COVID-19, CHURCH & THE NECESSITY TO GATHER THE SAINTS

Right now, as I begin writing this blog post, I’m aware of a nation spiralling into despair. Both COVID-19 and the Government response has left many reeling. Many of my friends who don’t know Jesus are struggling with their mental health. I know this because I’ve received messages and calls. I also know this because I’ve seen a sharp increase in people publicly sharing their anxiety and depression over various social media platforms. Alongside that, as I talk and meet with many Christian friends, I’m sensing a similar stirring. Despite a grounding in Jesus, more and more are feeling the effects of seven months separated from community and worshipping in-person with the body of Christ. People have shared of their anxiety, their frustration and their deep despair. As we talk, the same statement continues to arise: “I need to be in the presence of, and worship God with fellow Christians.”

Before I jump into share my thoughts in more detail, I want to state that I recognise not all who read this post will necessarily agree with me. My prayer is that despite this, you will hear my heart through every word and recognise the reason I share what I do. It is not to cause division or brush COVID-19 aside, it is because I have a deep grief and burden for the state of many people’s souls at this time. More than ever, the United Kingdom needs Jesus and as AW Tozer once said, ‘a scared world needs a fearless Church.’ Please know that as I begin to unwrap some of my thoughts and concerns, I’ve prayed and the worship music plays. My utmost desire is that every word I type would be seasoned with wisdom, gentleness and grace.

To begin, I want to share a number of statistics. I pray that none of these statistics make me seem callous or unconcerned by the awfulness of the virus that is COVID-19. After all, many lives have been lost, many have suffered and every life lost is a certain tragedy. I do however hope that the statistics below will bring forth greater perspective.

Firstly, for anyone under the age of 59 with no underlying health conditions, the chance of surviving COVID-19 is 99.98%. Women between ages 60-79 with no underlying conditions have a 99.82% chance of survival, whilst the men sit at 99.52%. Studies show how females who are over the age of 80 with one or more underlying health conditions have a 92.8% chance of survival whilst their male counterparts have a 79.9% chance of fighting off the disease.[1]

Despite the tragedy of every life lost, the response to combat a prevalent virus has been just as tragic. Many oncologists share serious concern over undiagnosed cancers, with some claiming 986,000 women have missed mammogram screenings due to the NHS being forced to focus solely on COVID.[2] As well as this, after the first lockdown, experts estimated that over 500,000 more people began struggling severely with their mental health in the UK and this number is rising daily.[3] Right now, every day in the UK, nearly 500 die of cancer[4], 460 die each day of heart disease[5], 32 of flu (in 2017, nearly 20,000 died that winter[6]) and 18 through suicide. In the week ending September 25th, there was a daily average of 31 deaths with COVID-19 (dying within 28 days of testing positive). This total accounts for 2.2% of all deaths that week across the United Kingdom.[7]

Due to continual drastic measures, businesses have closed their doors for good and the economy has free-falled. This of course brings a whole host of negative implications. It was predicted at the beginning of August that unemployment numbers would hit 2.5 million by the end of 2020 but that number is only due to increase with the most recent restrictions.[8] All of this as you can imagine is adding to the brokenness and despair that ravages our nation. Now more than ever, the United Kingdom needs the hope of the Gospel.

PRAY FOR YOUR PASTORS

As you can imagine, this post is focused on the gathering of the saints and believers coming back together. Despite this, let me be clear – this post is not an attack on church leadership. In fact, in my honest opinion, church leaders across this country, including my own, are real heroes.

The stress and pressure many face at this time is immeasurable to anything they have previously encountered. Right now, more than anything, these leaders need our prayers and our support. They have had to deal with the personal emotional toil of the past seven months whilst also coming alongside and pastoring those in their congregation who are also struggling. They’ve had to move their services online, whilst some have had to take extra time to reach out to members where meeting online isn’t a viable option. They’ve then had to walk a tightrope of keeping many of their thoughts and opinions to themselves as they recognise their members will hold differing views. On top of that, they’ve had to plan for a return to church under difficult circumstances and frustrating regulations. As an example, I know one church that has been told that to open their doors they need to replace their whole air conditioning system first! I’ve then heard of another who have adhered to every rule and regulation the Government have put in place but still face constant scrutiny from the local police. Many pastors at this time are worn out. They’re tired and are struggling immensely.

