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  • Ross Moughtin

When church doors are shut


If you haven’t already done so, load the app today, now! #TKC Prayer is a key component of Your Kingdom Come, a global prayer movement that invites Christians around the world to pray for these 11 days between Ascension to Pentecost for more people to come to know Jesus. When Archbishop Justin launched Thy Kingdom Come in 2016 its main aim, as I recall, was to encourage Christians to pray together, in their church building. However, here we are four years later with our church buildings locked. So what happens now? As it happens (and I'm not sure where this digression it going to take me) I’ve been reading how the various Jewish communities responded to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Babylonians in 587BC. The temple with its sacrifices and festivals had been fundamental to their faith and now it had been razed to the ground. It was a painful time, clearly. Nearly everything the Jewish people had held dear was gone, especially for those forced into distant exile. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). Devastated and disorientated they sought to seek a way forward. However, what they did know is that they could share their pain with God himself even in song. “O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.” (Psalm 79:1)

But they had one thing going for them, even from a surprising source – a promise of hope. The prophets, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel, no longer shouted words of warning with urgent appeals to repent. Hold on – the temple is going to be rebuilt! Their prophecies held true. The temple was rebuilt, just as Jeremiah said it would be (Jeremiah 25:12), some 70 years from the first deportation in 605 BC. However, the Jewish people were no longer the same: they had been refined by this searing experience. Much of what we know as the Old Testament was put into writing during this time. This is where the Hebrew Bible ends, with 2 Chronicles. I’ve just been reading the final chapter which concludes with a word of hope from Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia. “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.” (2 Chronicles 36:23). Which leads me directly to an article in today’s Economist, entitled Sunday slump. “The covid-19 pandemic has hammered churches of all sizes and denominations across America.” They are being hit financially, especially the larger churches with huge debts and declining incomes. “This would represent a rapid acceleration of a long-term decline in America religiosity.” David Kinnaman, who runs an evangelical polling firm in California, reckons as many as one in five churches – and one in three mainline ones – could close for good within the next 18 months. I’m not sure how closely this relates to our churches here in the UK. Clearly there are already huge financial pressures and in the CofE diocesan finances were already dodgy even before our church doors were slammed shut. However, finances are the least of our troubles. What will happen to our congregations when we are denied the use of our church buildings to congregate? And when they do reopen, who will actually turn up? These are troubling times but if the experience of the Babylonian exile is anything to go by this could be a time of refining and renewal, never a pain-free experience. Like the Jewish people returning to Zion we will not be the same but hopefully renewed and redefined. Which takes me back (in case you think I had forgotten) to #TKC Prayer. One of the effects of the Jewish exile was the increasing importance of the written word as opposed to the worship experience. There may be no sanctuary but they did have the scriptures, beginning the whole rabbinic tradition. Prior to the exile people prayed as they saw fit but it was in Babylon that their prayers were formalized and standardized becoming the foundation for the synagogue as known by Jesus. It was a different way of being Jewish. So will the coronavirus epidemic lead to a different way of being a disciple of Jesus? Will it change church in any fundamental way? Of course, we don’t know but what we do know is that digital technology is becoming essential, whether it be listening (and not reading, for a change) to Tom Wright on the TKC podcast or participating in worship no longer in Zion but on Zoom. The challenge is to involve those who like one of our technophobe friends do not have a ‘googling machine.’ Certainly post-exilic Jews had to become more literate. You may remember how Jesus read from the scroll at his synagogue in Nazareth. But what we do know is that God is committed to his people and that the Holy Spirit will inspire new ways of serving Jesus. It’s not going to be an easy ride but there again, Jesus never said it would! #TKC #church #crisis

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