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WHAT COVID DID TO CHURCHES’ MOMENTUM

As the early effects of the covid pandemic began to be felt, it soon became obvious that this was going to take some time before things could return to “normal”. In fact, it became increasingly apparent that the covid-19 pandemic was going to change the way we did so many things – shopping, socialising, sport, leisure, business, and church — all things that we had all taken for granted for so many years. Change, whether we liked it or not, was foisted upon us. Nearly every conceivable part of the planet where covid-19 had reached was grappling with how to manage it and most resorted to lockdowns which had major implications for how people interacted — including how Christians did one the things central to our Christianity ~ fellowship (“koinonia”). 

But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
First John 1:7 

 

COVID-19, A TIME OF SABBATH

Near the start of the C-19 pandemic I wrote a reflection that perhaps the Lord was imposing an enforced sabbath on His earth. Biblically, a sabbath was a time where God’s people came together as they enjoyed rest (a ceasing of work and usual activity), worship, and reflection on God and His Word. Israel was commanded to keep the sabbath as a supernatural witness to the nations that their God could supply their seven-days of need over six-days if they just honoured Him by resting on the sabbath. There were different types of sabbaths apart from the weekly version. One of the required sabbaths was to rest their fields and lands every seven years. Israel failed to do so and slumped into moral decadence. The prophet Jeremiah declared that God would forcibly send the Jews into exile for seventy years to allow the land to enjoy the sabbaths that it was entitled to (Jer. 17:21; 29:10).

¶ Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands,
let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
Hebrews 4:1

But Covid-19 made it difficult—if not impossible—to enter into a sabbath together because of the imposed, and unfortunately designated, social distancing (which was fortunately later redesignated as physical distancing). Many of our brothers and sisters in the United States reacted quite strongly to State-imposed physical distancing and were even prepared to defy their governments and continue to meet together anyway. Australians generally took a different approach though. When we went into lockdown, our ministry team met and discussed how we could best achieve koinonia while we went entirely online. We had no playbook for this. We bounced ideas around. We considered how we could care and pastor our church community even though we couldn’t physically do koinonia. Pastor Donna mobilised our Care Team who did a wonderful job in connecting with our church family. We worked hard to adapt our livestream so that we could interact live with those who were participating in our livestream.

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
Romans 12:10

That there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
First Corinthians 12:25

 

MAINTAINING CONNECTIONS DESPITE COVID

Our church doesn’t just connect when we meet together on the Lord’s Day. We also meet in small groups within homes. But the Covid-19 lockdown meant that we were not even allowed to meet together in homes. Our Home Groups moved online during the lockdown. Initially, we had some teething problems, but soon we were getting feedback from group leaders that their home group members appreciate being able to continue to interact with each other. Koinonia is best done in person and sometimes that must mean via an electronic screen. From my experience it was actually possible to hear people’s hearts, pray for people’s needs, and study God’s Word together via Zoom. 

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
First John 1:3

 

A LOSS OF THE INITIAL MOMENTUM

It’s not surprising that when the State Government lifted the lockdown there were still many people concerned about the risks of regathering. Every night on the TV News there were reports of thousands of Covid-19 related deaths. The State Government maintained a media campaign urging Tasmanians to continue to uphold Covid-safe procedures which contributed to our State being Covid-free but also very aware of just how contagious and potentially deadly this virus was. This explains why so many of our regular attending church family were not quick to return to our physical Sunday gatherings and why our Livestream numbers have remained relatively high. When the State Government lifted the gathering restrictions for churches during the Christmas season of 2020 we were thrilled that we were able to have attendances of around 260 for these services. Yet, it was also obvious to us that we had lost the initial momentum we had enjoyed at the start of the year. In February 2020 (before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Australia), we celebrated our First Responders’ Appreciation Sunday, our Thirty-Third Church Birthday Celebration, the public wedding of Chris and Dale in our Sunday morning service, and we had already sold-out of the tickets to the Civic breakfast where Dr. Hugh Ross was to be the guest speaker. But then the effects of Covid-19 began to hit and were felt in churches around the world. Our momentum took a hit.

A week ago the Tasmanian Government lifted seating restrictions on churches to 75% capacity. This is great news and means that we can now have 250 congregational members in one room plus the worship and ministry team. But in Australia most churches have reported that they have only seen 40% of their congregation members return after the lockdowns. The Covid pandemic has impacted the confidence of many believers in returning to their church’s weekly gatherings.

And while our momentum has taken a knock with Covid-19, spare a thought for our brothers and sisters in Victoria. Their lockdowns went for months longer than ours and a week after it was lifted and churches could resume physical Sunday services, the lockdown was reinstated! And now a similar thing is happening in Queensland. I spoke with a Queensland pastor this week to see how he was going and he said that he wasn’t even sure if they would be allowed to even hold their Good Friday service this week. He expected to find out on Thursday! This makes building momentum tremendously difficult!

