by Darrell Stetler II
“In these unprecedented times…”
If I never hear that phrase again, that would be fine with me. If you’re like me, your inbox was flooded with companies you had forgotten, reminding you that they still had your email address. They wanted to let you know how they were handling this crisis.
You may not care how “Big Earl’s Rib Palace & Live Bait Station” is handing the pandemic. However, I imagine that you’d be more interested if you received a message from Heaven, giving you specifics on how the Almighty was handling it. I haven’t received any emails from Heaven, but I have noticed a story in the book of Acts that sheds some light on God’s ability to bring good in times of crisis.
- God allows difficult times to spread the Gospel to new places.
In Acts 11, we read the story: “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen, traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.” (Acts 11:19, NKJV)
The story begins by referring to the worst persecution the church had experienced in its young life. Before Stephen, there were court appearances, threats, beatings and imprisonment… but martyrdom was an entirely new level of pain. The new archnemesis of the church, Saul, was zealous and systematic in his attempt to destroy the early Church. This new threat put immense pressure on Christians in Jerusalem.
This is the unfortunate truth: Jerusalem had become a comfort zone for Christians. In the first wave of the revival, thousands of people had been saved. All the best churches, all the best preachers, a warm and caring spiritual family, and all the best economic opportunities for Christians; all of these were in Jerusalem! In truth, Jerusalem was becoming more than an incubator of Christianity. It was in danger of becoming a Tower of Babel; a prevention to the spread of God’s Word across the lands.
God, sovereignly, allowing persecution, spread the Gospel-bearing Christians across the ancient world.
Even in times of difficulty, comfort zones are difficult to break. Though the persecution forced them to spread out, most Christians continued to do things just as they always had. They spread the Gospel, but only to those who looked like them and shared their values. They only preached Jesus to those who already understood the 10 Commandments, already shared their faith in Yahweh, and whose genetics were similar to theirs.
I can’t blame them. Things had changed so much, so fast. (A bit like today’s world, right?) After all, it was only a few years since Jesus rose, only a few months since their friend and pastor was killed, and mere weeks since they fled for their lives.
The online space has certainly been the most obvious new area of ministry for so many churches and pastors during this time.
Rev. Shirl Rosengreen, pastoring a Native church in Arizona, recently told me, “I think [this pandemic] it has made our people want church more and it has pushed us to try online services, something we wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for the virus.”
My heart has swelled with gratitude and respect as I’ve watched pastors preach into a camera, try new avenues of ministry, develop new ways to disciple new Christians and reach into corners of the digital world they would never have touched. They’ve learned new things, broken new ground, and gotten uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel.
- God allows difficult times to spur innovation in His Church.
But in the midst of crisis, God brings about the conditions to allow his church to innovate… and some in the Church responded: “But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists [pagan Greeks], preaching the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 11:20, NKJV)
I realize that probably none of you gasped when you read that they preached to raw, pagan Greeks. But I guarantee you it earned gasps when other Christians heard about it. And no wonder! I’d argue, this was the largest, most dramatic innovation in the history of the Christian church! It makes innovations like Sunday School, camp meetings or drive-in church pale in comparison.
One of the fascinating things about this story: We don’t even know the names of the men! When I get to heaven, I want to meet these guys. These innovative men — so passionate about the Gospel, that they saw the need to spread it across racial lines — are literally the reason you are reading this! I’m not Jewish, and you’re probably not either. Neither of us would be believers at all were it not for them. We’d both be lost in our pagan idol worship!
In this time of COVID-19 and all the fear that goes along with it, God’s church has innovated. Pastor Zane Hurst in Salina, KS wrote to me with this report: “Multiple people have slowed down and listened while passing by our drive-in services. This social distancing situation has also provided the impetus for our streaming team to greatly improve our livestream offering. Our church was able to complete a much-needed remodel of the platform during this time. We have posted many weekly messages to our youth group Facebook page and drawn interest from youth who hadn’t attended in quite some time.”
God never allows difficult times without sending opportunities for the Gospel.
- God allows difficult times to spark new Gospel results.
“And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21, NKJV)
God honored the work of these innovative men, and they were blessed with a harvest of new souls. It’s been this way throughout history.
Robert Raikes saw the illiterate children of Glouchester, and the Sunday School was born.
William Booth saw the drunk & homeless on the streets, and the Salvation Army was born.
John & William McGee saw the need for a joint gathering larger than churches could hold, and the camp meeting was born.
When God allows persecution or hard times, He sends the opportunity to bring the Gospel of hope to new places, and minister in new ways.
Pastor Darrell Underwood in Clovis, NM sent in this report: “We found out our local children’s home lost their milk supply. So we’ve been delivering milk weekly. Also, we watch over a couple of elderly women who live alone and provide whatever they need.”
New openings to serve, new chances to influence. If you see clearly the hand of God in hard times, this is what you’ll see Him doing!
- God allows difficult times to raise new influencers.
“Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.” (Acts 11:22-24, NKJV)
Barnabas was a good man, doing the Lord’s work. He’d been faithful in serving as a deacon in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36) and made the introductions between Saul and the apostles (Acts 9:27). In fact, Barnabas was a nickname that meant, “The Encourager.” He’d earned the title with his faithful ministry to God’s people in better times. But in this time of persecution, God was about to take him to an entirely new level of Kingdom impact and effectiveness.
The church should be forever grateful for those in Jerusalem who had the insight to send out Barnabas. The mindset of the first person on the scene when new and innovative things are happening is absolutely crucial. His encouragement and leadership in Antioch helped to solidify the work that God was doing in hard times.
How do we respond when crisis strikes and conspiracy theories swirl?
I’ve received multiple phone calls and messages that predicted the invocation of martial law (“within 72 hours”) and suggested the government planned this pandemic, and more.
Some may hunker down, speculate about sinister plots, and mourn on social media about the loss of tradition, freedom and values. We might be tempted to speak frequently of the downfall of common sense and Christianity. We might doubt our neighbor, blame our politicians and predict the imminent rise of the antichrist. But I hope that you and I can purpose to be the kind of Christian that sees new opportunities to lead and that sees new people to lend your voice and encouragement. Those Christians come out the other side of crisis with new effectiveness and new levels of influence with God’s people.
- God allows difficult times to forge new Partnerships.
“Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul.And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Acts 11:25-26, NKJV)
Through his spirit-filled walk, Barnabas was enabled to see a potential partnership developing. He recognized that Saul might always be less than trustworthy to Jewish Christians. He also recognized that a Christian with an understanding of the Greek world was needed to capture and grow the Gospel results that were gathering in Antioch. So he set out looking for Saul, which was no easy task in a day before mobile phones. He invested months in forming a partnership that would literally change the course of history.
Saul’s ministry in Antioch was nothing short of powerful. A “great many people” (Acts 11:26) were saved & discipled. Just over a year later, God spoke through the new elder team at Antioch, and called Saul and Barnabas to multiply this church-planting, Gentile-building ministry across the ancient world. Saul took his Greek name, Paul, and the rest is history.
During difficult times, the Church has often seen walls come down between groups, and new partnerships form.
When Wesley was kicked out of the Anglican churches, he formed a partnership to preach the Gospel in the fields.
When Detriech Bonhoeffer was running an illegal seminary in Hitler’s Germany, the fellowship and partnerships he found gave us his classic Life Together.
If we live a Spirit-filled life of holiness, we may find this time of crisis to be no different.
Rev. Eric Going, in Fort Scott, KS shared this anecdote with me: “Ironically, even though we’ve been quarantined, the churches in our area have connected and unified unlike ever before to my knowledge. The pastors of four local churches came together for an online community Easter service. It was very impactful to our community, and many have expressed a desire to see our churches do more things together in the future.”
I’m sure it was a temptation for the early Christians to wallow in the fear and uncertainty that come with hard times. But by the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit, they rose to the occasion and allowed the pain to transform them into greater men and women.
There is no crisis, no persecution, no pandemic so severe that God will not redeem it for the glory of his Name and the good of his Church. Now, will you allow it to transform you & your church?