The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous man runs into it and is safe. (Prov. 18:10)
Two Fridays ago, the headlines read, “Coronavirus Tsunami about to Hit London Hospitals.” There is a sense in which it feels as if we are beginning to feel the force of that wave here. The last two weeks have seen London gradually shut down. Only supermarkets and certain shops are allowed to be open; schools, theaters, and cinemas are all closed. Churches are being told not to meet together physically. The panic buying seems to have abated for now. Supermarkets are limiting the number of people allowed into the store. The culture has moved from stockpiling and hoarding supplies to predominately staying at home and hearing calls to look out for others. People are allowed out only for essential journeys, and the social distancing of being two meters apart is being hammered home from every angle. We are told that London is around two weeks ahead of the rest of the country regarding the pandemic, with the peak of the virus expected in the next couple of weeks.
For the past three Sundays, our church family hasn’t met together physically. Like every other church I know in London, we’ve moved online. Small groups are happening remotely, and the body of Christ is pulling together, albeit in different ways than we’re used to. Never have we been more grateful for high-speed internet. The tools we have at our disposal have enabled us to stay in touch. Initially, there was a great shock in the church at how quickly things had developed, but gradually ideas have come and people are working out solutions.
Administration has come into its own in the past fortnight. How grateful we are for those people who can navigate the practicalities needed to set up a meeting or livestream worship services or work out ways that ministers who aren’t so technologically adept—including yours truly—can communicate with our congregations.
We’ve heard the phrase “we’re not able to” on a whole host of things. But it is a great reminder that “church” isn’t actually about what we’re able to do. Jesus Christ has said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). COVID-19 will not prevail. Our confidence is ultimately neither in the government nor in medics. God is working out His purposes and building His church.
We’re having to think more about our doctrine of the church—the mystical union we have with Christ and with His people. We cannot be together as we have been before, and we don’t know when we’ll be able to gather together again. But I am united to Christ, and I am united to His people. Nothing, not even a virus or government directive, can break that union. The church of Christ is both visible and invisible: this doctrine must be more precious to us at this time.
There is no other organization in the world like the church. In Christ’s church, young and old, rich and poor of every tongue, tribe, and nation are seeking to reach out and care for one another. In a day of massive uncertainty, we have a certain hope. There are so many unknowns. How long will this go on for? How economically crippling will this be for small businesses and the self-employed? How great will be the loss of life? Will the emptiness of a materialistic mind-set be shattered by this?
London is a city that never stops and never sleeps. Yet, God has brought it to a standstill. People have more time to read, to study, to listen. Households have assumed a greater priority. For Christians, family worship has taken on an even greater importance, and fathers are needing to step up and take on the role that God has given them. We’ve found that young people’s work during this time has provided an opportunity for discipleship that had proven more difficult in normal times.
There have been indications in the past year that people are becoming more open to the gospel. We have had more people interested in the gospel and coming to church over the last six months than at any time I can remember in my ministry. The numbers haven’t been huge, but some have even continued to watch the sermons online. The church has seen a greater desire for people to join small groups in the last two weeks than we’ve seen in decades. What the long-term spiritual effects of this period will be are uncertain. Death, which has previously been hidden in our culture, is now confronting us as a nation, and we pray it is driving people to Christ.
In the midst of all this confusion and chaos, individuals and families are losing loved ones and there is tangible fear. The government thinks that it will have done well if the United Kingdom has a death toll of twenty thousand at the end of this virus. In the congregation where I serve, a father of nine has been taken home to glory in the last couple of days. We have felt the bitterness of death, the pain of separation, broken hearts, the feeling of deep and overwhelming sadness, and the uncertainty of the future. Of course, these things are true in normal times, but COVID-19 has brought these truths home to us so that the pain of this broken world and the preciousness of Christ are more real to us.
We feel fragile, but Christ’s church is not.
Two Lord’s Days ago, I preached on Psalm 73:23–24:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me to glory.
We learned four things from that text: how we need the presence of God, the strength of God, and the wisdom of God, and then that, wonderfully, He will receive us to glory.
We are being shaken, and yet we trust Him. Pray for us.