Question upon question arises about our future: will schools be closed in the fall? Will the pandemic intensify when the weather cools? Will the economy recover? For Christians and church leaders, one question particularly haunts us: will worship services be disrupted again?
Panic seems to reign all around us. The recent lockdown, with its physical exile from the church, has exacerbated our pre-existing mental, physical, and spiritual difficulties. The human toll has been tremendous; the wreckage of this pandemic goes beyond ruined plans—millions are out of work, and few churches have been exempted from the grief of members burying their loved ones with truncated funerals.
Churches have just begun to reopen after at least eight weeks of limitations, eight long weeks of conducting services with ten people or less, of limited pastoral visitation, of fasting from the Lord’s Supper. Despite all the limitations still in place, people are trickling back to worship and we are recapturing some sense of “normalcy” again. The pilgrimage to and from the Lord’s house is once again coming to anchor our week and we are blessed by the powerful weekly intrusion of the eternal and foretaste of heaven that comes in corporate worship. But having just returned to “assembly,” the very meaning behind our word “church” (heb. qahal; grk. ekklêsia), do we now face the grim prospect of more church closures ahead?
The thought of another lockdown and future disruption of worship seems almost too much to bear.
However, we have witnessed the Lord’s provision during this lockdown, and we look to him amid whatever tomorrow brings. We may not know the future, but we trust him who does.
The lockdown has provided a reminder that God can make a garden in the wilderness (Isa. 32:15; 35:1-2). God has used the lockdown time for our good and his glory (Rom. 8:28). We have seen, as the apostles did in the New Testament era, that even when God’s people are kept from worship, “the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9) As the Apostle Paul told the Philippians about his house-arrest, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Phil. 1:12). God has never been limited, even when his people are limited (Isa. 55:8-11).
God is our confidence as we acknowledge that this pandemic may bring lasting changes to our society and even further disruptions to worship. God brought us through this lockdown; he is, as the hymn puts it, “our help in ages past and our hope for years to come.” Paul, in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10, expresses this same confidence:
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
The Bible calls believers to draw on God’s past record: “that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). God does not change; he is ever faithful.
As we look ahead, we depend on the God who raised Jesus from the dead and changes the world overnight (e.g., Dan. 5:30-31). We recognize that preserving the church in these times is “beyond our strength,” but not beyond the Lord’s.
After all, we know that God does much good that we cannot see. The crocus flower has fascinated poets because it sprouts up and blooms even in the cold, its bright colors livening up the snowy ground. Used to describe God’s new creation in Isaiah 35:1, the crocus shows not only new life springing from barrenness, but also that progress and growth can occur imperceptibly, under the surface. Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Year’s Awakening” asks how the crocus knows, deep underground, “Hid in your bed from sight and sound,” that fairer weather will come soon.
The Christian, of course, knows that many important things happen beyond human perception. Moses endured “as seeing him who is invisible,” that is, God (Heb. 11:27). We walk by faith and not by sight, knowing that looks can be deceiving—treasures can be found in jars of clay (2 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor. 4:7). Just as the crocus grows unseen, beneath the snow, so too God has been at work behind the scenes during 2020’s COVID-19 lockdown. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The church has endured a time of seeming barrenness and deep winter, but God will bring forth good fruit from this, like the crocus bursting from the snow.
If, in God’s providence, another lockdown comes, we will know to trust the Lord, remembering that the saints before us had to endure intermittent interruptions as well. The church has always had struggles, but God has been faithful through them all. Even in the wake of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the aftershocks of grief that followed, the godly had hope: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end…” (Lam. 3:22) The church has the resources to survive every trial (Col. 1:18.; Matt. 16:18).
So, as we embrace life after lockdown, with steadfast hearts, we look for God to bless “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” tomorrow (Eph. 3:20; Ps. 57:7). We refuse to fall into a “new normal,” but expect growth and progress through this trial, praying that God would bring a modern reformation in our time. We rejoice in the truths expressed so well by John Newton:
Though troubles assail us, and dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail us, and foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide,
The promise assures us, “The Lord will provide.”
Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA.