I guess we’re all pretty tired of dealing with COVID-19 now.
We’re all ready for things to go back to “normal” – especially when it comes to
gathering together for church! While church online is a good and helpful thing,
it really can’t compare to the experience of worshipping together with our
church family in person.
It occurred to me recently that the Apostle Paul must have
missed the experience of corporate worship, too. He was imprisoned multiple
times, separated from his churches and from the work God had given him: to “preach
the gospel where Christ was not known” (Rom 15:20). So at times, he must have
been frustrated with his situation, and he must have longed to be together with
God’s people again. How did he handle his forced isolation? It’s worth
considering, because Paul was confident that he was following Jesus closely
enough that others could follow his example in all things (1 Cor. 11:1).
So in no particular order, here are seven things that I notice
about how Paul handled his separation from the churches he loved and served:
1) He did his best to stay connected,
using all the methods of communication available to him.
The letters to the Philippians,
Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon were all written from prison, and they were
certainly not the only letters he wrote (see Col. 4:16). He received visitors
as allowed (Phil. 2:25), and he sent his friends to visit the churches on his
behalf (Phil. 2:19, Eph. 6:21-22, Col. 4:7-9). By sending messages back and
forth through others, he was able to stay informed about the successes and
challenges of the various churches, and pray for their needs.
These days we have many more
options for communication, but sometimes I wonder if we lack the motivation to
stay connected on a deeper level. We have cell phones, texting, email, Zoom and
Facetime, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and all kinds of social media through
which we can find out how others are doing. But do we actually use these
methods the way Paul did – to check in on the spiritual health of others, find
out their needs, encourage them and pray for them? Are we willing to learn or
even purchase some new technology so that we can stay close to our friends and
family? Are we making it a priority to stay connected, or have we accepted
isolation without a fight?
2) He depended on others who had more
Paul unapologetically used his
co-workers in Christ as messengers, and depended upon them to provide for his
needs (Acts 27:3, Phil. 4:10, 14-18). Those who currently need to stay in
isolation due to poor health and vulnerability to illness should have no
hesitation in calling on other members of the church for help. And those of us
who can still go out freely should be considering how we can encourage and
provide for those who cannot. Even more broadly speaking, if our country or
region is relatively less affected by the virus, how can we help and encourage
those in other places who are affected more severely and under stricter
3) He obeyed those in authority,
while defending himself respectfully.
It is worth noticing that Paul never
resisted arrest. He pointed out his status as a Roman citizen, and advocated
for fair treatment, but he neither slandered nor disobeyed those in authority.
Consider how respectfully he addressed the Roman commander who arrested him in
Jerusalem, in Acts 21:37-22:1 and 22:25-29.
Being asked to stay at home and to
wear masks in public is nothing like the suffering that Paul endured, and yet even
in situations of clear injustice, he showed appropriate submission to those in
authority. Shouldn’t we do the same? Both individually and corporately, Jesus’
followers should be model citizens, as Paul commands in Romans 13:1-7. If the
government says we can’t meet in person, then we shouldn’t meet. What can we do
4) He prayed and worshipped on his
own, and with any other Christians available.
When Paul and Silas were thrown in
prison, they held their own worship service of two (Acts 16:25). But whenever
he was in prison, whether alone or with others, he did not rest but spent his
time praying fervently for the churches, as he says to the Colossians: “…I want
you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for
all who have not met me personally”(Col.2:1). Some of the most beautiful
prayers in Scripture were written by Paul in prison (Phil. 1:9-11, Col.1:9-14,
Eph. 1:17-23, 3:14-21). How is your prayer life lately? Are you growing closer
to God, or drifting away? Is your family worshipping together?
5) He viewed his hardship as an
In Philippians 1:12-14, Paul wrote,
“…what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a
result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone
else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the
brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to
proclaim the gospel without fear.”
Our situation is very different, but
the principle still stands: how can we view our hardship as an opportunity? How
might God use our current situation for our good and his glory? Are we isolated
with family members that need some special attention and care? Can we use the
extra time alone to learn something, create something, repent of something, or
heal from something? This pandemic as a whole offers many opportunities for
spiritual growth: We are being trained to think of other people’s health before
our own, by wearing a mask in public. We are starting to think more in terms of
community safety and community impact than solely in terms of “what’s best for
me.” We are realizing more and more that we need to depend on each other and
help out our neighbours.
We are learning to slow down and be less busy, to appreciate
quiet moments, to cherish visits with our family and friends, and to make each
day count because we are not guaranteed tomorrow. We are being forced to
re-evaluate: have I been living the kind of life I want to live, or do I need
to make some changes? We are being forced to increase our trust in God in the
face of anxiety, uncertainty, and upheaval. These are all good things, with
potential to “advance the gospel!”
6) He shifted gears in ministry.
Paul was called by God to be a
missionary and an evangelist, sharing the gospel with both Gentiles and Jews
(Acts 9:15). In prison, he could not travel to new cities to preach in the
synagogues and public meeting places and make new converts for Christ. Yet we
do not have any evidence that Paul wrote letters for the purpose of sharing the
good news with unbelievers. Instead, he shifted his ministry to encouraging,
correcting and equipping those who had already accepted the gospel, so that they would be able to carry on the
ministry of evangelism. He shifted his ministry to one of building up the
churches rather than planting new churches.
How do our ministries need to adapt in this
current crisis? Many have gone online and seen great results. Online Alpha
programs grew exponentially in the first few months of the pandemic. Most
churches began offering some form of virtual worship services. But as the virus
drags on, we need to consider how we can also provide pastoral care, Bible
study, Christian fellowship, and service to the poor and needy in new ways. How
will we be the church in this context?
7) He stayed positive and hopeful.
In prison, Paul did not just “hope”
things would be ok; he eagerly expected to be released from prison. He wrote to
Philemon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in
answer to your prayers.” He made plans for when his crisis would be over, and
he trusted in God to bring those plans to fruition.
Are we making plans for ministry in
the aftermath of COVID-19? Are we looking to the future, or are we consumed by
the challenges of the present? Someday, I expect that COVID-19 will be a thing
of the past, a part of history just like polio or smallpox. Will the church be
prepared to adapt again? Are we losing hope, or are we eagerly anticipating
what God is going to do?
hope that these seven observations will challenge and encourage you that it is
possible to stay strong in the faith and have an effective ministry, even when
isolated or limited in our church gatherings. Do you have any other advice from
Scripture on how we should cope with our separation? How have you seen God at
work during this pandemic? Share with us in the comments, by clicking here!