Still Living in a Shutdown World: Has the Church Gone AWOL?

Still Living in a Shutdown World: Has the Church Gone AWOL?

We often hear that the life of a Christian is meant to be incarnational. As followers of Jesus, we are meant to be in the world, influencing others and making a difference, living a life modeled after Christ, doing our best to reflect Jesus to those around us.

Imagine a world in which we were forced to put this to the test, pushed away from everything that is comfortable and safe; imagine a world in which Sunday worship and small groups were off-limits. At one time this sounded unimaginable, but because of COVID-19 we have been invited to fully live out our incarnational faith.

Across Canada and beyond, church leaders began to scramble at the start of the pandemic. Our buildings were closed and empty, but quickly we were learning how to do YouTube and Zoom gatherings, trying to recreate the Sunday morning gathering—desperate to maintain normalcy. Yet it was evident that ‘normal’ was not going to be our reality, at least not in the foreseeable future. For this reason, many of us began to focus on survival, and we forgot our primary mandate as Christians.

The ‘new normal’ fuels its problems

Driving through our deserted streets, seeing building after building closed, I began to wonder if anyone outside our own membership had noticed that we were closed. As well as our in-person gatherings, many of our outreach ministries had been put on hold. How would we care for our neighbours in the midst of a pandemic? We began to see significant needs in our communities. Isolation and loneliness, which used to be hidden, became apparent—possibly because our extroverts were now forced to stay home as well. The fire of addiction was fueled by all this added time “to kill,” with sales of alcohol and other substances showing record highs, and with significant line-ups on display during the operating hours of these stores. But this is to say nothing of other more hidden addictions that operate primarily online, such as gambling and pornography.

As Christians, we shared memes that said, “The church is not closed, it is deployed.” Was this our way of allowing ourselves to be comfortable with this reality? We shared many platitudes, like “these are unprecedented times,” or “there is no guidebook for this,” both of which are true. When I read through Scripture and about moments in history, I wonder if Christians living in other eras felt the same way. Were they as tempted as we are to retreat to some semblance of normalcy?

God’s shalom for us

In the time leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus prepared the disciples for what was to come. Like us, when life became chaotic and confusing they returned to what was normal and what they understood. For them this meant fishing, whereas for us this meant replicating our Sunday gatherings. I believe the same words that Jesus spoke to the disciples are being spoken to us during these days—“Peace to you!” (Luke 24:36b)

In the midst of the chaos, confusion, frustration, and uncertainty, those words of shalom still have the power to bring life. Wholeness and tranquility from the One who breathed life into each of us continues to be extended in these days, just as it was to the disciples in those dark hours.

What is interesting is that as the Church, we are often not able to receive that word of peace because we haven’t been formed to receive it. Just as it is to our broader culture, that shalom is countercultural to what we understand. However, as agents of God’s Kingdom and bearers of Good News, it is our call to also be bearers of this shalom, and to be deeply formed by it ourselves.

And for others

Our challenge, now more than ever, is to communicate and impart that Good News and shalom to a world that has become indifferent. How many of our church leaders were asked to comment on where God is in the midst of this pandemic? N.T. Wright has written a wonderful commentary on that question, but was anyone outside our tents, outside our Christian circles, asking that question?

We are told that, statistically, a significant number of people still have belief in God, in some supreme being, or more commonly in a greater energy force outside of themselves. But those people take that question no further. Their lack of deeper seeking may suggest that they are comfortable knowing that something created them, but they believe that the Creator has since lost interest, and is simply relaxing on some cosmic beach. Welcome to deism, 2021.

As I walk through my neighbourhood, how do I share this Good News that I have received and the Hope that I have experienced? I believe now more than ever, we need to be equipping and empowering our people to be able to live as people of hope, to be able to tell our story, and share why we do what we do. It is not enough to simply be good people and hope that somehow people stumble upon the Gospel. We don’t need street-corner preachers. We need everyday people empowered to share their stories and to impact their neighbourhoods and communities.

Time to stand and move

I believe we have been given a freedom. Yes, the Church has been deployed. Are we willing to go? Or has the Church gone AWOL[1]? Our deployment means wrestling with how we bless and care for our neighbourhood. That will look different for every congregation and person, because our resources and skills are different, but it is time for all Christians to stand and move.

