17 Mar Reopening the Churches: A reflection by John Benton
Today we present a careful and sobering glance back at the last year’s effect upon the church. We think you will find John Benton’s thoughts quite poignant and perceptive…
Reopening the churches
God is not senseless. Therefore the virus which has caused so much pain and grief, came with a purpose from his sovereign hand.
I cannot pretend to fully understand the ways of God, Isaiah 55.9. But we do know that whatever God’s providence sends on the earth, will, in the long run, be for the good of his people and his church.
Unique in church history
The skilful hand of God led his people to close church buildings across the world. And yes, Christians carried on in their faith and maintained fellowship and worship as best they could online. In that sense the churches were not closed. But what was the Lord saying to his people in doing this? It may well be that he was saying different things in different parts of the world. But as we look at what happened, unique in church history, we cannot but conclude that not only the world, but the church has been sobered. It is as if we have all been brought down to earth. We have been reminded of life and death, of heaven and hell. As we contemplate reopening, we have been brought back to basics as to what the gospel and therefore think carefully what the church is really about.
Time to grow up
Was the Lord telling many churches in the West that we had got too distracted with juvenile things? I think perhaps he was. Our minds had become taken up with how we look to outsiders, what image the church projected. Christian music had become more of an industry than a ministry. Some churches are more like firms than families. Our preachers were too concerned to tick their own exegetical boxes concerning ‘sharp’ sermons than with speaking of Christ from the experience of the heart to the hearts of their people. When did we last see any tears in the pulpit or the pew? Our people had begun to idolize certain celebrity preachers, which is a stark, staring mark of immaturity, 1 Corinthians 3.1-4. Our desire for ‘success’ in terms of numbers meant many churches were letting go of meaningful church membership and the godly discipline which is the real mark of discipleship. In a number of ways, through the gravity of the pandemic, I think the Lord has said that we have to grow up.
If I’m right, even partially about the purpose of this virus which has swept the earth and closed the churches, then the need to leave childish ways behind is urgent and serious. God does not afflict his people at a whim. He does not bring such trouble upon us lightly. Therefore, as we hopefully begin to emerge from lockdown, Christians ought to think very carefully about this unprecedented and severe providence. As churches and individuals we need to humble ourselves and seek God as, perhaps, we have never done previously in our lifetimes.
Our loving Father
It is the mark of a fool that he takes no heed of discipline, Proverbs 15.5. It is the mocker who resents correction, Proverbs 15.12. ‘A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool,’ Proverbs 17.10. Our God is a loving Father. He means the discipline of such a painful providence for our good. But we need to respond by seeking him, and seeking to obey him. If we believe in a sovereign God who orders the course of our life and times, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and carry on as before. We should at least stop and reflect.
The purpose of my book, Church for Grown Ups, is, using the text of Philippians, to point the way to a new maturity as Christians and as churches.
We live in a secular society dominated by all kinds of ideas and influences that militate to divert God’s people from what they ought to be. As we reopen the churches let’s reopen a dialogue with God and with Scripture concerning what twenty first century churches need to be.
John Benton was a pastor in Guildford, Surrey, UK for 36 years during which time the church grew and was able to plant another congregation. Since stepping down, John is currently the Director for Pastoral Support with the Pastors’ Academy based at London Seminary and is involved in helping and mentoring men in ministry. He is the author of a number of books published by Evangelical Press and takes a special interest in small churches. He is married to Ann and has four grown up children.