see a pattern and progression around the way God is building the local church, which is his primary partner in his grand mission. Before we embark on that reflection it is essential to know that all of us who are followers of Jesus Christ are under his reign. In fact, Jesus spoke a lot about God’s kingdom. His gospel wasn’t just about the Gospel of the Santa Claus (Prosperity gospel) or the Gospel of the Frankenstein (Turn our burn approach) but he proclaimed the Gospel of the kingdom of God. It has implications for the here and now and enables us to live our faith in the real world. While the Christian faith is personal, it is not private. In fact, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, 

‘Your kingdom come, your will be done as on earth as it is in heaven …’ (Matthew 6:10) 

Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom, and we know, that the full consummation of God’s kingdom is yet to happen in the future. Therefore, we live in the ‘now and not yet’ season. That’s one reason why we still see things like COVID 19 and all other mess happening in this world. Despite this, God is advancing his kingdom through ordinary people. Although the church is not equal to the kingdom of God, it is his primary vehicle. 

The Church is primarily about the following four things, 

1. The kerygma – the preaching 

2. The didache – the teaching 

3. The koinonia – the fellowship 

4. The diakonia – the service 

It bears witness to the kingdom of God in doing the above. What this means is that the community of God is called to reflect his character – to be a sacred community in a secular world. After all, we are not just signposts but called to a prophetic sign of his kingdom – a visible expression of his invisible kingdom. The kingdom of God is marked by agape love, shalom blessedness, righteousness and justice. It represents the liberation of humankind from all kinds of alienation, freedom for creativity, a community of love and reconciliation of people with nature, with others, with God and with oneself. The kingdom values affirm human dignity and the worth of human persons. These values and marks of the kingdom should be seen in the local church, as a part of the body of Christ. We all know we aren’t there yet and it is certainly comforting to know Christ is ultimately building his church. 

The rise of the Para-Church centred around Ministry leaders. 

In the early decades of the 20th century, for the most part, the ‘established’ church was far removed from reflecting the nature of God’s kingdom. Church itself became a mini-kingdom. In the process, the church became spiritually unhealthy, couldn’t withstand the attacks of secular ideologies, and it suffered poor leadership. It will be interesting to study the impact of those two ugly world wars on the established church and how it helped its members to deal with the great depression. 

But thankfully, God isn’t interested in growing or using what he has not approved. On the contrary, God is committed to advance his kingdom. While he still used human beings, he by-passed the church for a little while. God needed to call several individuals outside the organised human-made church structures for evangelism, discipleship and missional engagement. He also used many of these new movements to equip God’s people for God’s kingdom, which the so-called church wasn’t doing then. It is important to note that these individuals were a part of their church but their ministries were too radical for the church structures back then. 

From early 1940s till about 1960s, there was a surge of young missional entrepreneurs who were reaching children, youth, university students and the hippies. I’ve had the privilege of spending three solid months with the founder of once such radical movement. When I was growing up as a new believer, I got more out of “para-church” organisations than out of my local church. I would highly encourage you to read about the people God was using to start these organisations.

God was doing something through these para-church agencies. They were focussed, passionate and nothing short of being trailblazers. Their efforts impacted the lives of hundreds and thousands of people. Many gave their lives to serving on a full-time basis. Many others went to study in seminaries, plant churches, start new organisations,  and become pastors. In the grand story of God’s mission, we see the role of the para-church agency as a force that awakened and, in some cases, assisted the local church, pointing her back to God’s kingdom. 

Over time, some of these movements lost the plot along the way and soon became power structures themselves. Gradually, we began to see gaps between the para-church organisations and the local church. Para-church agencies were operating out of silos, and that is never the right thing to do. Meanwhile, many people who were getting saved by the programmes of these para-church organisations were inclined to join their local church. Slowly but steadily the church became much healthier. 

The rise of the Local Church centred around the Pastor. 

God was bringing back the emphasis to his original vehicle – the local church. (Now, this doesn’t mean that there is no place for ‘para-church’ organisations. Probably many out there need to close down, but there is a valid reason why many of them exist. The effort should always be to work in and through the local church. However, at the end of the day, all such organisations are a part of the universal church of God). 

I saw the rise of the local church in India in my 30 years ministry. Back in the late 80s or early 90s, it was rare to see an active, mission-minded, focussed local church. Today, there are so many. I recently preached at a small church in Bangalore. It was only a delight to listen to the Pastor’s heart and see evidence of some amazing things they are doing among children, youth and in church planting. I came away thinking this church doesn’t need an organisation to come alongside. The truth is there are many churches like that today. 

