It feels strange to conduct our Annual Church Meeting like this. This is the type of occasion when we should be together, not distant, watching online. But this has been a strange and difficult year, when we’ve become accustomed to being apart and meeting online: a year of protests, pandemic, social and political tension, economic recession; a year of anxiety and deep uncertainty about the future of our city.
An Annual Church Meeting is supposed to be a time when we look back with reflection and gratitude, and look forward with anticipation, making bold plans. But if the past year has taught us anything, we don’t know what the future can bring. We still make plans, but we loosen our expectations.
Still, at this point our task is to ask ourselves, ‘What type of church do we want to be?’
Perhaps we can learn some lessons from the church in Eyam in Derbyshire England.
During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-6, the inhabitants of Eyam quarantined themselves. The village’s rector, William Mompesson, persuaded the residents of the village to make a fateful choice. Instead of relocating in the hope of finding a safer place to live nearby, they would remain and self-isolate, quarantining the entire village from the rest of England to avoid spreading the plague to others.
The residents used to go to the boundary stone of the village and place money in six holes drilled into the top of the boundary stone to pay for food and medicine left by their people from other neighbouring villages. By the end of the outbreak, only a quarter of Eyam’s population of remained alive. The plague, however, was contained.
The story is a moving one at many levels, but for Christians living in a time like ours, there are some particular lessons to learn from the way in which the villagers responded to the crisis. Here were imperfect people, but their response to the plague was deeply imprinted with the grace and power of the gospel.
Eyam gives us at least three lessons.
First, is the need for Gospel-centred clarity. The people of Eyam were confronted by stark choices, by grief and fear, and they faced with the imminent prospect of death. What they needed more than ever was the gospel.
During the plague, Rev Mompesson’s wife died. He wrote a letter a letter to his family. Much of the letter is about her character. But it also dwells at length on the way in which she confronted her death: her clear confidence in Christ, her firm hope of salvation in him.
If ever there was a time for gospel clarity, that was it.
There’s probably been no time in the last 75 years when our Hong Kong has struggled more than now. Certainly there are deep problems with no quick solutions. It’s not just economic and political concerns. It’s the divisions between people and polarisation, the loss of hope, as we watch a city unravel before us.
If ever there was a time for gospel clarity, now is it. The gospel doesn’t promise to make us more comfortable, for health or material ease. But it does promise something that can’t be taken away. It gives a sure hope.
We want to be a community who hold on to this hope. Who find comfort in it, who let this hope shape our lives, and who hold out this hope to others – that there is a Saviour who forgives our sins and offers life.
The second lesson is gospel-driven flexibility. In Eyam during the plague, church services were taken outdoors. The congregation was spread across the hillside with people seated at a safe distance from one another to minimise the risk of contagion. Social distancing was practiced all the way back then. Outdoor prayer gatherings took place three times a week. Ways of doing things that had remained the same for hundreds of years were changed in the space of weeks, so that people could continue to encourage each other and remind one another of the gospel.
So it is with us. Who knows how long we’ll be under the social distancing precautions, when they’ll be gone and if they’ll come back? But we don’t give up on proclaiming Christ and building one another up because of these restrictions. Instead, we intentionally and creatively think of ways to keep pointing one another and others to Jesus.
Whilst having our Sunday services, groups and courses online is not ideal, online ministry does provide the opportunity to reach different people. There are positives! During the spring, many of our Growth Groups has their highest rates of attendance. The current ‘Christianity Explored’ course has many people who have been connected to us through our online services, and others who have been confronted with big life questions during this difficult season. Now that the course has moved online, most people are still keen to be involved.
The third lesson is gospel-shaped love. The gospel left its imprint on the people of Eyam, not just in the decision to self-isolate, but also in all the small decisions that they made: to provide for people’s basic needs, care for the sick, to tend the dying, and to remind one another of the hope of the resurrection.
Whilst it’s right for us to follow the social distancing precautions that have become part of everyday life, in some respects, it’s too easy for us to self-isolate. Christian community is messy, because we’re all messy and imperfect people. Getting involved with one another, serving and doing life together is sometimes costly. It costs time, and convenience, and personal freedoms. Whilst many of us know the joy of community and recognise the cost of social distancing, there is also a part of us that breaths a small sigh of relief, ‘I can’t see people. My time is now more my own to do with how I want’.
But the gospel has always taught us that we are not our own. We were bought at a price. Therefore, we continue to show sacrificial love, because of the sacrificial love that was shown to us.
In these challenging times, that will be shown in different ways. In how we reach out, and intentionally connect, and care, and pray for one another. In how we exercise gospel generosity amidst increasing scarcity. In how we listen to one another and seek to understand one another, because our unity in Christ is more important than our politics.
These are three lessons from Eyam to inform us: gospel-centred clarity, gospel-driven flexibility, and gospel-shaped love. St Andrew’s vision echo these lessons:
‘We are a community devoted to Jesus Christ, who share his gospel, calling on people to follow him, and seek the flourishing of Hong Kong.’
What does it look like for someone to be a fully involved member of St Andrew’s? We commonly say an integrated member of the St Andrew’s is someone who:
- Regularly attends a Sunday service;
- Is involved in a small group;
- Is volunteering at St Andrew’s or through a partner organisation;
- And is involved in giving to the church.
Mindful of the uncertainties of these times, but also of the unchanging call of the gospel, here are four brief observations on how we are seeking to fulfil our church’s vision.
First, by equipping God’s people. Our aim is to build a community of ministry producers, not ministry consumers, where everyone is involved in the work of ministry. One of the roles of our staff team is to equip people for this task.
This year we welcome four new members of staff: YC Tang, Suzanne Lee, Karin Tong, and Michelle Cheng. With Suzanne, Michelle and Karin, our women’s ministry will be the best resourced it has ever been. We continue to place a major emphasis on training our people, through mentoring and courses to teach God’s word, apply it to our lives, and share it with others.
Second, we work hard at welcoming newcomers. Over the past year, we’ve sought to build our welcoming ministry. This includes making some changes to our Sunday service systems and communications, and the introduction of welcome lunches. I’m thankful for all the hard work Debbie Lee has done in this area. The arrival of YC, who will co-ordinate our integration ministry, will help us better assist newcomers to become involved members of our community.
Third, we practice wise stewardship. Given the slowdown in the economy in the last year, Council and staff have sought to limit expenses and budget more conservatively. Apart from the committed expense of the renovations to the 4/F in the Christian Centre, we’ve put a hold on capital spending. There are some staff positions that we have chosen not to fill this year, that remain an area of need.
Fourth, we exercise good governance. I’m grateful for all the work the Management Committee and Council have expended, as we’ve gone through a lengthy overhaul of our church’s operating policies. This process has been long overdue. It’s aimed at both reflecting the size of our community and supporting the continued growth of ministry. We look forward to completing the more formal aspect of this policy overhaul in the coming months.
In closing, I want to express my thanks to our extraordinarily dedicated and gifted staff team, especially given the difficult year that we’ve faced between the protests and the adjustments to our ministries due to COVID-19.
Thanks to the Council for their godly service, wisdom and support. A particular note of thanks to Andrew Poon, Fred Lochovsky and Mairin Hannebry as they conclude their time on Council, and also to John Mitchell, who completes his time as Chair of the Management Committee.
To all of the many ministry leaders, thank you all for your faithful service and dedication.
Let us continue to commit ourselves to the work of the gospel of Jesus and the building up of his church, for the praise of his name.