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Our Church Life in the Face of Covid-19 (7, Conclusion) – A Way In The Wilderness: Building Upon Our Learnings From The Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the lives of many in the past three years. Our church life was also greatly affected and our practice drastically changed as soon as community quarantines were set in place. Most notably, the pandemic prevented us from gathering in big meetings and even in larger numbers in the homes of the saints. At first, there was much anxiety and apprehension concerning how the churches can go on under these circumstances, especially since the Lord’s table meetings are crucial as a time of remembering the Lord while having fellowship with the saints, and the prophesying meetings are key for the building up. Moreover, the small groupings are the lifeline in our practice of the God-ordained way. Meeting with the saints is the greatest joy on earth. Without such joyous gatherings, we surely felt an immense void in our lives. Yet from our experiences over the past three years, we know that the Lord did not forsake us. On the contrary, during the pandemic, we undoubtedly experienced the intensified shepherding of Christ towards His church (Eph. 5:29).

Isaiah 43:19 says, “Indeed, I am doing a new thing; it will now spring forth; do you not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” The worldwide trials seemingly left the church helpless in a wilderness, but the Lord has made a way, like rivers in the desert. Now, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared the end of the pandemic and as we settle back to normality we desire that the saints would come before the Lord to consider our ways (Hag. 1:5) in light of all that we have learned and gained from this pandemic. In this way, we hope that the churches would not regress, but would rather advance in the way that the Lord has set for us.

Our Gains from the Community Quarantine

We rejoice in the Lord because of the good report concerning the churches everywhere. When the community quarantines were imposed, the saints continued steadfastly to live the church life despite the limitations in our gatherings. On the one hand, being confined at home enabled the saints to spend more time in prayer and in the pursuit of the Word and the ministry. On the other hand, many saints quickly turned to the internet, utilizing various platforms to meet together online in order to remain in the fellowship of the Body. The Lord’s day meetings and small group gatherings were able to continue online and in some homes of the saints. The serving ones were also able to promptly adapt to and hold fellowship meetings online, including Zoom gospel meetings, young people’s conferences, campus webinars, and other local conferences. As a result, some localities saw an increase despite the challenges in meeting together. The Middle-Age Training (MAT) began to be held online and saw a tremendous increase in registration. Even the Fellowship Among the Churches (FAC) was held online with larger attendance and participation from various localities all over the country. Through online prayer meetings, many saints also participated in the “global unceasing prayer for the Lord’s move.” More saints gained access to various international conferences and trainings, which were also made available online. In the past, the saints may not have had the opportunity to go abroad for such international gatherings; but now, a larger number were able to join the seven annual feasts which were conducted online. Finally, many saints also rose up to help those who were affected by the spreading virus by practically ministering to their needs as well as through material offerings, exhibiting the oneness of the Body of Christ through mutual shepherding.

Although our usual face-to-face church meetings were affected, the Lord has opened new avenues for the saints to blend together in fellowship. Over the past few years, we had been endeavoring to practice the God-ordained way with a view to bring in a new revival among the churches. Yet it seemed that in many places, we struggled to change our way. This pandemic, however, has truly shaken up our church life and has even forced us to adjust in many ways. We feel that this has been an unexpected and hidden blessing from the Lord. As a result, many have been revitalized in their Christian life and church life. These are genuine blessings from the Lord and gains for our church life amid the pandemic restrictions. These are the experiences from which we hope to draw our lessons, especially in light of our entering into the God-ordained way.

Advancing in the Practice of the God-ordained Way

In the latter part of Brother Witness Lee’s ministry, he began to fellowship and emphasize the God-ordained way as the way we must take in order to recover the New Testament priesthood of the gospel and to bring all the saints into the normal function to build up the church as the Body of Christ. Many among us are familiar with the four steps of the God-ordained way: (1) begetting by preaching the gospel, (2) nourishing the new ones, (3) perfecting the saints unto the work of ministry, and (4) prophesying for the building up of the church. While these steps appear simple and although we have had much fellowship on these matters in the past, we feel that the churches have yet to fully enter into this Scriptural way to meet and to serve. We have not yet entered into the new revival in the recovery, which our brother so eagerly and longingly spoke of. This remains our burden today.