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
Romans 5:2-3

 

HOW CAN WE BUILD MOMENTUM PAST COVID-19? 

Despite having a vaccine roll-out underway and decreasing numbers of Covid-19 in Australia, there is still the danger of another outbreak. This threat will continue to have an impact on churches (especially mega-churches) as we navigate further outbreaks and subsequent lockdowns prohibiting our koinonia. This is why it might be an opportune time to take advantage of these nearly-sabbatical moments and reflect on what New Testament teaches about ‘Church’ and perhaps “go back to the drawing board” as we all seek to move past the era of C19. 

And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church,
Ephesians 1:22

 

BACK TO BASICS

The Covid-19 pandemic and its effect upon Churches around the world has caused many church leaders and their leadership teams to reevaluate what it means to be the Church. This leads into some really healthy questions that challenge what many had previously unquestionably accepted as “Church”.

  • What should a church do when it meets together for its weekly gathering (especially if it can’t actually ‘gather’)?
  • How should the leaders and members of a church contribute to the issues confronting society and culture?
  • Should the Church instead be disengaged from ‘the world’ and treat its Christianity as purely ‘private’ matter between the worshiper and God?
  • What do the ministries within a Church — especially that of evangelists — look like when the Church can not actually meet due to ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns?

Perhaps several of these questions might never have even been asked if it wasn’t for the Covid-19 pandemic? But one thing is for sure, the answer to these questions about the church and its mission can be found within the Scriptures and the lessons from Church history and will require that we prayerfully seek the Spirit’s guidance as we apply our best answers. Perhaps it will be then that we can build some fresh momentum and reach the current and next generation for Christ. And perhaps this Easter is an opportune time to once again build the momentum that we were beginning to enjoy just before the C19 pandemic interrupted everything.

 

Your pastor,

Andrew

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WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR ATHEIST & MAGICIAN PENN JILLETTE TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN?

I’ve been praying for Penn Jillette for some time now. It began when I first heard him ridicule the Bible and Christianity. My fascination with Penn (and Teller), and other world-class magicians, has been due to my pursuit to develop my craft of preaching. There are a lot of similarities between preachers and magicians (just as there is also a lot similarities between solo musicians and preachers). I seek to learn from magicians about how to keep an audience’s attention, how to tell a story, and how to make a point by employing the element of surprise. But there are some significant differences between what magicians do and what preachers do though. A magician is deliberately deceptive. A preacher is striving to uphold truth in an honest way.

THINK ABOUT THIS

In Australia, it’s football finals time and the U.S. the last Grand Slam event for the year has just concluded. I find a lot of life lessons from observing elite athletes — including and especially those who play football and those who play tennis. Most people might consider football to be a team sport and tennis to be individual sport. But the distinction is not so clear these days. Often times footballers are individually coached by “position coaches” and a tennis player is often just who the public sees of a team of people responsible for the performance of that player. At the time of writing, there are remaining four Australian Rules Football (AFL) teams about to play off in the Preliminary Finals (including my beloved Geelong Cats). Last weekend, Carlos Alcaraz of Spain defeated Casper Ruud of Norway. Both players have intriguing stories which I will mention shortly. In the AFL, after a disastrous last season, the Collingwood Magpies appointed a new coach for this season, Craig McRae. Even though they got off to a slow start this season, under McRae’s oversight ended up having an 11-straight winning streak toward the end of the season and now look like genuine  Premiership contenders. What do Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Ruud, Craig McRae, and the Collingwood football team, all have in common? All the players at the elite level of their sport make an enormous commitment to train, practice, sleep, hydrate, and eat a regulated diet. Yet at the very highest levels in their respective sporting codes the difference between the elite and the extra-elite is no longer skill or fitness. In fact, the difference between them is so applicable to everyday life that it may be the most relevant and do-able thing you hear for a long time. So, think about this.

LOOKING BACK OVER THE PAST 200 YEARS

As Kim and I enjoyed our weekly coffee-date this morning at Stillwater, she looked out ruminatively across at all of the development that has taken place over the years where the North and South Esks merge to form the Tamar River.

“I wonder if the settlers who came here two hundred years ago” she asked, “could have imagined the silos would have been built over there and then turned into a luxury hotel, or that two bridges would have been built here, or that their tiny village would grow into a large city?”

“What’s more interesting” I responded, “is if anyone today can envision what it will all look like in another two hundred years!”