Right now more than ever we need to pray for and support our church leaders. At this time, instead of showing disgruntlement, we must choose to lift up their weary hands just as Aaron and Ur lifted the hands of Moses in Exodus 17. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes, encourage them, stand with them and most of all, pray for them.

THE PEOPLE OF GOD MUST GATHER

With that said, as we soon approach mid-October, many churches across the UK have begun to slowly open their doors at a reduced capacity. Despite this, the vast majority still remain closed. As much as I celebrate the churches who have been able to open, my heart grieves for those who still have their doors shut.

I remember when lockdown first began and the church went online. In the buzz of what was taking place, I was overjoyed. I look back on that time and I still smile. As the Church, we found our voice, and in unison we flooded the internet with the Gospel. Many people with pre-conceived ideas and misconceptions of church, as well as those who would never step inside a church building, discovered Jesus online. First time decisions were made and Christians who had never shared their faith began to share their church services through mediums such as Facebook and Instagram. We learnt new skills and recognised, if we want to reach people where they’re at, we must have an online presence.

This season became an opportunity for the Church to learn, develop and serve outside of their four walls. As I’ve spoken with church leaders across the region I’ve heard of wonderful ways in which the Church responded to the needs of the community during the pandemic – truly being Jesus’ hands and feet. For example, through the ‘This is Love’ campaign by Samaritan’s Purse UK, 600 churches received grants and PPE (at a time when it was scarce). This helped the Church serve nearly 500 communities, reaching approximately 500,000 people in need.

I heard many Christians share words of God doing a new thing at this time. I heard some explain that God was closing the doors of the Church and putting it upon the potter’s wheel to be remodelled and reshaped. In the first few months I was inclined to agree. There is no doubt, as beautiful as God’s bride is, there is much that needs to change in how we ‘do’ church. However, seven months on, I find the silence staggering as much of the Church are still unable to meet together. In fact, as the days go on, I am more saddened that we are settling for Zoom and Instagram Live over in person meetings. For some reason we were allowed to ‘Eat out to Help Out’, ride aboard packed trains and planes, pack out coffee shops and sit shoulder to shoulder in beer gardens yet we’ve been unable to gather together to worship God without facing extreme scrutiny.

Many of you may question what the big deal is. After all, if we have Zoom surely we should just ride the wave until we can meet again as a congregation? Surely we should just read our Bibles, play worship music, pray and wait? Isn’t that the most noble and caring thing to do? In my opinion, this may have made sense if what we were told about flattening the curve for three weeks to not overwhelm the NHS was true, but after seven long months we need to reassess.

For those of us who have walked with God a great length of time, have developed spiritual practices and have a firm foundation in our faith, it’s easy to think all is okay. The reality is however, right now, many Christians are struggling both spiritually and emotionally. Whilst many of us may be feeding ourselves at home, we must realise that many others are unable to prepare a meal and find themselves spiritually starving.

Perhaps it’s the evangelist in me, but as the months have gone on, I’ve recognised the desperate need for the Church to find it’s voice and swing wide their doors, not only for the sake of the unsaved, but for the sake of the saints too. I’ve heard countless stories over the months that have truly broken my heart. I recently spoke to someone I greatly respect. She explained that many of the men and women she works with who come out of rehab, walk into church and receive the love and support they need. Now they have nothing. Many of these men and women have since relapsed and fallen back into addiction. For other Christians, the lack of physical church, whether inside or outside the building have brought feelings of isolation. For many, this has led them to distant themselves not only from God but their church family too. Then there are others again who feel spiritually dry, riddled with anxiety, anger, despair and depression. The answer I’m proposing is not to simply gather and enjoy a holy huddle, but instead, just like in the book of Acts, gather together so we can in turn scatter out into the world bringing transformational hope to our communities.

The Church is called to be a city on a hill, a safe haven, a place where all are welcome and can receive the healing they need. At this time, more than any other, people are crying out for hope, community and the presence of God, all of which the Church offers in abundance. Let us not forget, the Church is the hope of the world and the world at this time needs Jesus! As great as online church and Zoom is (and many churches are doing an incredible job), for most, it simply isn’t enough. Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us that we must not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. Instead, we must stir each other up to love and good works and encourage one another in the faith. Acts 2:42 tells us that the early believers devoted themselves to fellowship and due to this and a number of other factors, the Church grew. Colossians 3:16 talks of the importance of singing psalms and spiritual songs together. Even at the beginning of Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit first fell, we read that the early disciples were not in separate houses alone, but were all together in one place.