Let’s begin by asking God to open our eyes to see where people are living in isolation—let’s check in on them. Call or email them to make sure they are being cared for. Kids are now back in school amidst increased layoffs—do they have the school supplies or food for lunches they need? In some communities, our buildings served as safe spaces for people to meet and eat. How can we, safely, continue to provide this? Let us challenge ourselves to be creative and find ways to safely offer necessary help to our communities.

We go because we are sent. We go, with word and deed, because people are searching for hope and connection. As people of Hope, let’s give it away. To a world that is still in the midst of chaos, confusion and uncertainty, let us be bearers of God’s shalom.

[1] Absent without leave, or, more formally, absent without official leave.

Underneath the Wrapping

At Christmas time, like many families, mine gathered together and for the first time, we had a baby in our midst. My brother and his wife are the proud parents of 11-month-old Madysen. She is a very curious and extremely happy little girl – in fact it is rare to see her unhappy. While we were exchanging gifts on Christmas morning, I had the privilege to help her open some of her gifts. She seemed far more interested in the shiny paper, the ribbons and bows than she was with the actual gifts.

As Hilary and I were driving home later that day, I began to recall the images of seeing the curiosity in Madysen’s face as she ripped packages apart. I began to wonder if she understood what was going on or when she would realize that the outside is just to cover up the surprise awaiting to be revealed.

Do we get caught up with the same distractions of the wrapping paper? In our journey, do the shiny ribbons and bows sidetrack us from the real gift inside? How often has God given us a gift and we have not taken the time to dig deeper to see the precious pearl that is really there?

We live, work and operate in a shopper society – everything is designed strategically to appeal to us; sales and promotions are planned to draw us in. On occasion, the Church has fallen into the same the pattern – designing outreaches to be appealing and attractive; courses or seminars with challenging topics or investing in the cosmetics of the building. Many would argue that we do these things to stay relevant with the times. But are we getting distracted with the coverings?

I’ve wondered what it would have looked like for Jesus and the apostles to gather to design or strategize on their campaign to reach people. I think we can lose sight of a great gift that the Church has to offer. Relationships, I think, are one of the hardest and yet most rewarding gifts we can have. When we are kids, our parents schedule play-dates for us to interact and meet new people – a few toys and a sandbox. In our programming and redecorating, we need to be conscious of relationships.

Many are familiar with Matt Redman’s song, “When The Music Fades”. This song came out of a season at his church where they had been caught in the wrapping paper. They spent a few Sunday gatherings without any music and with simple intercession, to be reminded of what this is all about. Out of this, the song birthed, as a reminder that when we tear the wrappings away, our relationship with Jesus is at the center.

When we understand that relationships are vitally important to Jesus, we begin to see that our relationships with people are important to Jesus as well. The people we work with, in the building next door and those at the table across the restaurant from us.

When we grow older, we begin to realize that the paper and ribbons are just a covering for the real gift on the inside – and we rip open the paper with excitement. With that same excitement we need to begin to rip open the coverings that prevent us from building those relationships. David MacFarlane would say that we need to, “cross the street”. I would add that we need to shake hands too, have a conversation – and get to know one another.

Jesus saw the opportunity to meet people and, through that, lives were transformed. Who is waiting to meet you?

Shawn Branch
Acting National Director
Threshold Ministries

This article was originally written for an Equipping Evangelists newsletter – January 2012.

being persistent

Deep sea fishing from a boat in the Gulf of Mexico

about a month ago, i started fishing.

fishing for mackerel.

i started by accident really.  it was the sunday afternoon of the labour day long weekend, we went down to new river beach for the afternoon.  hardly a person around because it was forecasted to be bad weather and we went down to the water for a bit.  i acted as ruth’s lifeguard, which in retrospect was a bad choice, because i hate being in the water over my head.  if she got into trouble, she would have been screwed – at the time though, it seemed like a good idea for me to guard while she swam in the bay of fundy.  while ruth was warming up after her swim, i had a nap on the beach leaning against hilary.

it was a nice afternoon.

ed came back to pick us up and brought us down to blacks harbour, he really wanted us to watch him fish.  [ed grew up in fishing communities in newfoundland.]  after he caught a few, he wanted the rest of us to experience the same joy of catching a fish.  it had been quite some time since i last fished – but for the record, i have fished before.  it was fun, we had some laughs and i think ed regretted bringing us down there – we weren’t quite as serious.

i’ve been back at least once, sometimes twice, a week since.

