Speakers participating in the virtual National Preaching Conference offered hope and encouragement to pastors struggling with ministry in the midst of a pandemic.
“It’s too soon to quit,” Charlie Edward Dates, senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, told viewers of the online conference, sponsored by the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.
Dates recounted the story of long-distance swimmer Florence Chadwick. In 1952, Chadwick set out to swim the 26 miles from the California coast to Catalina Island. After a dense fog made it impossible for her to see the island, she continued swimming, but eventually exhaustion overtook her. She quit, only to discover she was just a half-mile from her goal.
“We live our lives today in a fog of pandemic. We reside in the stress of racial tension and police brutality. For many of us, it feels like we can’t see the shore,” Dates said.
God gives joy that transcends tribulation
Focusing on James 1:12, he emphasized the importance of endurance. God gives joy that transcends trials, troubles and tribulations to those who persevere through them, he said.
“I need a joy that remains even when I can’t see my church in this sanctuary for eight months and maybe for a whole year,” Dates said. “I need the kind of joy that pursues me, because some mornings when we wake up, we don’t always feel like being joyful.
“But thank God for the kind of joy that comes after us. That’s the joy the world needs now. That’s the joy the church needs now.”
Just as a diamond’s clarity and color are revealed best against a black background in low light, the beauty of the Christian life is revealed most clearly during dark times of testing, he said.
“If your faith has never been tested, I’m not sure your faith can be trusted,” Dates said.
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Christians hold onto the blessed hope that “the present is not permanent,” and in due time, God will set things right, he said.
“One day there will be no more trials. One day there will be no more pandemic. One day there will be no more police brutality,” he said. “One day there will be no more wickedness in high places.”
‘Children of the day, working the night shift’
Beth Moore, founder of Living Proof Ministries, reflected on the question from Isaiah 21:11: “Watchman, what of the night?”
“What of this night of global upheaval? What of this night of perilous pandemic?” she asked. “What of this age—not just of information—this age of misinformation? … What of this hate and violence and belligerence and alienation? What of this night of fracturing in the church—of these factions and murderous reactions?”
In dark days when Christians may feel powerless and helpless, Moore reminded pastors they have the power to serve as bearers of light in deep, dark night.
“We are children of the light, called to serve in this present darkness. We are children of the day, working the night shift,” she said.
Servants of God can “stand up and meet the moment” when they learn to “accept the fact of darkness without the fear of darkness” and seek to “guard against letting the darkness in,” Moore said.
Too often, Christians rely on artificial light rather than trust in the illuminating fire of the Holy Spirit, she asserted.
“Is it possible that what God is doing in our current hour is stripping us of our ability to light our own torches?” she asked.
Moore offered hope that there are “treasures in the darkness” Christians never would discover in the light of day.
“I believe Jesus may bring to us consolation in the darkness that we may have missed in the light,” she said. “We never appreciate light more than in the night.”
‘God will be with us in all times’
Theologian Alister McGrath from the University of Oxford encouraged preachers to recognize that what they do makes a difference in the lives of those whom they point to Christ.
“We can be like someone who turns on a light or opens a window, who allows someone to see things they had not seen before—or see familiar things about Scripture or the Christian faith in a new way,” McGrath said.
Just as God taught his people lessons through their time of exile in Babylon, God’s people today can view the exile from the familiar caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as an occasion for self-examination and spiritual growth, he asserted.
“Whatever the outcome of our present struggles and uncertainties may be, we know God will be with us in all times, at all places and in all circumstances,” McGrath said.
For those who have been unable to gather in a sanctuary for worship since early in 2020, God may be teaching a greater appreciation for sacred space and place, where lives are transformed by God’s power, he suggested.
Preachers should recognize their calling as being both deeply rooted in Scripture and deeply rooted to the specific place where God has called them, he said.
“You preach in a place that may become very special to others because of the way God touches their lives through you. You need to see yourself as someone who interprets and applies the gospel to the place you know—the place you inhabit and the place in which you are called to preach,” McGrath said.
“You need to learn its language, its concerns, and to see yourself as a resource person who can connect the gospel with that place.”
Jesus fills the empty places of disappointment
Priscilla Shirer, co-founder of Going Beyond Ministries, pointed to Luke 5, the story of two fishermen who had labored all night without success. Even while a multitude pressed in around him, Jesus noticed those fishermen.
“With all the chaos swirling around, it can be easy for us to feel lost in the crowd,” Shirer said. “You serve a God who has his eyes on you. … He’s aware, and he’s got your back.”
Jesus stepped into the same empty boat that represented a failed effort and disappointment to the fisherman, and it became a platform for him to proclaim God’s word, she noted.
“Jesus gets into the things we most want to get out of,” Shirer said.
Once Jesus finished teaching the crowds, he turned to the fishermen to teach them a lesson, urging them to push out into the deep in the middle of the day—neither a place nor a time that normally would have been a good time for fishing, she noted.
The fisherman hauled in a net filled with fish because they obeyed Jesus, acting on his command to cast their nets when it made little sense to do so, she observed.
‘Jesus comes where he is invited’
Looking at the first miracle of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John—turning water into wine at a wedding celebration—Jim Cymbala, pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, pointed out the miracle occurred because Jesus was present.
“Jesus comes where he is invited,” Cymbala said. “And when he comes to a place, you never know what blessings he will leave.”
Cymbala urged Christian leaders to “invite Jesus into everything.”
“Tell him what you need,” he said. “Then do whatever he tells you.”
Other speakers at the National Preaching Conference included Ken Shigematsu, senior pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, Canada; Maurice Watson, senior pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Largo, Md.; Joseph Stowell, president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Patricia Batten, assistant director of the Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching and chapel adviser at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass.