Jesus is Kingf

Jesus, the friend of sinners

Chris Cartwright reflects on the "countless numbers of people beginning to search for God at a time of great uncertainty."

I recently had the opportunity to be on a Zoom call hosted by Roy Crowne of Hope and Gavin Calver from Evangelical Alliance.

With other denominational leaders from all over the UK, where we were given a summary of some research commissioned by the Church of England and the Methodist Church regarding the pandemic and church attendance.

Early into the first lockdown various news media sources reported huge numbers of people typing 'prayer' into online search engines.

Other headlines emerged around increasing interest in online church services. Whilst we may have taken those initial reports with some scepticism, this latest research conducted well into the pandemic confirms that something extraordinary has been happening.

Tearfund reported in May 2020 that 24 per cent of UK adults said that they had watched or listened to a religious service (on radio, TV, live-streamed or on demand) since lockdown began.

Even more striking, a survey of young adults found that half of those aged 18-34 across the UK say that during the later lockdown they regularly engaged in online faith-related activity including prayer and regular engagement with online worship.

As work continues to better understand the research findings, we are being encouraged to consider that amidst the extraordinary challenges and trauma of the pandemic in almost every area of life and our shared human experience, millions of people seem to have been searching and reaching out for spiritual direction, comfort, hope and truth.

The researchers recognise that a proportion of former churchgoers, they call them 'leavers', are uncertain about whether they will return or continue to follow Christ.

Yet, a far larger group, which they call 'joiners' are an amazing diverse mass of people that form an unexpected fresh harvest field.

Our friend, Dr Patrick Dixon, a world-renowned futurist and expert on global trends, called it nothing less than a spiritual awakening the like of which we have not seen in decades.

Recognising this as a moment when many are becoming more open to the gospel, Patrick urged us to prayerfully and practically respond to what he saw as an extraordinary window of opportunity for us to share Jesus in word and deed with those around us.

I must admit to having been gripped by the thought of countless numbers of people beginning to search for God at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety.

It led me back to the words of Matthew 9 where we hear that when Jesus looked at the crowds of people coming to him he saw that they were 'harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd'.

That description in no way demeans anyone in the crowd – quite the opposite.

Jesus sees the distress, the burdens, the weight and confusion they live with, and he is 'moved with compassion' towards them.

It’s full of emotion and passion – moved towards everyone, whatever their life story or experience. It’s as though the Holy Spirit gives us a window into Jesus’ inner thoughts, feelings and motivation.

Rather than separating from them, he is drawn towards the many and those at the margins; those whose need is obvious and those where it is hidden.

During a time whilst we may have been distracted, busy staying connected and, understandably perhaps, looking after the needs of the core church community, people have been opening their hearts and lives to Christ and his gospel more than we could have expected.

Many of these are people who had not previously been part of any church, nor are they intending to be so.

After a tough and trying season, we may feel less able than ever to respond.

Yet, Jesus is still moved and moving towards those all around us who are beginning to turn towards him.

Pastor and author Dane Ortlund, in his beautiful new book 'Gentle and Lowly', says: "The dominant note left ringing in our ears after reading the Gospels... is the way the Holy Son of God moves towards, touches, heals, embraces and forgives those who least deserve it yet truly desire it."

They called him, in Luke 7:34, 'the friend of sinners'.

Still moved with compassion, I believe that, as we reset our hearts, our homes and our churches around our primary identity as disciples of Jesus and our primary purpose of living for him, Jesus wants to move us out again without fear and with fresh hope to the real, loved, precious, searching people all around us.

 

This article first appeared in September's Direction Magazine. For further details please click here.

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