"It’s been a challenging, but absolutely amazing time."
Leading a movement during a pandemic isn’t something Chris expected at the start of 2020.
Chris Cartwright, the General Superintendent of Elim Pentecostal Churches, was interviewed in the midst of the COVID restrictions which were in place during the summer. He shares how the Elim movement of churches has responded to this challenging time.
How has lockdown been for you? What have been the highs and lows?
"It’s been a profoundly challenging disruption to life for all of us. I live in Cardiff and have been at home with my wife Annie for most of the lockdown, and our youngest daughter Charlotte has also been with us. Of course, there were lots of things we weren’t able to do as a family, but we’ve majored on the positives – more time together, and still being able to work, albeit from home. It’s been a very challenging time. I’m an extrovert and love those energising moments with people. But I have found that by spending time with my family, we’ve been really appreciative of being with each other. I want to take away from that a greater sense of care, love, and thankfulness to God, for the people who are in our lives."
What have been the biggest successes and challenges for Elim during lockdown?
"Like every sector of society, we didn’t see this coming. There have been huge implications and consequences of a global pandemic for Elim, but I’m so encouraged and pleased by the response of many of our leaders and staff. The danger is often to react to something; we’ve tried to take time to put in place levels of support, and to give connection to our churches and leaders, and to offer operational support. Elim is a movement of local churches, and this pandemic has affected every local church, so it’s been our duty and role to serve them accordingly. We’ve tried to readjust to make sure we are there as much as we can to support our churches and ministers on the ground, especially in terms of guidance and resources.
"In the first few weeks of lockdown, we were rushing to get online and make sure everything was accessible quickly. I’m used to travelling on most Sundays to an Elim church, so not to be able to do that has been challenging. I’ve been excited at how churches have responded to lockdown. There were huge decisions as to how they were going to connect, meet, do discipleship and mission, with these massive restrictions, but we’ve seen genuine opportunities surface. In fact, the church hasn’t closed at all. We haven’t stopped loving Jesus and loving others in living our lives to the glory of God.
"For example, I think of Crewkerne Elim Church in a small community in the beautiful Somerset countryside. It’s a good, strong church and the pastor Steve Gray has been there for about 20 years. Early on in the pandemic, the church kept its building open to serve the community. As a result, the local mayor decided, instead of reproducing what was already in place, to throw all their resources behind the church? So that’s what they did. That church has never stopped. It’s been busier than ever with 100 or so volunteers, including many who had not been part of the church before.
"We’ve heard so many similar stories of churches that have gone above and beyond in response to the needs of their communities. They have shown Jesus to their world in different, practical ways. And people have been coming to faith, as evidence that God is at work. Leaders have been creative in starting to look at ways in which they can change the way they do ministry. It’s been a challenging but absolutely amazing time."
Do you think the online church could ever replace in-person church?
"I don’t think that will ever happen. This is a particular season where we have been forced into an adjustment; going forward I don’t think it’ll be either/or but both/and. A number of years ago, leaders were aware of online church possibilities, but it was more about broadcasting, not about resourcing. Because of lockdown and being almost forced online, we’ve had to completely reinvent the way we do things, which is a good thing.
"We live in a digital and connected world, and the church has to be right there at the forefront with new ideas, initiatives, and platforms. 24/7 church is now a real possibility – and that’s not going to be just through buildings being open more. We can be online. We’ve gone from broadcasting occasional services to working out creative ways of discipling others online, and building relationships online as well."
As Pentecostals, we are people of faith who believe in healing, but we must also be people of wisdom who respect our government. How should we balance faith and wisdom?
"I’m married to a nurse with a background in medical research, so I take the challenges very seriously. Throughout history, the church has faced significant disruption. Sometimes that’s been extreme persecution, as governments try and stamp out the church. There have been many genuine attempts to destroy and curtail the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to limit religious freedom.
"But ... that isn’t what’s going on here. It’s affecting the whole world, not just the church. The issue isn’t about rights, but responsibilities. We are responsible stewards and citizens. Yes, we have a passion to engage in worship and to connect, but we have to face some tough choices along the way. Nobody knows how to handle this perfectly. Nobody has got this pathway mapped out. In a time when there is so much uncertainty, the church’s best response is to seek to be absolutely gospel and kingdom-minded. We have to be wise, but at the same time, if we fight the right battles, and not go pursuing some relatively temporary ones, we have a great opportunity to model generosity, love, and care in action. We can show that the storm will pass. I would want the church to be remembered during this time as a gathering of people who have been good news, a blessing, and a people full of faith, not just a group that was all about defending its own turf. We have to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves – that’s how we put flesh on balancing faith and wisdom."
What would you say to pastors who feel they’ve lost people during the lockdown and their churches might have shrunk?
"Church attendance is not always a good indicator of spirituality. Time will tell how many people are standing with their commitment to Jesus by gathering together and being a part of a church community. I would encourage pastors to look beyond the immediate. It’s going to take time.
"Also, I’m sorry to say, but some people may not have had the roots that we thought they had. I think of the parable of the sower; a very practical parable. Some people respond, but they don’t stick. There will be challenges ahead, not just to persuade people back, but to see which of us are really being profoundly changed by Jesus. It is going to get harder to just be passengers in the local church.
"On the whole, I think churches will regroup, regather, and come back stronger, with more commitment and with a greater sense of togetherness. Pastors and leaders shouldn’t worry but do everything they can to encourage the people of God to come afresh and recommit their lives and hearts to Jesus Christ."
What would you say to those who don’t yet feel ready to return to church services?
"We have to give people the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. Elim churches are making this as safe and as full an experience as possible to come back to in-person services.
"They’re also working hard to make sure to connect with people where they are. We want to look forward to that time when everyone feels safe to return and to continue their journey with Jesus in fellowship with others. But also we respect everyone’s situation and know that for some, online church is helping them a lot."
How do you see the future for Elim?
"Before lockdown, we were very much speaking about the beginning of a decade of mission, saying that God is calling us back to a renewed and radical focus on mission and ministry. We knew that a lukewarm, comfortable church was going to increasingly struggle to survive the onslaughts of culture and secularism over the next decade. Little did we know how much disruption would come, and what was about to happen.
"God has been speaking to us about renewal, of every follower of Jesus living for him, and being available to him. I’m more convinced about that than ever. We can’t just maintain 'church' as we have known it. There is something much more urgent and wonderful that God wants us to do.
"It’s one of those moments in history where the real church will arise ... with the full gospel and a Spirit-filled church where God will bring out a revival generation in this decade. It’s a new breed of believers who are going to be loving people un-reservedly and getting themselves into the heart of communities, and all spheres of society.
"It is time to advance, to make real disciples of Jesus, and not to hold back on that. In the process, God is going to do extraordinary things, and I believe this generation will experience and encounter the depth of God for themselves. This will require a church that goes forward with the power of Jesus to set people free. That’s why I believe the days ahead will bring fresh and exciting evidence of God at work in every community."
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