On pastoring, coronavirus, and self-isolation
May we preach “as loudly and as effectually” in isolation, as we ever did when not.
We are in uncharted territory.
The unprecedented shutdowns and recommendations from both state and federal governments have effectively made it impossible for us to meet together for the near future in a way that is deemed safe and responsible. As ministers of the gospel, we find ourselves isolated from our flocks with little to no opportunity for face-to-face ministry—not out of fear for our own safety, but that we might carry the contagion to others in our charge. Thankfully, technology allows us the opportunity to stay connected with our flocks in ways that would have been unimaginable just a decade or so ago. I believe we can find some unexpected wisdom for engaging with our congregations while in isolation from a seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor.
In 1684, Hercules Collins found himself isolated from his flock, but not by his own choice. On July 9 of 1683, Collins was indicted for failure to attend his local parish church. But it was for his violation of the Five Mile Act (an act forbidding nonconformist ministers to come within five miles of an incorporated town) that Collins was actually imprisoned in 1684 at the Newgate Prison.
When Collins was thrown into prison for preaching the gospel, he used the technology of his day to continue to preach. The technology was writing and publishing. The two writings he produced in jail were essentially sermons to his flock. In A Voice from the Prison, Collins draws strength from Pauls’ words to the Philippians regarding his own imprisonment and the spread of the gospel.
Forasmuch as I am present deprived by my bonds of the liberty of preaching, I bless God I have the advantage of printing. Being ready to serve the interest of Christ in all conditions to my poor ability, and doubt not but God and interest are served by my confinement as by liberty. And am not without hopes that I shall preach as loudly and as effectually by imprisonment for Christ as ever I did at liberty. That all those who observe God’s providential dealings will be able to say with me hereafter, as Holy Paul said in his bonds at Rome, “What hath befallen me, hath tended to the furtherance of the Gospel.”
When the “liberty of preaching” was taken from him Collins did not stop ministering; he merely adjusted his method and used “the advantage of printing.” And what did he print? A Scripture-saturated, endurance-producing sermon.
The sermon was an extended meditation on Revelation 3:11 where Christ admonishes the church of Philadelphia with the words, “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” (KJV) In this sermon, Collins drew from at least 213 passages of Scripture to encourage his congregation to stand firm in the face of persecution. Collins urged his besieged flock to not abandon the cause of Christ.
Hold fast what thou hast. When Satan would pull thy soul’s good from thee; when relations, husband, wife, children call upon you and persuade you because of danger to cease from the work of the Lord, then hold fast.
Collins offered as a motivation for holding fast to Christ and his work that the one who stood fast would hear Christ profess to the Father on the day of judgment these words:
These are the men, women, people, which spoke of my testimonies before kings and [were] not ashamed when many cried, “Crucify him and his cause.” These are the souls which came forth and declared they were on the Lord’s side. These are they, Father, whose love to me many waters nor floods could not quench nor drown. These are they that chose me on my own terms, with the cross as well as the crown. These have made choice of me with reproaches, imprisonments, with fines, confiscation of goods, banishment, loss of limbs, life, and all. They have born all, endured all for my sake. In the greatest affliction they kept from wavering and the more they endured and lost for my sake, the more they loved me.
Pastors, we need to follow the example of Hercules Collins and make use of the means of technology to communicate with our congregation during these days of isolation. We have a vast array of options from livestreaming and social media to, yes, writing and printing. May we preach “as loudly and as effectually” in isolation, as we ever did when not; and may we look forward to the day when the pastor and flock are reunited again in the assembly of the saints. Until then, let us offer scripture-saturated, endurance-producing words to our people that will enable them to stand firm in these days of uncertainty.