Before COVID-19 hit our country, pastors and churches had many privileges and opportunities that they took for granted. For example: we could meet together face to face to hear the word preached, to partake in the Lord’s Table, and to fellowship with one another. We discipled one another and also practised church discipline. The opportunity to meet in person was a blessing and the benefits were enormous.
The joy of gathering together as a local church cannot really be replaced by anything else. But unfortunately, we cannot currently meet as churches even though we want to. Not many of us would have imagined that we would not be able to gather as churches for so many months. And we still do not know how long we will have to wait before we can meet again. We desperately long to get back to normal.
I have recently finished my pastoral internship in a city in the North with the goal to be prepared and sent to plant a church in Mysore. The church where I was an intern hasn’t been able to meet since early March. And under God’s providence, these are definitely interesting times to be thinking about church planting. Anyway, on my way to Mysore, I spent a few weeks in Bangalore. During this time I saw that just like in the North, the churches were shut down even here. I also noticed that a few pastors have left Bangalore and gone back to their native places. The members of these churches are now left alone without their shepherds.
As I observed this, it dawned on me that if the lockdown continues, there can be several ways that many churches may suffer. New believers in the church could struggle in their faith, opportunities to share the Gospel with other people will be limited, our children’s spiritual life may be hampered because of no Sunday school classes and some people who are spiritually weak may lose interest in coming back to church once again after the lock down is removed. The current situation may potentially lead all believers to become easy prey to Satan’s influence or attacks. Moreover, it feels like the growth of Christ’s Church could be stopped.
As I look ahead to the task of planting a church, it seems like an uphill task. How will I plant a church when I can’t easily meet people, travel outside, or invite people to my home? People would be hesitant to join a public gathering of people, especially a new church plant which is not yet established. Sharing the Gospel is never an easy task, and the present situation will certainly not make it any easier. This seems like a recipe for disaster in the making. Humanly speaking, this endeavour to plant a church in such times is certain to fail.
With all the uncertainty around us, I have been thinking of a few questions—not just about my little efforts to plant a church, but the Church at large. Does Jesus continue to build his church even in this pandemic? Especially when we cannot meet physically? How do churches survive during this pandemic? While thinking about all these questions, I remembered the words of Christ which He spoke to Peter in Matthew 16:18:
“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
These words gave me great comfort and answered my fears and I hope they will do the same for you too! Here are four encouraging truths that we need to understand about the continuing work of Christ for his church:
Christ promised that He will build His church
When we read the Gospel of Matthew, we see that this claim that Jesus made was not going to be easy to fulfill. Well, we all know that the religious leaders and the political powers, as well as the people of Israel, rejected Jesus and his message, and eventually plotted his death. And in the face of all this, it would be difficult for Peter and the rest of the apostles to trust in and understand Jesus when he said “I will build My church.” If you and I were there along with the disciples, we wouldn’t have been very hopeful either—given the political, religious, social situation and condition then. Yet, the words of Jesus were true back then and they are still true today.
If you look at the immediate context of Matthew 16:18, it is very clear that it is not Peter but Christ who is going to build the church. You will also notice that the church is not built on Peter as misunderstood by the Roman Catholic church. Instead, it is built upon his confession concerning Christ’s true identity—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is the rock upon which Christ is building his church and it is the reason the church will prevail.
That is why when you and I understand Matthew 16:18 clearly, it helps us not to doubt the claims of Christ for his Church even in difficult situations like COVID-19. Building Christ’s church in times of difficulty or any other time is not our work, it wasn’t Peter’s work either. It is Jesus’ work and it is his concern. He builds his church. Please notice that pastors/gospel workers DO NOT build Christ’s church. We need to remember this basic truth! Sometimes we foolishly think that church is our idea, and the church has invented the church. No, it is Christ’s idea and he will do the work of building the church! We all are as ministers of the gospel working for Christ as he extends his kingdom.
Christ continues to build and preserve His Church
Not only did Christ promise to build his church, but he has actually come through and kept his promise. We see in Acts chapter 2 that the Holy Spirit was poured out on his disciples and Christ began to build his church even though he was not present physically. And through the Holy Spirit he fulfilled his promise even though the disciples had to face all kinds of opposition. I hope you remember that before the church began, people hated Jesus’ message, disowned him, tried to kill his disciples, and crucified him on the cross. And despite all of this, with the pouring of the Holy Spirit, Christ began to build his church. He has not only fulfilled his promise in the book of Acts, but he has continually been building his church for the past 2000 years against all the odds.
The continued uninterrupted existence of the church through history is evidence of Christ’s work in building his church. Within the New Testament we read of the martyrdom of Stephen by stoning (Acts 7), and James by beheading (Acts 12), and history records how the church has continued to thrive despite intense persecution. In the first century the Roman Emperor Nero used to set Christians on fire to light up gardens1, but Christ continued to build his church. From the 8th century onwards with the advance of Islam it seemed that the church will be wiped out from the face of the earth yet Christ has preserved his church. In the middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church drifted away from the Biblical gospel and it seemed like the church was lost to ritualism, but Christ remained faithful and preserved his church. And even in recent years, Christ has been steadily growing his church even in countries which are openly hostile to the name of Jesus. The only reason the church has been triumphant is because “the Son of the Living God” continues to build his Church.
Christ promised that He will return and take His Church
Jesus promised to build his church, and has been preserving it for the last 2000 years, but he has also promised that he will come back to take this church that he has been building. Because of present circumstances, our hearts are longing for the day we will be able to gather together as local churches. But the day we really should be longing and praying earnestly for is the day when the Son of God comes to take his bride to the place that he has prepared for her. Even though we would like to have a detailed outline of what will happen and when and how it will happen, God has chosen NOT to reveal to us everything that we want to know as we wait for Jesus’ return. And we also haven’t been told exactly how the church will survive this pandemic. But we know with certainty is that Christ will come to receive his church and the church will exist until then. We know that until Jesus comes, the church will go through all kinds of challenges, persecution, and suffering such as this pandemic. But through it all, Christ will continue to build his church till the day that he comes to claim his bride.
Therefore, we can trust in Christ’s promise
Christ has promised to build his church, and he has been faithful until now. This gives us confidence to continue to take him at his word. We know from Scripture that no power or authority or even the power of hell can put an end to the church. It has existed not because men built and preserved it, but because of the Lord’s continued work in building and preserving his church. And we must believe that he will continue to do so despite all obstacles. Therefore, instead of relying on our techniques, programmes, plans, promotions and methods of building his church, we must trust that Christ will build his church. As ministers of the gospel, we must fully rely on the claims of Christ. Let us trust God who is sovereign, all-mighty, all-powerful, and eternally faithful in fulfilling his promises. He knows our future and takes control of all situations. And one day He will surely bring all his plans to fruition.
Christ will build his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. This simple yet profound truth gives me huge confidence and trust to work hard towards planting a church during these uncertain days. And I trust this truth will be an encouragement to your soul in this difficult time.
Yashwanth Kumar M He is a Church Planter in Mysuru, Karnataka. He is married to Manjula and they have a son.