And my response then got me thinking. Could it be possible to imagine what Launceston will end up looking like in two hundred years—and, what about our church? What will our church will look like in two hundred years?

relevance-intact-the-place-of-the-church-in-tasmania

Tasmanian churches play a vital role in our state as a moral compass and social leader. Our moral compass was given to us 2,000 years ago by Christ  who then commissioned the Church to preach, teach, and care in His Name. The Church’s role as a social leader was instigated by Jesus who embraced the shunned, condemned oppressors of the vulnerable, and upheld the sacredness of every human life and taught His followers to do likewise. Two thousand years later, Tasmanian churches gather weekly and continue proclaim the good news that Jesus taught, care for the poor and homeless, feed the hungry, welcome refugees, and provide thousands of young Tasmanians with an education. This is why the former Examiner deputy editor recently described the Tasmanian Church as “the most fundamental pillar in society” but then described it as being led by “a pious clique of fancy robed hypocrites, with less and less relevance each year to the wider community” (28/8/2022). The basis for his sharp criticism is grounded in his assessment that the Tasmanian Church has not recalibrated its moral compass to align itself with culture’s progressive values. Here’s why I disagree with the esteemed former deputy editor.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN AND THE INN-KEEPER

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR? The Jewish leaders had a very strict understanding of who God accepted and who God rejected. Obviously, they taught, God had accepted the Jews as His favourite – particularly Jewish men. Jewish women were sort of accepted, but only as second-class members of God’s people. This obviously also meant that unless a gentile (a non-Jew) converted to Judaism they could not be accepted by God. Therefore, God rejected all gentiles — and He especially rejected Roman gentiles — but He reserved His ultimate rejection for Samaritans! Jesus then tells the Temple-lawyer the story of the Good Samaritan.

THE PRODIGAL FATHER

 Does anyone know what the word prodigal means? Perhaps most people assume that it means: “wanderer”, or “rebel”, or perhaps even “backslider” or that it only applies to sons. This seems to be based on the story that Jesus told in Luke 15 to which most Bible Publishers assign the division title – The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But the word prodigal does not occur in this parable. Interestingly, there are three lead characters in this shocking and famous parable: the father and his two sons. One of these was genuinely ‘prodigal’, and, as Tim Keller points out, it was neither son! To appreciate what Keller means we might need to take another look at what the word prodigal actually means. It comes from the verb prodigious which means remarkably great in extent, size, or degree (New Oxford American Dictionary). It is a word often used to describe an author who regularly writes books – John Grisham is a prodigious author. A prodigal person is therefore, prolific, extravagant, excessive, and, lavish. Keller points out that even though most people ascribe this to the wayward son in the parable, it is more appropriately a designation for the lead character in the story, the father!

SUPER SUCCESSFUL CHRISTIANS

Spare a thought for those people who are often overlooked by churches—and if they are Christians—they frequently struggle to even find a suitable church where they can deepen their relationship with Christ. Often we think of those who struggle with life as those who are “down and out” and blighted by impoverishment, or destitution, or ill-health, or family breakdown, or poor mental health. But surprisingly, even those who are seen as super-successful because of their wealth, social stature, public acclaim or amazing achievements, are actually struggling with loneliness, emptiness, and poor mental health — even if they are a Christian. These super-successful Christians are CEOs of large companies, or world-class or national sporting champions, or internationally renowned performing artists, or A-lister actors, or media personalities, or highly sought after professionals such as surgeons or barristers. They often pay a high price for their success, including, long work hours, constant stress, public criticism, extended time away from their families, fierce competition, and strained marriages. These pressures are exacerbated by their constant travel associated with their work which also makes them vulnerable to exhaustion and extraordinary temptations. This is why these super-successful Christians need to join the kind of church that can provide them with the kind of support, counsel, and accountability that every Christian needs. Here’s how a church can become this kind of church.

MAKING CHURCH A WELCOMING HOME

For many people, making a decision to attend a church is a significant and potentially daunting decision. As they come through the front door they are entering an unfamiliar environment. It is also an environment that may be associated with preconceived ideas of what the expectations and rules of the church community may be. These people probably will not know anybody and they might have concerns that relate to their previous or current lifestyle. For those of us who are regular church attendees, it is possible that we may not fully appreciate the challenges a new attendee may be facing. When we can relate to these concerns, I believe we are better equipped to provide a warm and patient “welcome” to what we hope will become their new church home.

LOVE IN ACTION

Physical illnesses and stressful events are endemic in our society. They can be likened to the thorns that cause both pain and damage. It doesn’t take much for them to impact a person’s life in ways that they did not expect. I believe that we can become more resilient as followers of Jesus by applying an appropriate solution to a known problem. I believe that an appropriate and important part of the solution is for us to show love the way that Jesus demonstrated love during His ministry on earth.

THE TOOLS OF REMEMBERING

I like to think I have a pretty good memory.  I like to think I’m organised.  Generally, I am – I don’t double book appointments, I keep track of what I’m doing and when, I mostly turn up on time. But, on reflection, I’m not so sure this means I have a good memory.