What do you preach during a pandemic? I’m conscious that is probably not one of the most pressing questions for many people at this time. But I have been struck by how important our online services have been for people. We have even by joined by those who don’t normally attend church. As a result the issue has been going round my mind quite a lot- what is the best material to cover in the 25-30 minutes (I’m tending to be a bit shorter online!) that you have each week? I’ve not yet reached a conclusion- this blog is very much thinking out loud with the genuine request for people to offer their thoughts. Here are some possibilities:
1. What you were going to preach anyway…
I’ve seen a number of churches do this. Back in January they had planned their series in Philippians, James or whatever that is due to run until June. Essentially they have just moved the series online with occasional references to the pandemic by way of application. I understand this- at one level it is saying that God’s Word and the priorities that it gives still set the agenda irrespective of what is going on. And I kept one or two of our sermons in place over the last few weeks where I thought they spoke into the situation. But I don’t think this is the approach we are going to take at Woody Road. We are living through a once in a lifetime experience that is challenging everything. It seems quite odd not to address it directly when it is the main thing in life for the whole world at the moment. And the slight danger if you just carry on your series is you then have to crowbar it in. In the first week of lockdown I preached a sermon for another church where I slotted into their series and I was left unconvinced by my connections- being in exile in Babylon is a bit like being locked down in 2020. Well…maybe. Interestingly the great preacher of the 20th century Martyn Lloyd-Jones hated the publication of termcards listing forthcoming sermons because he felt the preacher needed to be able to react to situations or even the prompting of the Spirit to change his series. “Anything that happens in the world, anything striking, any phenomenon, is something we should always take advantage of,” he wrote. Our tradition here is to have termcards- but on occasions they need to be abandoned. And to me- this feels like one of those times.
But given that we won’t just keep going with our series, what should we do?
2. Comfort for suffering believers
These are tough times for all of us. Whether it is missing family or friends, intense loneliness, fears about our jobs, the pain of missing out on experiences to which we were looking forward, stress if we are working on the frontline or anxiety about our health or that of those we love- most of us will be suffering in some shape or form. And yet, of course, this is an area in which there is a vast array of Biblical material. Yesterday, for instance, we looked at the middle section of Romans 8. It gave me the opportunity in passing to talk about a world in groaning and the reason for that- God has subjected creation to frustration as a result of humanity’s sin. But it also enabled us to consider the comfort that our present sufferings aren’t worth comparing with eternal glory. Furthermore in the meantime, we know the Spirit’s help in our weakness and the Lord working for our ultimate good even in these circumstances. Next week God willing (and that’s a phrase I am using more often these days) we will consider the consolation of the Lord’s unfailing love from the end of Romans 8. Pastorally we need these truths at the moment- indeed I’ve been greatly helped by the little series in 1 Peter 1 preached at Eden Baptist over the last few weeks.
My only hesitancy in simply doing lots of this, though, is that it is not the only response to events like this in Scripture. So here is another option:
3. Learning from crises
There are plenty of similar situations in Scripture. Joel might be a fairly close equivalent. Israel faced devastation through a plague- albeit of locusts on that occasion. Or perhaps this is the time to consider Lamentations. The challenge of doing that is that these books will more often provide rebuke rather than comfort. Such occasions in Scripture tend to function as a call for people to return to Him. Now, of course, there is a difference. By and large these incidents in Old Testament history were clearly signposted as judgement for specific sin- in a way that you can’t quite say about the current pandemic. And yet as I argued in the last blog, the New Testament sees natural disasters as prompts for repentance as well. Though it can feel pastorally insensitive, if we don’t call people to repentance at this time I am not sure we are being faithful to the sweep of Scripture.
A closely linked theme would be the examples of prayer in the midst of crisis. As it happens we had planned to consider various of those as one offs throughout the next few months as part of our year long focus on depending on the Lord. So we have left in place the sermon my colleague Phil is due to preach in a couple of weeks (when I was due to be speaking in Kenya!) on Hezekiah’s prayer when Israel’s future was threatened by Sennacherib. And it may be that we return to that theme in forthcoming weeks.
But there is one last issue to consider:
4. A clear communication of the Gospel
From the figures I have seen and conversations that I have had, it does seem evident that people are viewing services who wouldn’t normally attend church, including those who wouldn’t call themselves Christians. So perhaps this is the time when I need to do that series in Mark’s Gospel (the only one I haven’t preached through in my time at the church). I think it is possible to link that into a pandemic context- what happens when the Lord arrives in a world marked by suffering and sin? You see in the end the ultimate hope for humanity is not a vaccine- for that provides relief from just one form of suffering. It is Christ alone who is the Saviour of the world. Perhaps our most urgent priority must be to point people to Him.
As I say, I am thinking out loud. There are various possibilities and, of course, it is hard to plan given that we have no idea when it may be possible for us to revert back to normal. I suspect we will end up doing a variety of the above in one-offs and short two or three week series. Probably I will only launch a long series if it becomes evident that this is going to last for a very long time. So- for Woody Road regulars- please don’t expect a termcard. And please do feel free to respond to this: what do you think would be most helpful?