All Tunnel, No Light?
Updated: Jan 19
I wrote recently about the tremendous loss that has taken place throughout the ‘COVID Era’ – loss of life, loss of friendship, reduced human contact, missed major life events and more
. My invitation was to find a place of recognising and expressing your grief, your heart ache and your pain firstly to God, but also to – and with – one another.
It cannot be denied that COVID – both the virus and the response to it – have committed a great robbery in many ways. The price identified above has been high. But has this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic been solely negative? Is there anything whatsoever that is positive that has come about as a consequence of COVID-19?.
Before I press on, let me make the obvious very clear. The life of faith doesn’t work in binary. It’s not made up of ‘either/or’ and black and white. It seems – from my reading of the Bible and my lived experience, at least, to exist in shades of grey. So at the very same moment that all the sadness I wrote about last time is true, it’s also true that there are good things – glorious things – which are cause for delight and joy happening right within our midst. Life is not either sad or happy, it’s a complex, often confusing meld of both. Simultaneously. Furthermore, I sense there are opportunities that we have now which we wouldn’t, had it not been for the pandemic.
Over the last few weeks, something I first heard around twenty years ago came to my recollection. Whilst I was a young man, I heard Mike Pilavachi – the leader of the Soul Survivor movement for many years – speak. In his talk he used an illustration which involved someone suggesting he put on a child’s coat, which he very clearly couldn’t do. The point was made that it didn’t fit, and the actual point was made that the thing he wanted to run back to – a particular role and way of doing things – similarly no longer fitted for the next chapter of life and service. The person speaking to Mike said: “Don’t run back to the thing that’s safe; let God give you the new coat. Put the new ministry on.”
This idea of the ‘new coat’ – the ‘new thing’ struck me afresh and reverberated around my thinking for quite some time, as if it had some application for us in Hope Community Church and possibly the wider church.
If we view the pandemic and the restrictions as an interruption – a Divine ‘pause’ on what we were doing, we’ll continue to wait until the restrictions ease sufficiently to race headlong back to the old ways – the known, the comfortable, the familiar.
But what if the virus is serving a bigger purpose? What if some of ‘what we’ve always done’ is not what’s needed beyond today? Don’t misread me. This isn’t a call to abandon our values. Not in any way, shape or form is it. It is, however, a call to consider what we do and how we do it and – possibly the biggest question – why we do what we do.
I’ve been in and around church life for all of my life, and I know that some things that start – things that are good and right – continue decade after decade simply because ‘we’ve always done that’. We’re instinctively creatures of habit, so when we find ‘what works’, we embed it into our own unspoken liturgy and rehearse it ad infinitum.
And I can’t help but wonder whether taking the time to reflect and review would be one of the healthy ways we can respond to the pandemic.
Can I be honest? To rush back to what was is the easy option. And, being a bit brutal, it may be the laziest. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. In a life where busyness and pressure are common, why would we want to make life harder for ourselves in church? As we strive in many areas of life for a sense of normality after two years of upheaval, why would we want to persist with change, risk and difference? Fair questions. Here’s what I want you to consider: that God is doing a new thing.
Early in the first lockdown I was drawn to one of the metaphors Jesus used when speaking to his hearers that we find in the Gospels, namely the old wineskins and new wine. Given the ‘life’ that was found in the ongoing fermentation of new wine, old wineskins were not adequate to contain it, and would burst, wasting the new wine. Could it be that there is a ‘new wine’ that God will pour out in these days, and if so is our wineskin ready for it? Or will our insistence on the former things and old ways of doing things mean the new wine is spilled and lost?
I’m sympathetic to some of you as I write this. I know that my challenge-loving, change-embracing personality isn’t shared by everyone (thank the Lord for that!), and that as some of you read this you will be thinking ‘I just want things to go back to normal… do you not know how worn out I am? Church is the only thing that’s familiar in my life at the moment, I couldn’t face more changes to that.’ Change is generally not easy, straightforward or pain-free, so buying in to change has to be because you glimpse and grasp the fact that the price is worth it. And I can’t do that for you – only God by his Spirit can convince and compel when it comes to change. All I can do is share my deep-down excitement that God is on the move; that He’s still the same God, mighty to save, as He’s ever been, and that aligning ourselves with His vision for church is the risky best we can ever do.
You may be reading this and thinking that change may not be a bad thing – that this is an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up, but wondering what to do with your thoughts if you’re not in a position to influence and effect change. If that’s you, consider the following three steps:
First, get praying. Change can sound exciting. A compelling vision of a different future can feel like a thrill at times, but if we go after something that God isn’t in, just because it sounds good, we waste our time. Pray. Pray long and hard, listening to God as you do.
Second, if you believe God is speaking, go and humbly speak to the leaders of your church. Share with them the sense of revelation you carry. Be humble as you do; when you speak, afford the listener the right to disagree. Be careful not to put ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ onto things – you could be wrong, just like I could. So if you think God has spoken, use phrases like ‘I believe the Lord may be speaking, would you help me process this…’ or ‘As I was praying the other day, I had this real sense that the Spirit was stirring something – can I share my thoughts with you?’ But do speak. Be humbly bold.
Third – and this is a big one… get involved! There is little less helpful to a church leader than someone who comes with a great sense of what needs to change and how different – and better – things can be, only for them to take up post on the back row once they’ve shared, waiting for you to make it happen. You want to see change? Be willing to be part of making it happen. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ ‘Would it be of benefit to the church if I started to…’. These are helpful questions that communicate not only that you support then changes, but that you’re willing to put your service where your mouth is.
And a quick word to leaders. If the people you lead come to share with you a sense of what could be different, let me encourage you to listen well. You may be so worn out that you feel almost wired to hear any such suggestion as an implicit criticism of what you've been doing. You could shut them down because you don't feel to have the energy or the bravery to consider more change, a different way of doing things. Resist that urge; commit to prayerfully considering what's shared. Affirm the steps taken to share things, even if change isn't the ultimate outcome. We need to make sure the people we need feel able to talk openly with us about their prayerful views as we have no monopoly on God's revelation.
Friends, we could rush back to doing what we’ve always done. It would feel cosy and familiar for a time. And for some churches, even as they prayerfully reflect, a ‘do what you were doing’ will be what the Lord speaks. But if God in his sovereign purposes would use this pandemic to interrupt what we’ve always done so we can pursue him and encounter him in different ways, then no matter how familiar it feels, we’ll never escape the underlying nag that there must be more than this.
Let’s not settle.
Let’s not shrink back.
Let’s seek the God of the new things, crying out for the new wine of the Kingdom to be poured out, ready to allow our old wineskins to be replaced with new.