In order to carry out this burden, we all must adopt the spirit of a learner and not remain the same. Concerning this, Brother Lee spoke with much gravity:

Begetting, nourishing, perfecting, and prophesying are not easy; therefore, we need to learn. At times we may fast, not letting others know, for the sake of our learning. We need to be desperate with the Lord. We all have been drugged by Christianity, thinking that it is all right for us to remain the same year after year, without learning and advancing in our function as members of the Body. When the Lord comes, we will all stand before Him (Rom. 14:10b). He will ask us how many we begot, how many we fed, how many we perfected, and how much we prophesied. According to Matthew 25:14-30, all the Lord’s slaves who have received one, two, or five talents from Him will have to come before Him to answer to Him. We need to live Christ, we need to be genuinely for His recovery, and we need to mean business to build up the Lord’s Body. If we are like this, we will surely endeavor to carry out the four crucial items of the God-ordained way. However, if we continue in our present situation, we will delay the Lord and set up a poor pattern for the new ones.

The Practice of the Church Life according to the God-ordained Way, Chapter 13

It has been nearly 40 years since Brother Lee started to lead us in the practice of the God-ordained way. We must ask ourselves: Where are we now? Have all the saints participated in this way? Are all the saints functioning for the building up of the Body? If we find that we have shortcomings, then perhaps now is the time to change our ways. The Lord is using the pandemic to teach us and adjust us in the way we live our Christian life and church life.

From Big to Small

During the community quarantines, the most impactful change we had to make was to temporarily discontinue the big meetings and meet instead in small groups. We believe that this is according to the Lord’s arrangement to lead us to the practice of the small groups. The first lesson we can glean from our experiences is to go “from big to small.”

According to Brother Lee’s fellowship, the homes are part of the life pulse of the practice of the God-ordained way. In the early days of the church, the believers met together from house to house in small groups. Acts 2:46 says, “…day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they partook of their food with exultation and simplicity of heart,” and in 5:42, “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and announcing the gospel of Jesus as the Christ.” In these small group meetings in the homes, the saints had prayer (Matt. 18:19; Acts 2:42; 12:5, 12), fellowship (2:42), the breaking of bread for the remembrance of the Lord (2:46), teaching of the truth, and gospel preaching (2:42; 5:42). Everything that we are accustomed to doing in the big meetings, the early saints in fact practiced in their homes!

Throughout the New Testament, we can see in many places that the church met in the homes of the saints, such as the house of Prisca and Aquila (1 Cor. 16:19), of Lydia (Acts 16:14), and of Nymphas (Col. 4:15). The unique way for the increase and the building up of the church as carried out by the apostles was through the small groups and home meetings (Acts 9:31). In Acts 8, after the martyrdom of Stephen, “a great persecution against the church” took place in Jerusalem and the believers “were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Saul of Tarsus persecuted the brothers and sisters by “entering house after house” (Acts 8:3). This means that the saints practiced the church life in different homes. The meetings in the homes became so characteristic of the early believers, that Saul of Tarsus had to enter house after house in order to arrest them. Despite the persecution, the believers fought for their church life by continuing to meet in this way. For a long time, the churches under Roman persecution went “underground” and lived the church life in the homes without having many big meetings. Later on, the Apostle Paul in his travels followed this same model and taught not only publicly but also from house to house (Acts 20:20). This was the model of the church life under the oppression of persecution, and we believe that this was sovereignly of the Lord.

Although there is no outward persecution against the church today where we are, the pandemic brought in a very different threat that prevented us from having big, physical meetings. We must see that the source of this attack is the same. Satan always uses the environment to hinder and frustrate the church. Yet the Lord can use the same environment to lead us toward His ordained way. Throughout the pandemic, we were forced to meet in small groups online or in the homes. We fought for our church life and have learned to treasure every small gathering of the saints, even by two’s and three’s. Surely, we have seen the value of these small groups for our church life.

Now that the pandemic has ended, we can now meet face to face again in larger groups. Although we are able to have the big meetings again, we must not forget what we have learned concerning the small groupings. The small groups must complement the big meetings and even be the foundation of the big meetings. It is like having two wings of an airplane. We cannot fly with only one wing. We must have both in a healthy church life. Like the apostles, we should continue to use the Lord’s day meetings to bring in people and to teach the truth, but 80% of our church life must be in the small groupings. May we all focus our attention on practicing the small group meetings!

