Proclamation of the Gospel in a Time of Pandemic

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, July 22, 2021

Proclamation of the Gospel in a Time of Pandemic

The first of the church’s “Great Ends” is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” (Book of Order F-1.0304) The Greek word euangelion, translated “gospel” in the New Testament, means literally “good news.”

What is the good news that we proclaim in a time of pandemic? How do we communicate it publicly and authentically?

The good news is that God has made a home with us in the person of Jesus. (John 1:14) God is not far off, but nearer to us than we can imagine. God suffers with us when we suffer. Through Jesus we learn that God’s intention is not to abandon us for our shortcomings, but to reclaim us despite them. (John 3:17) The church is charged to proclaim this good news everywhere and always. God is in the rescuing business, not the condemning business.

The pandemic is not divine judgment.

Proclamation of the gospel in a time of pandemic requires us to be clear about the difference between a “gospel” that promises us a haven sheltered away from our troubles and a gospel that meets us in their midst. The good news that Jesus brings engages us exactly where we are. In the middle of a pandemic. In the crossfire between those on either side of acerbic political divides. It doesn’t offer us the comfort of living in isolation from our neighbors who look or think different from us. If the good news we proclaim cannot bring peace between those who have been at war with each other in our current climate, it is not truly the gospel.

We are called to proclaim the gospel for the “salvation” of humankind. What does it mean to be “saved?”

When the Philippian jailer asks Paul what he must do to be saved, he responds, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” (Acts 16:31) The word for “believe” means “trust.” It’s the same in John 3:16 – to believe in Jesus is to entrust ourselves to his mercy and to his way. We proclaim the good news by demonstrating our trust in Jesus amid the pandemic.

We trust that in Jesus’ company, we are safe. Just as substituting “trust” for the traditional word “believe” helps clarify the message of the Bible, we may find fresh insight by substituting the word “safe” where we have traditionally used “save” or “saved.” It is a non-theological word, and as such it might be something we can grasp more readily. With Jesus, we are safe.

The good news of the gospel promises safety that is antithetical to fear. Fear-based proclamation may be a good way to gain a mass following (as Facebook page visits powerfully illustrate), but it does not tell the true story of the gospel.

As I write, the stock market is tumbling because of a new worldwide surge of COVID. Investors fear what that might portend, and so they are selling their stocks to protect their assets from further devaluation. Fear leads us to go preemptively on the defensive, to protect ourselves from forces beyond our control. Perhaps that market loss will be erased by the time this letter is published; the point remains that fear is a powerful driver of human behavior.

There was already plenty of fear of the stranger being stirred up in America and abroad before the pandemic hit. COVID only amplified the fears of people who had already been afraid of losing their place in this world. Never is there a better opportunity for the church to proclaim the good news than at a time when fear is ascendent.

Sadly, many of today’s purveyors of bad news claim to be speaking on God’s behalf. Stoking fear is a powerful tool for gaining a following, but not for keeping one. The gospel stands the test of time because it proclaims God’s reign rather than earthly terror. Religious movements that capitalize on fear decline as quickly as they flourish; the gospel points to God’s reign that lasts forever.

One of the great gifts of the pandemic for fulfilling the first Great End of the Church is that nearly all of our congregations are now actively reaching out with the good news beyond the Sunday morning gathering in the sanctuary. Some do it by internet broadcast, others by more traditional means like old fashioned mail. However we do it, we are now far more intentional about getting out our message of good news beyond our four walls on Sunday morning.

Let’s not give up this ground we’ve gained. Don’t grow weary in doing this! (Galatians 6:9) I encourage every congregation to select someone other than the pastor to manage the technology. Some of our congregations have been streaming their church services online for years, and have developed a cadre of technicians who assure that the production is as good and consistent as possible. I can refer you to them upon request. If we are spreading the best news ever, let us use the best technology we can for getting that word out as far and wide as possible!

Your partner in the gospel,

 

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