However, a lot of churches today centre around their pastors or their leadership team. Most members come with a passive posture merely to fulfil their religious obligations. When we first moved to Bangalore, one leading Pastor told me that he struggles to mobilise his members to play an active part in the life of the church. In most churches, few do the work of many. This is the heart cry of many Pastors today. While their church is healthy on a macro level, the load is heavy on a few people. 

The rise of laity centred local church?

More recently, a lot more people are speaking about the call to the laity in the church. In his book, ‘Called to awaken the laity,’ Dr John Oak rightly says, “…lay people are the best and the greatest potential the church has. Negatively speaking, laypeople are a serious challenge for the church if not mobilised…” 

The problem is two-folded. Firstly, how do we mobilise a busy bunch of people to find their fit in God’s service meaningfully? Secondly, is the church today willing to radically remodel their framework of ministry to make a place for their laypeople?” Many churches haven’t utilised their natural talents, spiritual gifts and acquired knowledge, within the context of their church ministry. 

I wonder if the present pandemic is creating an opportunity to see a sharp rise in the involvement of individuals & families in the life and mission of the church. One Pastor recently told me that he saw a rise in member engagement by nearly 50%. For most churches, the lockdown has unlocked new avenues. Some of them have confessed that they are busier planning for the church now and they need other talents and skills to go online. I’m sure there are some negatives as well but for the most part, it seems like churches are seeing people join them (from other parts of the world) they would otherwise not have. It may seem to us that the church services are no longer able to gather as they did prior to this pandemic. This may seem that the church is closed – but is it? On the contrary, God is restoring the role of every family in the church even more so.

I’ve been thinking of what God did during reformation through Martin Luther. A core element of the reformation was the priesthood of all believers. Timothy George (General Editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture), talks about Luther’s Address to the Nobility of the German Nation in 1520.

Luther criticised the traditional distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” orders—the laity and the clergy—arguing that all who belong to Christ through faith, baptism, and the Gospel shared in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and belonged “truly to the spiritual estate”: “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course, it is not seemly that just anybody shall exercise such office.” 

This was a radical thing for Martin Luther to say. Eventually the Pope excommunicated him on January 3, 1521.

All believers are called to be priests, but not all are led to become pastors in a local church. However, it seems to me that the church today needs yet another reformation. Even though the idea of the priesthood of all believers came afresh during the time of Luther, it seems to me that it merely went from the Roman Catholic church to the Protestant church. 

We are back to square one – and the attitude is, let the pastor do all the job.

Today, we have the opportunity to see the rise of every Christian family to be the salt (being in the cooking pot gently doing its work) and the light (to be a bright witness in every sphere of society as a sign of God’s kingdom, and not forgetting to use their flame within their local church). The family was God’s design way before the church became so. It is the first church, first school, and the first hospital etc. Imagine what it would look like if every family in every local church found their fit in God’s kingdom. 

I think from the 1940s all the way to the 1990s was the era of the para-churches assisting the local churches. We then saw the rise of Pastors and bringing the focus back on the local church. Today, we possibly are looking at every individual, continuing to fulfil God’s mission in and through their local church. We have to realise it’s a call to all. 

Jesus told us that he would build the church. Read Matthew 16: 1-18 to understand the context in which he made this statement. Let me explain, 

On this particular day, The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him to show them a sign from heaven. Jesus wasn’t interested in proving his divine authority to these religious idiots. He simply said the sign of Jonah is enough. Soon after, they (Jesus and the disciples) left these religious leaders. Jesus and his disciples took a boat and headed towards the region of Caesarea Philippi. While on the boat, Jesus was aware of his disciple’s big concern – they had forgotten to pack bread. Now, this problem was similar to the one the religious leaders just had. Those so-called religious leaders had memorised all the Messianic prophecies but couldn’t see the Messiah standing right in front of them. Now, the disciples were behaving exactly like the Pharisees; they were worried about having no bread when the bread of life was right with them. That’s the reason Jesus tells them to be careful of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. 

As they continued their journey, Jesus wanted to open their eyes and asked them an important question, 

‘Who do you say I am?’ 

Peter had a moment of revelation and got it right. 

He answers Jesus by saying, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 

We can ridicule these early disciples, but many times we could be blind like them, unable to see what God might be doing. During this pandemic, are we worried and only looking to the obvious or are we able to see that Jesus is with us and is doing something far more amazing? Do we see that he is restoring the priesthood of all believers and we could take this to a much deeper level than what took place in the 16th century. 

Will you take a look at your life and ask yourself this important question: “What role do I play in God’s kingdom?” Perhaps, it’s time for you to increase your engagement in God’s kingdom. But, first, you need to see Jesus as the true Messiah. Like Peter, we need the revelation from God to say, “Jesus, you are the Messiah, the son of the living God

And if you do say that, Christ tells even you what he told Peter. “I will build my church through you and the gates of Hades cannot overcome it.”

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