From Meeting-centered to People-centered

The second important lesson we learned was for us to focus on people. For too long, we may have been meeting-focused, occupied with the services, meeting arrangements, and other outward activities. The pandemic disrupted many of our weekly meetings and even some of our conferences. Suddenly, we did not have many “services” to attend to, but we quickly realized that there remain many people who still need caring for. In fact, the threat of the spreading virus opened up the hearts of many people, even among the unbelievers, because of the pervading fear and anxiety around us. There is a great need today for the proper care and shepherding of people. Many among us have seen this need and have reached out to our family and friends, even to the dormant saints, to minister to them during these times of suffering. The meeting platform and the outward methods have become secondary, as long as we could gain the people. We prayed for them, called them and invited them, pursued the Word with them and taught them, all for the sake of gaining them.

In the small groupings, we have the proper atmosphere to care for people. The small group gatherings should be inherently people-focused. It is possible for us to attend the big meetings, sit in the back, and remain impersonal toward others. But we cannot join the small group gatherings without personal contact with the saints. We get to know each of the members’ names and their condition, and also build up a spiritual relationship with them. If they are absent from the meetings, we can pray for them by name and call them. This is the genuine shepherding and the way to help all the saints to grow in life unto maturity.

The steps of the God-ordained way show us this same focus. To beget, nourish, and perfect others is focused on people, to help meet their spiritual need and foster their growth in life unto maturity, even to perfect them for the building up of the Body. This cannot be done merely by conducting and attending meetings. In the Lord’s recovery, we do not like to emphasize big meetings, doctrinal knowledge, or outward practice. Rather, the church life must be focused on people, on all the members growing in life and being perfected for the building up of the Body. We must shepherd through personal contact. We must teach also through personal contact. Everything must be done through personal contact.

From Coming to Going

What then is the proper way to contact people? The third lesson we learned is that we must change our way from coming to going. For this, we must take the Lord Jesus Himself as our pattern and build up a habit of going to people. His way was not just to invite people to come and listen, but He went out to bring salvation to the people. The Lord’s first step in “going” was when He became a man. His incarnation was His going forth (Micah 5:2) in order to reach man. Then He began to preach the gospel of the kingdom everywhere. The Lord Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the gospel, to heal the sick, and to find the sons of peace (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-6). In Luke 19, He deliberately sought out Zaccheus, a tax collector and sinner, so that He could bring salvation to his whole house (vv. 1-9). In John 4, the Lord “had to pass through Samaria” (even though it may have been geographically out of the way) in order to speak to the Samaritan woman and give her the living water to quench her thirst deep within (vv. 3-14). Finally, His charge to the disciples in Matthew 28:19 before He ascended to the heavens was to “go and disciple all the nations.” Going is God’s way and we as His New Testament priests must take His pattern to go forth and bring the gospel of the kingdom to people.

In his fellowship on the God-ordained way, Brother Lee led us to invite people to our homes and to go out weekly to visit people for the gospel. These may have been difficult to practice because of the pandemic but yet many managed to do this by using social media platforms and by making simple phone calls. Moving forward, with more freedom of movement, this is our great need today, and we must practice these in order to effectively shepherd others. It is good if we can gather even with just two or three people in order to have a simple meal, blend together, and fellowship with each other in an atmosphere of love. Instead of trying to bring them to a meeting, we must bring the “meeting” to them. This way of shepherding and care will revolutionize our church life.

Another way presented by our brother is to call them on their phones, like many practiced during the pandemic. This means that we must use our modern technology like social media platforms to contact people and reach out to them. Today, we must see that our devices are capable of many things beyond a phone call. We can read and pray with others using our devices. We can send them a text message with our enjoyment from the Word. We can have video calls with multiple people at once in order to fellowship virtually face-to-face. We can “go” to contact people using these modern conveniences. The world has never been so connected as it is today. We must take full advantage of this! Today, apart from physical visits to people, we must learn to use the internet and all of the new technology to reach more people through so many avenues. Our “going” to contact people must reach new heights and ultimately bring us into a new revival.

From Outward to Inward

In addition to these three practical lessons, we must also pay attention to something more intrinsic, that is, going from outward to inward. Our practice must bring us deeper into the Lord, more than just carrying out the steps of the God-ordained way outwardly. The pandemic has caused us to seriously consider our Christian life and church life before the Lord in the light of His second coming. Many things of the world were stripped off because of the pandemic: including earthly pleasures, material wealth, and other things of the soul-life. Even the outward activities of the church, with which we were once occupied, were disrupted from its regular course. Thus we are being led by the Lord to spend more personal time with Him. We are compelled to ask ourselves where we are in our personal growth in life and also where we are as the church for God’s building. What are we living for on the earth today? What is the goal of our church life? Are we prepared for when the Lord Jesus comes back to turn this age?

