Ancient Israel was expected to observe sabbath years (every 7) and jubilee years every 50. Those years were meant to allow for the release of slaves, cancellation of debt, return of property to tribal/clan ownership and rest for the land with the fields left fallow. Whilst those laws were specific to Israel and so not to be implemented legalistically today, it is my view that there are some principles there and that indeed the seven and fifty year cycles may well reflect the rhythm of nature too. In other words, we will do well to try and run with that rhythm rather than against it. That’s why the occasional boast of politicians to be able to end boom and bust strikes me as hubris.
So, in some respect I look back on 2020 and wonder if we haven’t just experienced a sabbath year or even a jubilee, an enforced period rest where normal labour had to stop and where there has been something of a reset. If I am right in my assumptions, then our priority should be not about stopping such events from happening but rather about preparing for them so that the vulnerable benefit from rather than suffer from such occasions.
However, here, I want to place our attention less on the economic situation and more on the implications for Christians and churches too because we also have in effect been forced to leave the ground fallow. Sometime back in February our usual ministries and methods came dramatically to an end. Kids clubs, youth groups, ESOL classes, toddlers groups, Church owned cafes and bookshops were forced to shut down. We were able to replicate church services to some extent with a little help from Zoom and Facebook but a lot of the other things couldn’t really happen.
I have also talked before about how even our ability to provide new sources of spiritual food were limited. Most pastors found, at least in the early days that they couldn’t just deliver their usual 30-40 minute exposition. It wasn’t just about concentration spans but also about the human ability to take on board new information in a crisis. So, just as when the land lies fallow, spiritually we had to retrieve and depend on resources stored up and buried deep in our minds and hearts to help keep us going through the year.
Whilst the virus itself was not welcome. It could well be that God has used it to teach us to rest, to cause us to prune back on what has become part of our traditions and to focus again on what is essential. The spring will come and there will be new life and new growth. It will be tempting just to try and restart everything we did previously and “get back to normal.” However many ministries and programmes simply won’t be able to start back and there will be others where even if we could start back, maybe we shouldn’t. Let’s use the re-set opportunity to think carefully about what matters.
More sensitively still is what many of our churches will have experienced in terms of pruning. It has been suggested that churches may have seen up to 20% of their membership drop out of church life and that these people will not be returning to physical meetings any time soon. Now, first of all, we should grieve that loss out of concern for the spiritual well-being of those individuals and pastors and elders should have a right desire to seek to bring back the lost sheep and prodigal sons. We also need to be aware that some churches will have been hit disproportionately harder due to their circumstances. That too should be a cause of sadness.
However, perhaps there is a challenge here. For many churches, 20% would have been the equivalent of sending out a group of people to plant a new church and dare I say it, there are a lot of churches around who will have previously spent a lot of time saying “we can’t plant, we can’t afford to lose 20% of our members.” Yet here we are and our churches have experienced that loss of people and resources without having any choice in the matter. Again, I have worked on the view over the past decade that people will leave and move on, that should be a natural part of church life. The question is whether it happens in a planned and intentional way through planting or in an unplanned way through splits and mass departures. I pray that in the next 10 years as we grow back we will be planning to intentionally encourage 20% of our congregations to move on to mission, gospel ministry and church planting.
Finally, I wonder if this enforced sabbatical has caused things to lie fallow in your life. There will have been things that each of us would normally have been busy about. Some might have been bad habits and addictions but others will have been good things like meals out, trips to the theatre or cinema and supporting our local football team. Then there will have been things we considered spiritual, our particular ministries in the life of the church. It may be that some of those things have stopped permanently because God has something new in mind for us. It may also be that God has given us a break from other things to enable us to rest and to refocus our priorities on things that cultivate our relationship with him and with one another.
Why not take a bit of time now, grab a piece of paper or open a page in your journal. Jot down some of the things that have become fallow this year. What opportunities for rest, refreshment and spiritual growth have arisen because of this? What things need to start again and which things should stop permanently? Apply this to your personal life and to your churchlife.