When COVID 19 first put the nation into lockdown there was a palpable fear on the streets of the UK. Images beamed from China and then Italy sent shivers down the spine. And then we watched as temporary hospitals and morgues were constructed in some of our most famous entertainment landmarks and parklands in preparation.
It was a fearful time. Weeks locked inside our homes, distanced from those we love tested the mettle of a country who prides in a freedom offered to us through the sacrifice of those who gave their life during the major wars of the previous century.
There was talk of revival in the church, a great awakening as numbers of online viewers soared and those of us pastors trying to navigate the season positioned our sermons around the love and peace that Christ can bring. And now, some months later and as lockdown eases whilst conversations around second waves abound, one is left with an unshakable truth - fear has never won anyone to Christ.
Across the Western world viewing figures for online services are falling. Leaders are anxious to reopen their buildings; we long for a new sense of normal. But the great awakening that the fear of COVID threatened didn’t quite arrive. Now don’t get me wrong, many people have been helped, faith has been rekindled, hearts have been changed. For some faith seekers the online experience has opened a previously closed door. But now a deeper question is at work - will the reformed habits of lockdown have a negative effect on those who might return to our congregations? Can we navigate the world without our need for church? It is a question that pastors are forced to ask.
Fear has always been a poor motivator for action. Rather like the idea of preaching hell is at the heart of the gospel. As David Bentley Hart noted, ‘If St Paul really believed that the alternative to life is Christ is eternal torment, it seems fairly careless of him to have omitted any mention of the fact.’ If the church is to move forward from COIVD then it must move from fear as a motivator and cast vision instead. The glorious passages of scripture are those that draw us to Jesus for who he is - and for what he commissions us to do.
I belong to church not to alleviate my fears but to deal with my selfishness. I come not to be blessed but to be a blessing. The call of Christ is not to my comfort (that is on offer, you understand) but to my humanity - that in serving Christ I lay down my life as He lay down his. If we come to Christ out of fear, then once our fears are dealt we can simply walk away. But if I follow Christ out of a magnificent vision for the divine inhabiting humanity then I am drawn to worship and service and this has always been at the heart of the gospel. The good news is this - that as Jesus lay down his life for others then we who seek to follow would lay down ours in his service.
The Church is at it’s best not when it’s speaking but when its serving. The Jesus who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fears; is the Jesus who asks us to look beyond ourselves, and catch a fresh vision of Him. We follow the risen Jesus because in him we see the hope or new creation - a world re-imaged on the foundations of death and resurrection. If we can’t get past our own selfishness and see a life of service and dedication, then we have missed the purpose of the Church - and we have lost sight of the biblical Christ.
Perhaps there is a new message that needs to be spoken on the dawn of a new normal which is not to do with fear but rather with courage, faith, and sacrifice. The call is not self-interest but self-denial - is it not in the laying down of our own lives, agendas and needs that we most fully embody the Jesus we follow?