I’ll be honest with you. At the beginning of August, without even realising it, I felt spiritually dry. Frustration was growing around COVID-19 and I recognised I needed a fresh touch from God. As important as quiet time with God is to me, I knew I had to be with God’s people. Therefore, with my two brother-in-laws, I travelled down to London to join my friend Daniel Chand who faithfully put on a ten-night tent mission. Daniel, Tanya and their team did a wonderful job. They respected and honoured the local authorities and all seats were socially distanced as people were asked to remain in their bubbles. Despite this, the Spirit of God moved powerfully as hundreds sang and worshipped God together before we heard from the Word and prayed for one another in our bubbles. This was for me where the rubber hit the road. I recognised the desperate need for us to once again gather together as the Church. The three of us left revitalised, on-fire and full of the Holy Spirit.

I recognise at this time that some may feel uncomfortable meeting together. Due to COVID-19, whether elderly or facing underlying health conditions there could be reluctance to be around others. I understand this. However, if our reason for not meeting is because we feel our rights are being violated then we need to think again. Some people have told me that if they’re forced to wear a mask or socially distance, they will refuse to attend a service. In my opinion, and I say this with a sincere heart, this kind of thinking is self-centred and short-sighted. In the book of Acts there is a story of Paul and Silas who are locked up in prison. Through their worship to God, we read that their chains fell off and the prison doors opened. The amazing thing was that it wasn’t just their chains that fell off but the chains of every other prisoner. In other words, their praise produced collateral damage. For those others locked up, it didn’t matter that they weren’t engaged in praise to God; the fact that they were caught in the atmosphere of worship allowed them to partake in the miracle to come. In the same way, as mature, Spirit-filled Christians, we should desire at this time to gather together regardless of the restrictions placed upon us. Why? Because through our attendance, prayer and praise, mask or not, we can play a part in seeing God change the lives of those around us that desperately need a touch from Jesus.

As much as the Church “broke the internet” back in April, seven months on we’re doing nothing more than blending in. Our communities are screaming out for hope and they need the Church back together in person, proclaiming the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and His victory over sin and death, both inside and outside the four walls.

As we look ahead, this post isn’t a call to arms for the Church to defy the Government. Instead, this post is to encourage the Church to begin to find its voice, encouraging believers to lawfully, respectfully and wisely gather together for the sake of the wider Church and those who don’t yet know Him. Thankfully, this has already begun to happen. Recently over 700 ministers have co-signed a letter to the Government stressing they must not be asked to close their buildings again. I urge you to read this letter and if you are a church leader, add your name to the growing list.[9]

As we look ahead there are still so many questions and so much uncertainty. One thing I am certain of however, is that it’s imperative that the church must once again gather together.


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[1] “Predicted COVID-19 Fatality Rates Based on Age, Sex, Comorbidities, and Health System Capacity – Stockholm University” June 2020.

[2] Breast Cancer Now (www.breastcancernow.co.uk) September 30th 2020

[3] “Forecasting needs and risks in the UK – Curtis Sinclair, Nick O’Shea, Louis Allwood and Dr Graham Durcan” 17 July 2020

[4] Cancer Research UK – https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics-for-the-uk#:~:text=Cancer%20mortality,77%2C700%20cancer%20deaths%20in%202017.

[5] British Heart Foundation – https://www.bhf.org.uk/-/media/files/research/heart-statistics/bhf-cvd-statistics-uk-factsheet.pdf?

[6]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/895233/Surveillance_Influenza_and_other_respiratory_viruses_in_the_UK_2019_to_2020_FINAL.pdf#page=54

[7] Office for National Statistics – https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsregisteredweeklyinenglandandwalesprovisional/weekending25september2020

[8] Bank of England – https://www.theguardian.com/business/live/2020/aug/06/bank-of-england-unemployment-rise-downturn-covid-19-us-jobless-business-live

[9Church Leader Letter – Co-Signed by 700+ Pastors – https://ministersletter.wordpress.com/the-letter/

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