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Pastoral letter (5th September 2020)

“To go or not to go? That is the question” – some pastoral reflections as KEC reopens.

After 6 months, church is finally reopening! But can I go? If I’m allowed to go, should I go? Is it responsible for me to go? Given the convenience of online livestreaming, do I even need to go? Isn’t it better to just stay home? Those are some of the questions that might be on our minds.

However, to answer such questions, we actually need to take a step back and remind ourselves first: what is the church, and what is it for? For if we do not know what a church is, and what the purpose of a church is, we will not be able to make good, biblically-informed decisions, but instead be more susceptible to our ever-changing moods and whims on that particular week. So let me just offer some brief reflections to remind us of these fundamental truths first.

Firstly, what is a church? It has been common during this time to hear this saying, very popular within Christian circles, that “the church is not a building, but a people”. Where is the church, people ask? Well, it’s wherever Christians are, we say! And it is true, as far as it goes. Besides, there are many laudable reasons Christians often say that. Firstly, we say that because we rightly want to push against over-identifying our facilities, our premises, or our institutional identity with the “church”. After all, the Bible consistently understands church primarily as God’s people. In Acts 20:28, for instance, when Paul reminds us that the “church of God” was bought by Christ’s own blood, he certainly didn’t mean that Jesus died for facilities, premises or institutional identities! So we want to avoid the common misunderstanding that church primarily refers to those things. Secondly, many people stress church as people, because they want to guard against a “Sunday-Christian” mentality whereby the act of attending church is seen as the sum total of what it means to be a Christian. By stressing church as being made up of people who are working and representing God in their respective spheres, we are trying to preserve a sense that we have an individual responsibility to be ambassadors of Christ not just on a Sunday, but throughout the week, and that our whole lives are meant to be given in worship, not just those 90 minutes spent at a church service.

However, while the saying is true, it is not quite adequate. It is certainly right to affirm that the church is fundamentally people. Yet the Bible goes further than that. Biblically speaking, church does not just happen to a collection of individual Christians, each doing their own thing, but is seen in terms of a collective identity, who represent God together and are vitally connected to one another. In other words, to employ a distinction the theologians sometimes use, before the church becomes a scattered community, it is first of all a gathered community. This is obvious from the fact that the Greek word we now translate as church, ekklesia, ordinarily meant “assembly”, that is, a gathering, and that is what we find the people of God doing – gathering (eg. Acts 4:23-31)! This is also obvious from some of the images he New Testament employs to describe church, such as a body, or as living stones of a temple. The hands, elbows, knees and toes all obviously have to be interconnected to be one body, and the stones have to be placed next to and on top of each other to be built into a spiritual house! This also make sense of the frequent “one another” language we find in the New Testament. To love one another, forgive one another and so, it is simply assumed that we are being with one another in a significant way!

So yes, it is true a church remains a church when it is not gathered, just like how Liverpool Football Club remains Liverpool Football Club even when it is not gathered. However, if the Liverpool football team never ever came together on a field, there is no meaningful way you can say the members are actually part of the team. Broadly speaking, we can apply this analogy to the church. The church is not just people, but people who come together.
Therefore, to say that church is fundamentally a people is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to say more: It is a people who ordinarily gather regularly.

But for what purpose? We could explore a number of reasons the Bible gives, but I just want to home in on one in particular. When we explore the language of the New Testament, it appears that one very big reason Christians meet together is for the purpose of building each other up, what we sometimes call edification (eg. 1 Cor. 14:26). This can be seen in passages like Ephesians 4:15-16 or Hebrews 10:24-25. The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to assemble regularly for the purpose of mutual encouragement. Encouragement in the context of Hebrews is not general encouragement, as if it’s simply a call to motivate someone to try/work/study harder or be optimistic about an upcoming exam/work project/etc. Rather, it is specifically encouragement not to drift away from Christ but to pursue him with all our heart and soul. In other words, the New Testament assumes that at least some spiritual growth and stability can only happen in the context of community. This makes sense: to grow in sacrificial love, for instance, we would actually need to be in a context where we can put the interests of others first. So we can say that church is meant to be a people who ordinarily gather regularly for the purposes of building one another up to maturity.

