I often hear from well-established suburban church leaders how encouraged they are about our church’s evangelistic fervour. They are usually surprised, then, when I tell them that we do not have an “outreach team” or an “evangelistic program”. They think I’m exaggerating when I tell them that, for most of our church members, telling people about Jesus is a normal part of their everyday lives.
That might sound overly simplistic, but it’s our reality here in the slums of South Africa. I suspect the same is true for most churches that are committed to the gospel in hard places.
Right now, along with the rest of the world, we are faced with an unprecedented pandemic that has caught a very independent and self-reliant world at its wits end.
A World on Its Knees
Many wealthy, first-world countries have been brought to their knees by the coronavirus. For the first time in decades, they are without answers. Their wealth, intellect, and progressive scientific minds can’t produce the outcome they so desperately need. In short, all of humanity is being forced to reckon with the reality of death, in a way that the world has not seen since the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. Suddenly, the blogosphere and social media platforms are inundated with calls for prayer as many are awakened to the reality of God.
If countries who are known as world leaders and super-powers are shaken to their very core, what hope is there for those of us living in the hardest and poorest places in the world?
In my context, a hard place means a poverty-stricken, gang-infested, drug-addicted, violent community. Here, murder, prostitution, HIV, and child abuse are as common as the flu. This is a place where the gospel is scarce and yet ‘churches’ are full. We’ve got a lot of religion that is void of Christ and His gospel!
For most people in our context, church and death is what we know. The two go hand-in-hand. A typical Sunday will have many Christ-rejecting people on their way to some church service. But that doesn’t include everyone. As with many places, the poorest in our communities are some of the least-reached. For example, the only way a gang member will set his feet inside a church building is when one of his brothers dies and a church like ours offers to bury him.
Funerals like this—though tragic and far too common—force people to come to grips with their mortality and gives us the opportunity to preach the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We take these opportunities very seriously. Most of the time, it’s the only chance we have to confront those who would otherwise never hear the gospel.
That’s the opportunity that this coronavirus has afforded us. An opportunity in the wake of a global pandemic where both the strongest and wealthiest, and also the poorest and most violent, are confronted with the uncertainty of death at their doorstep. At the very least, this is a moment—given to us by the mysterious providence of God—for local churches everywhere to boldly proclaim the gospel. These are indeed dark times.
But no darkness can extinguish gospel light. While the world is under lockdown and movement is restricted to a bare minimum, we’re wearing masks and adhering to strict social distancing guidelines. But Christian, do not lose sight of this truth: The gospel is not locked down. The gospel does not have any restrictions and its movements are not limited. The gospel refuses to be masked, and it knows no social distancing. It remains the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).
So brother pastors, do not stop preaching passionately. We have been locked down, but the word of God is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9). This current crisis must serve to advance the gospel (Phil. 1:12), and regardless of what the local church suffers during this time, it will all work together for our good (Rom. 8:28) so that we might be to the praise of God’s glory (Eph. 1:12). At this very moment, He continues to work out all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). The coronavirus has not changed that.
These are times of great opportunity for the church to be that gospel light as we see the dark cloud of death being ushered in over our countries and communities by this strange servant of God called COVID-19.
It reminds me of Joel 2:25, where God calls the swarming locust that devastated Israel’s food supply, “My great army, which I sent among you”. This specific chapter in Joel speaks of the Day of the Lord, “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:2). But in the very same chapter, we see God’s great love and mercy for His people. He calls them to turn away from their sins and come back to Him. This is the call of God to a wicked and rebellious people amidst a time of judgment. What would seem a natural disaster to the rest of the world was in reality an act of God pouring disaster on a rebellious people.
Yet, throughout all this destruction, God made His intentions known: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13). God reveals the disposition of His heart towards His people, even in the midst of their sin, and seals it with a promise of salvation: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28).
Again, the Lord has brought the whole world together, focussed on a common threat, which they have no solution for. People everywhere are confronted with their own mortality.
In the face of death, science, evolutionary theory, philosophies, and even the so-called prosperity gospel is exposed for what it really is—dung! You see, when one is faced with the stark, sobering reality of death, empty theories just won’t cut it anymore.
So, this is an opportunity for the church. Let us be those “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). Let us be those with beautiful feet who preach the good news. Let’s be the lighthouse that guides these war torn ships to safety as we shine the light on the cross of Jesus Christ; announcing the victory that has been won there through the substitutionary atonement of our Lord for sinners who would repent and believe the gospel. Let’s turn all communication with friends and family and anyone who will listen into an urgent gospel call.
The reality of death should bring urgency not just to the lost soul who seeks for a way out, but also to the believer who seeks to make the way of salvation clear.
Now, let me be clear: it is right for us to pray, asking God to relent and send us a vaccine or a cure for the virus. It’s right that we mourn the death of many who succumb. It’s right that we put safety measures in place, washing our hands and wearing masks and keeping our distance from each other. It’s right that we abide by the lockdown rules our respective governments have set out for us. These are honourable to the Lord. We do all these things as we trust in Him.
But none of this replaces the need to call upon the Lord for salvation. I love the way Joel chapter 2 ends, and I trust it will be an encouragement to you:
“And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.” (Joel 2:32)