In the first post in this series, we considered the perspective we have in these strange times. Now our focus shifts to the first of our two responses – speaking hope.
As gospel people, we want to speak hope to our neighbours amidst the current stress. That will mean making the most of every opportunity to season our conversations with grace and to give a reason for the hope that is in us. We need to be bold in sharing the gospel with others, the divine call to repentance and promise of forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ, crucified for our sins and risen and exalted as Lord of all. We also need to think about how our conversation about the virus and its implications can spark interest in the reason for our hope and point people to ultimate realities. I think that means walking a line between two unhelpful approaches. On one hand we must not join with the media, which seems to have little to say but fear-mongering. On the other, we must void trite theological comments that, although they may be orthodox, show no compassion for those whose lives and livelihoods are under threat. We are not called to condemn the world but in compassion to testify to the One who came to save it. We do not want to promote fear, but we must also avoid allaying it falsely.
Since it is likely that much of our speaking in coming weeks and months will be done online, there are specific implications for how we comment on social media. Messages of gospel hope, confidence in God’s providence and assurance of the promise of God’s good purposes for humankind are much needed. They must, however, be combined with honesty about the seriousness of our situation and the reality of people’s pain and fear. This is a moment to remember God’s covenant commitment to the endurance of humankind given to Noah and his family after the Flood, along with Christ’s transformation of suffering in God’s redeeming purposes.
The other aspect of our online communication in this time is likely to be through shifting our preaching to technology. If we are live-streaming or putting out pre-recorded messages, we should think through how we speak and where we speak from. I know we may want to stick to already-made planned series, but I would encourage you to think if that is the best thing. May this context require a fresh look at the portions of Scripture that most readily speak to people in fearful situations? Perhaps Daniel, with its assurances of divine providence? Or maybe Habakkuk’s wrestle with God as he thought of the approaching Babylonians? Or vignettes from the Gospels that draw our minds to the enduring nature of God’s kingdom and the reassuring “non-anxious presence” (Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s term for a leader) of the Lord Jesus as He lived to His Father’s timetable in dependence on His Father’s loving care? Or, what about a series in the psalms, exploring the dynamic of the life of faith in the midst of life’s challenges?
Whichever part of the Scriptures we settle on, it is worth thinking about how our acts of shared worship can allow space for expression of the varied emotions we are feeling – lament and distress as well as joy and thanksgiving. It is also worth thinking about how your content can be creative and keeping blocks of spoken teaching short enough for people to engage fully (15 minutes at a time is probably adequate). Finally, find ways to encourage community between people – perhaps through conference call or group chat software – as well as maintaining a clear leadership in the Word of God. We should also remember the needs of all age groups in the congregation. Can you find a way to support families in building into the lives of their children? The cancellation of children’s programmes does not have to mean a decline in the progress of little ones in the faith. Creative content for parents to use with their children, especially video content recorded by familiar children’s workers, will go a long way to helping the family be a worshipping community in the home.
A final note here concerns the unity of the Church in the gospel. These times provide another nudge towards a united approach for practical reasons. It is my conviction that there are gospel reasons why we should already be seeking to work in local gospel partnerships – understanding each of our congregations as part of the whole Church in our area rather than working in isolation. For that reason, pause as you make your plans to replace gatherings to ask whether you may be able to do better if you work with others. If you are resource rich in technological proficiency, why not offer to facilitate other congregations who are not in supporting their members? Or what about online ‘pulpit sharing’ in this time so that there is a clear message together of God’s faithfulness. Perhaps this is a moment to forge partnerships that we should have developed long ago?
Speaking Hope – top tips
· Ensure communication is neither fearful nor insensitive. Walk the line between denial of the seriousness of this moment and its implications and denial of gospel confidence.
· Use social media and online church output (preaching etc.) to present a positive message of hope with compassion and space to express lament. What Scriptures will you share in these days?
· Explore ways to partner with other gospel churches for both practical reasons (some may struggle to shift to online output) and as an expression of our oneness in Christ.