In a season of uncertainty, one thing is fairly certain - people start looking for answers. Often, you will find them even looking for answers to questions that they began to unpack many years prior when they had attended Sunday school. Ideologies long suppressed are now coming loose as the ground they thought they had built their life upon begins to shake. Illness, age, relationship challenges, and family fallout are some of the things that can play havoc with our mind and emotions at any time, but throw into the mix a global pandemic and things really start to shake and even unravel. In a recent conversation with Discipleship and Care Pastor, Alvin Frank, of Stone Church in Toronto, ON, Pastor Alvin shared how he is seeing how God is using this pandemic to get people’s attention.
As the church’s Sunday gatherings shifted to an online format earlier this year, their Alpha course, along with many of the existing Bible studies and several new small groups for parents, newly married couples and young adults also moved online. Alpha is a program designed to inspire and equip churches to create a ‘safe space’ where people from any walk of life or religious understanding can encounter Jesus and have questions regarding faith answered. Shifting this long running ‘in-person’ group to an online platform would prove to be interesting, yet by God’s grace and much prayer Pastor Alvin navigated these challenges and they saw God move. The discussions that occurred during the several months of the spring/summer session of Alpha were inspirational as there seemed to be a greater transparency among the members than he ever recalled from his previous years of leading this program. Members shared freely about the difficulties they were enduring during this pandemic. It was revealed during some of the discussions that people were making unhealthy lifestyle choices. One individual even admitted to randomly dating people in hopes that they could fill the emotional void they were feeling. In the beautiful way that the Holy Spirit works, this individual was gently convicted that their dating habits were not healthy, nor God-honouring. Through the direction found in Scripture, prayer and with a repentant heart, they realized that God is the only One who can fill the emptiness they were experiencing.
Another gentleman who had been away from Stone Church for almost 30 years reconnected with God through the recent online Alpha program. As the weekly Alpha meetings took place, God brought to this man’s memory how Pastor Alvin wrote him a reference letter for a job he was seeking almost three decades earlier. The two men marvelled at how all these years later God has brought them together. In reflecting on how God drew this man back to Himself and to the church, Pastor Alvin was reminded of the story in Scripture of the wayward sheep and how the Good Shepherd was willing to leave his flock of 99 to gently lead that wayward sheep back into the fold where he was supposed to be. Although this man chose to leave the church some 30 years earlier, the Lord in His gentle ways called him back to the place he needed to be. His relationship with the Lord was restored and he was back home with his church family once again!
The Alpha course features a session that focuses on the Holy Spirit with an opportunity for those involved to encounter the presence and power of the Spirit in their own lives. In the past this time would be a day set apart for teaching, prayer, laying on of hands and praying for people to receive the infilling of the Holy Spirit. In this new COVID-19 reality, those participating in the Alpha course gathered online and were praying for one another when they experienced a powerful move of the Holy Spirit. During a three-hour Zoom session, Pastor Alvin saw people set free from things that bound their lives and saw as some were filled with the Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit does not need a building to move in. He just needs open hearts who prayerfully call out to Him, asking for His Holy Spirit to visit them in a new way!
During COVID-19, Pastor Alvin also had the privilege of conducting a small wedding for a couple from the church. Even in these unique times, with various restrictions and protocols, it was clear that God was present. At the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, an immediate family member took a few minutes to share with Pastor Alvin how he felt God in a special way during the wedding. He explained to Pastor Alvin how, as an accountant by profession, he knows that there is always a clear way to reach the proper answer. After all, 1+1 always equals 2! Likewise, in his life he felt that most things are quite orderly, and that his actions would yield specific results. During this time of isolation, this family member was realizing that life can’t be perfectly crafted or controlled, and that God had been softening his heart. sHe was realizing that God is in control and that He can be trusted.
These uncertain times seem to be igniting an urgency and newfound hunger in people for the things of God. Prayer is vital these days. Pre-COVID, Pastor Alvin recounted how they would have an in-person prayer time on Tuesday mornings at 7:00 a.m. and only 6 to 8 people would attend. During COVID, this same prayer time shifted to 8:00 a.m. and they began seeing as many as thirty people online, uniting in prayer over their church, city, nation, and world. This prayer time has been a great source of comfort and encouragement for so many people. This prayer time also prepares those in this congregation to be ready and better equipped to minister to those people who are seeking answers. As the coronavirus is highly regarded as a huge inconvenience in the natural for so many people, it is really an epic event that is being used by God to draw people unto Himself. Just like the shepherd who endured many obstacles to search for that lost sheep or the father of the prodigal who daily went out to look for his son, God will use whatever means to bring his wayward sons and daughters back home. Isaiah 55:9 assures us, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (KJV) We who know God must be seeking Him for guidance and direction and we must lean in to be part of the transformational work God is desiring to do in the hearts of men and women across our nation. There is nothing that can stop the move of the Spirit of God in the hearts of those who are receptive to Him.