“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Over the last few months I’ve often been reminded of this Dickens’s quote as I’ve observed both beauty and ugliness during this pandemic. The virus has taken so many lives across our country and the world. Its secondary effects upon our own land will be long-lasting, with high unemployment, increased mental health issues, young people’s futures blighted, vibrant businesses closing, and charities losing much-needed finance. We have all felt isolated, been stopped from seeing and hugging our loved ones and, for some, experienced the agony of never being allowed to say a proper goodbye as the virus takes another life.

However, this is starkly contrasted by the emergence and affirmation of the value of neighbourliness and the heroic service by those on the frontline. We learnt what we really needed and who and what was really the most important to our existence. We clapped the nurses and the delivery drivers, the doctors and the kind neighbour, and we are forever thankful for a new emergency service called Zoom.

In our new form of church life, this has also been a time of significant ambiguity. We are thankful for the agility of pastors to get us all online. We have begun to discover afresh that church was never the building but the people. At the start we were encouraged that online meant people felt they could walk into a virtual service more easily than a real building. We were joyful that people’s interest in Christianity was increasing, and we felt we could begin to have the spiritual conversation alongside the subject of hand sanitisers and masks.

I’ve been also encouraged by the response from many churches and charities which, despite the restrictions, have not only managed to keep going but to help others. Our churches and unity movements in many cities and towns have been at the centre of supplying food, shopping for the isolated, delivering medication from the pharmacy, and making pastoral calls. For those churches who work in unity together with one phone number and one website across a city or town, this has been a very busy time. With this simple structure they were well placed to connect to the local authority and become part of the solution. As leader of the GATHER movement, which helps support these wonderful people, I’ve been so proud of their response as they seek to love their neighbour.

But again, is this a time of light and hope or a time of darkness and despair in the church? One of my main concerns at the moment is the resilience of our church leaders who have done so much to serve us over the last few months. Many are exhausted through the pressure of keeping things going, trying to predict the unpredictable and set vision in the midst of dense fog. They face anxiety about how well their people are connecting as a community. Who won’t return as and when we do come back over the next year? How are we going to worship with the restrictions?

The greatest anxiety for many leaders is financially. I know of pastors who have already taken significant pay cuts and church budgets that have been reduced by over 40 per cent. Pastors were just trying to get through to the end of summer hoping it will all get a lot better but now we seem to be looking at the effects of this pandemic for at least another year. The latest findings from America is that they expect one in five churches to close over the next 18 months due to financial constraints.

Already in the UK conversations with some denominational leaders seems to reflect this perspective. Small congregations with large buildings in rural or inner-city areas are probably most at risk. It’s easy to give a glib response to this and produce a Darwinian perspective about the survival of the strong, however, can we really afford to lose the presence of the church in our inner cities and rural locations? Are we really happy with hundreds of kingdom buildings being turned into the hands of property developers to build expensive flats?

Next steps

So, where do we go now? How do we plot our course as the storm continues around us? I think we are faced with a very serious choice to make now. Shall we essentially turn in on ourselves, protect what we have and plan for contraction, or will we take the missional posture and press forward in trust and serve the city or town God has called to? Shall we hear the sensible, realistic and obvious voice that it’s time to bunker down and circle the wagons and wait for the storm to pass us by. Or will we listen to another more dangerous voice?

The people of Israel in exile also had two voices to respond to in Jeremiah 28 and 29. Hananiah spoke practically and rationally; it was time to conserve, insulate and protect, so he urged them to keep themselves to themselves and pray the storm didn’t last long. However, Jeremiah spoke a very different word. He urged them to serve, extend and grow even though the season was difficult. Hananiah effectively said God will bless you if you look after yourselves. Jeremiah said seek the prosperity of the city and if it prospers you will prosper (Jeremiah 27:4 – 7).

Can this mean if we seek the prosperity of Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham or Sunderland and see the place recover and renew then the people of God will themselves prosper? Can it really be better to give than to receive at this crisis point? To focus on our mission rather than ourselves?

Our cities, boroughs towns, villages and islands are in crisis; they desperately need us to minister the love of God to them in word and deed. We are entering the most difficult time in the life of our country since the World War II. This is not a time to be found missing in action. The call to mission in the New Testament was to a weak, marginalised, persecuted and poor church. However, with the Holy Spirit within them and some bravery and passion they began to turn the world upside down.

This won’t be an easy journey, but it will be exciting. It will demand from us levels of prayer and faith we have yet to live out. We may be in the storm and hiding at the bottom of the boat praying for it all to end, but there is a disturbing even alarming voice coming from the sea: Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid… Come” (Matthew 14:22 – 33).

Our cities, boroughs towns, villages and islands are in crisis; they desperately need us to minister the love of God to them in word and deed.