Frustration and Encouragement

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Frustration and Encouragement: a Message to Churches in a New Lockdown

FIEC’s National Director gives a message to church leaders in England as they enter a new national lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Brothers and sisters, two weeks ago no one expected that a new national lockdown would be imposed on England that would see churches compelled to close for public worship. For months, government has been reassuring church leaders that they would do everything to try to avoid another closure of places of worship - so even under the tightest Tier 3 restrictions churches were able to remain open.

Our Welsh brothers and sisters have already faced a short “circuit breaker” lockdown that closed churches, but this English lockdown is for a longer period of time and there is no clear commitment that it will end on 2nd December, only an aspiration.

I know this has come as a deep disappointment and discouragement.

So many of you have made so much effort to meet physically since July and you have worked tirelessly to ensure that you comply with the law and guidance to ensure that your churches are COVID-secure. We have received very few reports of incidences of COVID in our church gatherings over these past few months. Despite the requirement to wear face coverings and not being able to sing, many Christians have been hugely helped and encouraged by meeting together.

Representation to Government

This new lockdown has united English religious leaders, who have made strong representations urging the government to think again and allow places of worship to remain open because they don’t think they post a significant risk of spreading the virus.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and other faith leaders have written to the Prime Minister, as has the Evangelical Alliance. I represented FIEC at a meeting of church leaders with the Minister of Faith and officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on Monday to forcibly convey the dismay that churches feel, as did the representative for Churches Together in England. We will continue to represent you and your concerns at the highest level.

However, despite these strong representations, the law introducing the lockdown has now been supported by an overwhelming majority of our elected representatives in the House of Commons. Some MPs, including the former Prime Minister Theresa May, urged the government to allow places of worship to remain open, but their arguments did not prevail.

Some church leaders have launched a judicial review to challenge the legality of the closure of churches on the grounds that it infringes out right to freedom of worship. Christians are entitled to defend their rights and challenge the government to justify its decisions, and we should be thankful that we live in a democracy that upholds the rule of law and where challenge is possible.

Some churches and leaders have already indicated that they will defy the new law and continue to meet for public worship, irrespective of the outcome of this legal challenge. As a fellowship of Independent churches, we believe that this is a matter of conscience for each local church. However, churches that do decide to defy the law should expect to face enforcement action by the authorities. Participants and organisers of illegal gatherings can be fined, and church insurance policies are unlikely to cover illegal meetings.

My personal opinion is that, whether we believe the government policy is necessary or not, the government is clearly acting out of a genuine desire to protect public health, and sincerely believes that these measures are essential. They have not been introduced to deliberately restrict our gospel freedom, nor to prevent us believing and preaching the gospel. My view is that we can challenge the law, but that as Christians we ought to submit to it. Our submission to the authorities does not mean that we necessarily support what they command, but recognises that they have been given authority over us by God. I am not convinced we would be sinning by obeying this latest lockdown.

Making the Most of Opportunities

Whilst the introduction of this new lockdown has caused deep dismay and has thrown many of our plans for Christmas into disarray because it is uncertain when it will end, we have many reasons to be encouraged. We are much better placed as churches than we were in March to make the most of online opportunities, both for services and evangelism. Most churches have continued to maintain an online presence even after they were able to gather physically again. We can continue to meet online as small groups and to pray together.

The new law allows us to visit and care for vulnerable individuals, including those over 70. We can hold ‘support groups’ for people who are experiencing common problems. We can visit people to prevent injury or harm. We can continue to serve the community if our churches host food banks. We can meet with another individual outside our household in a public open space and many churches are planning to organise pastoral walks so that everyone can be supported and have personal contact. If we have a building it can remain open for private prayer.

This will not be the same as meeting as usual, but we can make the most of every opportunity that we are allowed to continue to care for one another and encourage each other in our faith. We need to be particularly mindful of those who are not able to join us online, who might be isolated or on their own, and make every effort to include them and care for them as fully as we can.

Conversions in Lockdown

This week I attended a webinar organised by the Evangelical Alliance to share the results of a major survey they have undertaken of church experience during the lockdown. The results were hugely encouraging.

  • 90% of leaders said online services were reaching new people;
  • 10% said there were more conversions during this period than before;
  • The same number of people were attending small groups as before lockdown;
  • Each Christian reported speaking to six unbelievers, on average, about faith in the last three months.

Over the period since March, we at FIEC have received news from our churches of wonderful conversions during this coronavirus period – as well as many creative initiatives for reaching out and serving communities during lockdown.

Please do make use of the many resources that are available on our website to help churches during this crisis. We have hosted a weekly ‘Leadership in Lockdown’ webinar and you can find lots of advice for online preaching, children’s ministry, and caring for those with mental health issues.

As we face a renewed lockdown it would be very easy for our focus to become inward looking and to be consumed frustration at what we have lost. However, we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and remember the task he has given us to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel.

Pastoral Challenges

Whatever we might think about government policy, there is no doubt that COVID represents a serious health challenge. Thousands of people are, or will be, affected and there will be heart-breaking stories of loss and grief. Hospital and care staff are under immense pressure.

The lockdown will bring great stress to millions who are not affected by COVID but who cannot see their loved ones, are facing financial hardship, or experiencing mental health challenges. The people around us desperately need to hear the good news of the gospel and the sure and certain hope of salvation and eternal life that can be found by faith in Jesus. We need to pray earnestly that God would have mercy upon our nation and that we would be salt and light in the midst of this extremely testing time.

Day of Prayer – Friday 13 November

No doubt all our FIEC churches will be praying, but the Evangelical Alliance is also organising a national Day of Prayer on Friday 13th November, and you and your church may like to participate as believers across the country cry out to God.

Support for your Ministry

Please do be assured that the FIEC staff will continue to serve you during this lockdown period. We are praying for our churches and will keep you updated on the latest law and guidance (whenever it becomes available) on our website. Please do join our weekly webinar on a Wednesday at 12noon. Church leaders who need our advice can contact us at the FIEC office and we would be delighted to speak with you.

Sadly, we had to cancel our national Leaders’ Conference - which would have taken place next week. We will be holding our AGM on Wednesday 11 November at 12noon and we would love you, and especially your church representative, to join us. We will be reflecting on God’s goodness to us as a Fellowship over the last year.

20 new churches have joined us in the last 12 months and we have recognised five new church plants. We have been joined by new staff to support women’s ministry and will shortly be appointing a new Director of Smaller Churches to serve the Fellowship. We are so thankful for your prayers and the continued financial support of your churches, which enables FIEC to be Independent churches working together to reach Britain for Christ.

Whilst we cannot meet physically for the next few weeks, Jesus’ church has not been closed and the work of the gospel continues. He still commands us to go and make disciples, to teach people to obey him in every area of their life, and he has promised that he will be with us to the very end of the age.

Let us not lose heart in the face of this latest challenge but rejoice in the good news of the gospel and redouble our efforts to share it with those who desperately need to hear.

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