A measure of our new sense of normality is that the decision whether or not to run church services has become a global point of conversation. A month ago such circumstances were not on the radar of most, a year ago they would have been unintelligible. In the United Kingdom we are presently teetering on the brink of a government shutdown of schools, and a clampdown on public assembly. As a result, it appears that we will soon face what Samuel Rutherford described as ‘silent sabbaths’ – an unprecedented moment for us culturally.
In light of this I have been thinking about the place of contingency in Christian ministry, and the strategic weight that the Lord himself appears to place upon it. Thinking biblically and pastorally about contingency might help in some way to assuage the pain and anguish of those who wrestle with the disruption that churches will inevitably face.
As things stand at the moment, many evangelistic ventures worldwide will have to be cancelled. Some of these are on a small local scale, some are national, others international. To put off proclamation, to postpone the urgent heralding of the gospel of Christ is deeply counterintuitive, but it is not unprecedented in Scripture.
Paul’s life was a masterclass in evangelistic contingency. His famous redirect towards Macedonia after enduring the bewildering experience of the Holy Spirit closing borders, led to the flourishing of the gospel in Europe. His imprisonment as he wrote to the Philippians might have seemed like a gospel cul-de-sac, but Paul was able to report that this had actually served to advance the gospel (Phil 1:12), so that even the imperial guard were speaking about the message he was called to minister. Importunity and opportunity often go hand in hand in seeing the gospel spread.
This should encourage us, in that while coronavirus is influential in our cancellations, it is not determinative in how God can work. As churches redirect their energies into being salt and light in their communities, as they regroup and rethink how they might be effective, there will be all kinds of unexpected gospel offshoots that the most dynamic elders’ meetings never could have proposed. If we have had to pull the plug on some ventures, we need to remind ourselves that the power hasn’t been turned off – God can reroute our ambitions and strategies to fulfil his purposes in saving a people.
There is a meta-concept about the body of our New Testament texts which it is easy for us to overlook – they are letters, written in real time, in the push and shove of ministry activity. Many of the documents of the New Testament were written on the run, and were directly channeled towards addressing the immediate issues of individuals and congregations. Not only that, but some of them were written in frustration at the limitations of their medium. These are unquestionably documents written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but often as the word of God was breathed out it found voice in a context where its human author wished to be elsewhere.
Some examples of this might be helpful. The letters to the Thessalonians exist, were inspired, precisely because Paul and his companions were ripped away from new converts before they had opportunity to impart what was vital for their growth. One can feel the tension and strife in Paul’s heart and mind as his imagery of motherhood and fatherhood, and of being orphaned, capture the missionary zeal which led Paul to feel his separation from them so clearly. Paul could likewise tell the Romans that he longed to see them, but had so far been prevented from doing so.
One might think of 2John’s assertion that the author would rather not use pen and ink, but would rather talk face-to-face (2John 12; 3John 13). As John inscribes his message to these believers he would have swapped his pen for a place to meet in a heartbeat – but his writing, his secondary medium, preserved the Lord’s mind and will for the church in all ages.
As elders weigh (and perhaps even worry over) some hard decisions about swapping a building for a microphone and livecast channel, it is right that we feel that this is a poor second best. There is no replacement for being together as Christians, of encountering one another, of building one another up in the amazing dynamic of Christian fellowship. There are few who would prefer distance teaching and meeting to this, but God is ordering our circumstances, and God has granted us blessed contingencies against which we might bristle a little, but which he might very well use to build up other believers who have not darkened a church door for many years.
It appears at present that no-one really knows what is happening, and arrangements are being cobbled together with prayer and hope. Many of us wish that things were otherwise, but the truth is that they are not, and they are like this for a reason. We should feel the angst of new arrangements, but we should likewise hold to the truth that God is sovereign over our contingencies just as much as over our careful planning. I am looking forward to that full, final, everlasting assembly of saints in glory when we will see how our best endeavours, and even our crushed hopes, have served to further God’s work for God’s glory. Let us not just tolerate contingency, but by God’s grace let us celebrate it in expectation of what our great God can do, even when things are not ideal.