So how does this help us when considering whether to go or not when church reopens?

Clearly, the Bible does give priority to the importance of gathering together, perhaps in a way we have not realised before. Therefore, it seems right to say that we should also put gathering together as a priority, where possible, if we want to be faithful to the Word of God. To do otherwise is to go against the grain of what a church is and what it’s for.

It is important to clarify what I am not suggesting. I am not saying that considerations of public health have no bearing on our decisions. I am not asking us to be foolish and reckless. Perhaps some of us work in situations where we are highly exposed to the possibility of contracting the virus, or live in close contact with vulnerable family members, and those are doubtless key factors to weigh. I am also not asking us to ignore the S.O.Ps that have been laid down by the civil authorities. I believe in this case, we can give them the benefit of the doubt that they are sincerely acting to do what is best for their citizens, rather than trying to advance an insidious agenda of restricting our religious liberties. As such, we should seek to comply with the guidelines they have laid down. Finally, I am not wanting to cause distress to those who sincerely want to come to meet with God’s people on a Sunday, but for medical or physiological reasons, are unable to come. Let me reassure you I do not wish to burden your conscience.

However, I would like to encourage all of us, especially those of us who do not fall into highrisk categories, not to be ruled first and foremost by fear or excessive caution when deciding whether to come back to our in-person Sunday services. Many of us have rightly been concerned for our physical health. However, I would ask that we should be similarly concerned for our spiritual health. We need to give attention to how we are doing spiritually, and how being away physically from the main gathering might have not done us good.

Wait a minute, you might say. Haven’t we been gathering virtually, at the very least? While we are thankful for technology which enables our church to come together in a real if diminished way, nonetheless we must not be naïve about the limitations of these forms of technology. Information and good content can be imparted by means of a livestream, but it could also easily turn us simply into Christian consumers, happy to just be receivers and spectators. By contrast, God expects us to be active disciples of Christ, seeking to give our lives for his sake and for the sake of others. Christian discipleship is an inherently relational activity, rather than a passive one. The deep cultivation of character and conviction cannot happen by just happily switching on a screen. The Apostle Paul, while happy to try to do his best to offer pastoral instruction and care from a distance via his letters, often expressed his wish to see the people he’s writing to face-to-face. He knows the value of being present with them (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1-13). He knows that’s where discipleship happens best.

Now, when we return to in-person gatherings, we are returning in circumstances that are far from ideal. We cannot easily talk to one another. We cannot easily sing together. We cannot do so many things! So we are still not returning to what is “normal”. So is there value in doing so? Is there any real encouragement to be found? Yes, I think so. Because what we are doing is in a sense, gathering to suffer together. We gather to endure our trying circumstances together. We gather to navigate a new normal, and to learn new habits together. When we gather, we are implicitly saying to one another: “you are important enough to me that I am willing to take the risk to step out of my house to do this with you”. When we gather, we are helping each other be accountable. No one knows if you decide to switch off the livestream midway or do other things on the computer when the Word is being preached. But this is not true of in-person gatherings. And that in itself is formative. All these things, in themselves, are a form of encouragement to one another, and helps to strengthen our Christian convictions. So let’s not underestimate the power of gathering together, even in this strange situation we find ourselves in.

In summary, I am not laying down a blanket rule as to whether you should come or not when BEM KEC re-opens. What I have attempted instead is to help all of us to be prayerfully driven by God’s Word (our Core Conviction #2) and by God’s wisdom in deciding when and how we should come back, rather than to make unreflective and reactive decisions. If I have succeeded in doing that, I will be more than happy, regardless of your final decisions.
Nevertheless, I hope to see some of you in the flesh soon!

Love in Christ,
Pastor Brian

Pastoral Update (August 15)

Dear church,

It has been 5 months now since we last had in-person gatherings, and I am sure all of you miss that time of gathering together. I certainly miss it! I miss the time where we can sing praises to God together as one body, where we can pray together as one voice, and where we can sit under God’s Word together as one flock.