Psalm 84:5-7 says, “Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. Passing through the valley of Baca, they make it a spring; indeed the early rain covers it with blessings. They go from strength to strength; each appears before God in Zion.” That the highways are in our heart means that we need to take the way of the church internally, not merely externally. We are not in the church and in the Lord’s recovery merely to have another Christian group or for some outward movement. It is most certainly not aimless or without direction. Our goal in the church is to be the Lord’s overcomers today, typified by Zion, to be the reality of the Body of Christ and consummate the building up of the Body in the local churches. We must consecrate ourselves to the Lord for this goal. And as we take this way in the church, we also may pass through the valley of Baca, or of weeping (v. 6a) through the opposition of Satan. However, God makes this valley a spring (cf. Col. 1:24; Heb. 10:34). This spring is the Spirit (John 4:14; 7:38-39). The more we weep on the highways to Zion, the more we receive the Spirit. To take the way of the church today is not easy and is full of challenges, but if we follow the Lord in an intrinsic way, we will find that the Spirit becomes a spring to us to be our blessing and strength to spur us onward to Zion, our ultimate goal. We hope and pray that the saints will have this kind of renewed consecration before the Lord that our church life may not remain an outward activity but become an intrinsic reality.

Taking the Opportunity to Change our Way

Our intention in writing to the saints is so that we would consider all our past experiences to draw the proper lessons and receive genuine learnings from the Lord. Under the Lord’s shining, we will see the pandemic in a different light. In the Chinese language, the word for crisis is weiji (危機), which is composed of two words meaning “danger” and “opportunity”. During times of crises, we must see the opportunity to be adjusted by the Lord in the way we live our church life. We must turn from big to small, from being meeting-centered to people-centered, from coming to going, and from outward to inward.

We pray that, moving forward, all the saints would apply these lessons that we have learned over the past few years. It must not be limited to a few serving ones. In the last Metro Manila Year-end Conference our burden was about the universal priesthood, which is to bring all the saints to function as New Testament priests of the gospel (Rom. 15:16). In the group-based, people-centered, and “going-out” church life, there is a great need for the members to rise up. There is a place and opportunity for every member to serve. If all the saints would take this way, we believe that the churches will see a healthy increase and bear remaining fruit. May we all seize this opportunity today.

Finally, to give some us practical help in taking the God-ordained way, we offer some further fellowship from Brother Lee: 

The way to bring the God-ordained way on its track is to begin by practicing one step only. We are not able to take more than one step at a time. We cannot take the four steps all at once. This is impossible. Thus, we should limit ourselves to just one step.

… All of us who are now in the recovery should pick up a burden to practice certain steps of the God-ordained way. In order to have a definite beginning in the practice of the God-ordained way, each one should pick up a particular item as a particular burden.

… Again I say, take my word and go back to study. I cannot tell you yet how to do these things, because I myself have not learned adequately. You must study the situation. If a certain way does not work, find another way. Learn to fulfill your own responsibility by studying and endeavoring to find a way to do it.

The Practice of the Church Life according to the God-ordained Way, Chapters 11, 12, and 14

To enter into the God-ordained way, we must simply begin by picking up and practicing one step. We must dive into it. We must study and try different ways until we find and learn the secrets. We may begin with preaching the gospel, studying how to get people saved. Others may pick up and focus on the burden to nourish, cherish, and feed the new ones. Others may focus on perfecting the saints to function, and there can be some who become patterns in the way of prophesying. As we practice, we may meet different obstacles, but we must not care for or be discouraged by these problems, hardships, and frustrations. Instead, we must persevere with faithfulness, endeavoring, patience, endurance, and much prayer. We must take the slow and definite way to learn and practice these things.

May all the saints bring these words of fellowship to the Lord in prayer, and may we all enter into this way corporately. Let us not go back to our old manner of life and routine way of practicing the church life. May the Lord bless us all as we move forward from the pandemic invigorated and vitalized to practice the God-ordained way to bring all the churches into a new revival.

Other References:

  • On Home Meetings, Chapters 1 & 2
  • The Practice of the Church Life According to the God-ordained Way, Chapters 11-14