the last few times, the fish haven’t really been biting.  we’ve stood on the wharf for 3-4 hours each visit, just throwing the line, chatting, listening and being still.  my last visit, the borrowed fishing line that i was using broke.  i pretended like i knew how to fix it and put it back together.  still broke.  ed felt bad and wanted to leave because i couldn’t fish.  i wanted to stay.

it is so peaceful and relaxing, standing on some floating wood along the coast of the ocean. fishing and watching others fish.  because the mackerel season is basically over, we weren’t catching much.  we tried a few different places.  it gave me lots of time to think and wonder.  we started catching some harbour pollock, which aren’t very good (i’m told).  it was fun catching them, we were catching 3-5 at a time but releasing them.

it got me to thinking that as followers of Jesus, we are called to be persistent – castling the line, being patient and waiting.  when Jesus called simon, james and john, he met them after a long night of fishing and told them to go back out.  they were reluctant but went back out and fished again.  caught a boat load.  ed and i began talking about how hilarious our situation was and soon realized that its similar in ministry, you can throw the line – offer a program, meal, event, etc… and catch some results.  but it requires patience to catch what you’re hoping for – growth, a willing heart.

i want to go back fishing – i’m not sure by the water or on the streets.

Press Release from Work

Same Mission, New Brand

Threshold  Ministries

March 24, 2010 (Saint John NB) – Thankful for its 81 year history in Canada, the Church Army in Canada will be operating as Threshold Ministries as of May 1, 2010.  This name change comes after many years of discernment and discussion with staff and supporters.  It became clear that in this new millennium the historic name ‘Church Army’ created more barriers than bridges. The mandate for Threshold Ministries will continue to be “helping bring people, from all walks of life, into a living relationship with Jesus Christ and with His people.” Threshold represents for us a place of new beginnings both for our community of evangelist but more importantly for those who put their trust in Jesus as a result of our ministry. Threshold is the place of entrance into the Kingdom of God and a place of exit into the world in mission.

We have discovered over the years that key to any genuine evangelism is relationship building. An authentic love for people is crucial, just as Jesus loved people.  In order to have such opportunities, there can be no unnecessary walls or obstacles to relationships and opportunities to share our faith with others.  This ministry is meant to be focused on inviting others to know they are welcome, wanted, needed and loved by Jesus.  We do not exist for ourselves.  This is not a club.  There can be no wall between the message of Jesus and the people.

Over the course of the last number of years, we have tried to examine any ways we may have constructed or accepted barriers that are preventing people from hearing the message we long to share. It is has been a challenging soul-searching exercise. But it is essential to listen if we are truly serious about being effective in sharing our faith in the 21st century.

Our new name, Threshold Ministries, celebrates this mission journey with our Lord!  Our passion for the Great Commission and the Great Commandment remains paramount. We believe that the renaming will actually build bridges of opportunity for mission and evangelism.  To position ourselves to reach this culture we have agreed that now is the time for a 21st century name.

Globally, Church Army dates back to 1882 and began as a response to minister to those living in the slums of London UK.  The official work in Canada began in 1929 based, initially, in Toronto. Today the Church Army has provided the church with trained evangelists, a God-given calling, founded on the Scriptures.

summer 2009 ministry

the ‘official’ announcement went on monday about my summer 2009 ministry medley sign

i’ll be taken a leave, of sorts (still doing some of my current work, at a distance), and serving as assistant director at camp medley.  i’ve spend a few weeks over the past two summers as chaplain – amazing to see the lives of so many be transformed by the gospel.

i’ve had a few meetings with the director, elizabeth harding.  so far, everything seems to be falling into place for the summer.  we have a great team, who i am looking forward to serving with, some new names for me and the camp.

i have no doubt that it will be busy and crazy – but i live for those moments.  especially when in the middle of chaos, you hear Father’s voice reminding you that he is in complete control and we just need to trust.  i am often humbled by the awe-some opportunity that people have when they work at the christian summer camp.  throughout the summer, we are given the opportunity each week to model the lifestyle that jesus demonstrated for us, to be an example of christian community (both shining and flawed) all while full of joy and excitement.  i have left the past two summers feeling physically exhausted but re-energized by the transformation of campers after sharing the good news of jesus wliz hardingith them.

i am looking forward with anticipation to serving with a great team and continuing to work with liz (shown at right) in planning for this opportunity.

if you’re in the maritimes, you might know of some kids or teens looking for a great week at camp.  check it out.