At this point in the pandemic, it is easy to fall into two opposites sides of the spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is what we might call optimistic presumption. This is an optimism that is not grounded in reality. It simply says “Everything is going to be fine, everything is going to be back to normal.” It is that approach of the ostrich with his head buried in the sand. On the other side would be despair. This is where we say “Nothing’s going to be ok. There will never be any light at the end of the tunnel.”

However, neither is a thoroughly Christian approach. The Christian approach is one that speaks of hope. Hope is not groundless, because it says that God is holding the future; He is present in the future; He brings us into the future. But by its very nature, hope is forwardlooking, which means that it is confident of the future without diminishing the challenges of the present. It means we own our difficult circumstances now, not downplaying it, and yet we trust God that there will be a brand new day.

So let me just encourage all of us to hold on to hope. In the book of Jeremiah, God promised that after 70 years in exile, he would bring his people home. Now obviously there were people who hoped that God would bring them home sooner! And the false prophets certainly promised that it would only take 2-3 years before God would prosper them again.
Once again, they presumed. That’s not what we should do. We trust God, rather than dictate to him our plans. So what does that look like? Well, as Jeremiah told the exiles, they need to build houses, settle down, plant gardens, and seek the best for their city. (29:4, 7).
And so that’s what we should do. As part of holding on to hope, we settle down into our new reality, and keep seeking to fulfil the calling God has called us to, whatever our circumstances: grow in Christlikeness, make disciples of Jesus Christ, spur one another on, be rich in good works.

That can sound like a tall order. How can we achieve that? There are of course a number of things we could suggest, but I will restrict myself to making just one fundamental statement that we must hang on to above all:

We must keeping abiding in Christ (John 15)

In John 15:1, Jesus states on his famous I AM sayings: “I am the true vine.” But sometimes we miss the second half of that verse, where Jesus says: “my Father is the Gardener.” In other words, what Jesus is really saying that he and his Father have a strong and intimate relationship – the kind where the Father shows tenderness and care towards the Son, as a Gardener that cares for the Vine. That is made clear later on in places like verse 9, where Jesus states clearly that the Father loves him. This is also made explicit at the end of his little speech in 17:24.

Why might that be important? Because in verse 9, Jesus says “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” In other words, the divine love that God the Father has lavished on God the Son is the same divine love that Jesus now wants to lavish on us. Can you imagine that? This love is a love that is never fickle. It is immense and free. And it is available to us.

And that love comes to us when we are in Christ. And so that’s why throughout John 15, Jesus is always urging us to remain or abide in him. As branches, we must abide in the vine. That love can only flow through us when we are attached to Christ.

What does it mean to abide? Verse 10 ties it to obedience. It simply means listening to Jesus. Now the danger here is that this could easily devolve to the kind of works-righteousness or outward religion that Jesus has been condemning in the Sermon of the Mount series that we have been going through over the last few months. That’s not what Jesus is getting at, as if busyness in maintaining so-called “Christian activities” or “spiritual disciplines” is the key to abiding. Those activities or disciplines are certainly helpful and even necessary. However, we must keep in mind that the goal is not the activities or disciplines themselves. It is to know, love, trust and obey Christ. It is to stay plugged in to him. After all, that’s what branches of a vine would naturally do: stay connected. That’s what abiding is about.

So even in this time where we cannot be fully connected to one another, let’s make sure to stay connected to Christ. For hear these words of Jesus, and see what his purpose is: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
Amen.

Where we are up to

  1. The Ethernet in the main church hall is finally up and working.
  2. The raw video footage for our S.O.P has been shot and is currently being edited by a team. This will help inform us what to do and expect once in-person gatherings resume.
  3. The KEC leadership has agreed to fix September 13th as the date of our re-opening. This is to give adequate time to the A/V and usher team to make sure they are thoroughly prepared. We will try as much as possible to adhere to this date.


    Love in Christ,
    Pastor Brian
    BEM KUCHING EVANGELICAL CHURCH

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