Church in the new normal

I wanted to share a few reflections on our experience so far during the Coronavirus lockdown. It has been tough and challenging but in other ways, refreshing and encouraging. These are not structured thoughts – just some jotted reflections and interaction with concerns of others.

Body ministry kicks in … if it is already in place

Separated out from our normal experience of gathering, we have had to work harder at maintaining a sense of church family.  I think that this is more likely to happen if a concern for body ministry is already in the DNA of the church.

It has been encouraging to see church members getting on with calling each other, checking that the vulnerable are okay, offering to collect food and medicine.  We’ve managed to stay in touch through phone and text and video calls. Home groups have made use of zoom for prayer and fellowship.

One concern I’ve heard expressed is that if churches step up pastoral care then people will become used to the daily calls and offers of care. They will express the same level of service after the crisis ends.  Well, I guess that there is the risk of dependency and unhelpful expectations if we look at this being that pastors and elders are expected to meet consumer demand.

However, if the whole church are encouraged to look after each other as part of being a family together, then that problem goes away. Indeed, this becomes a positive. If people are looking for that type of regular contact and care from and for each other going forward then it’s a good thing.

Variety of approaches needed

We’ve found that some people cannot or prefer not to access via Facebook, whilst others struggle with Zoom. Zoom means we can have face to face interaction, it also enables older members who are not online to dial in by phone. Although it is worth noting that those in their 70s and 80s are often the most proficient users of social media. I think someone once said that older people are having to stay up to speed with these things so they can stay in touch with their grandchildren.

There have been some interesting conversations about how social media affects human interaction. Certainly there have been studies and reports suggesting that we are affected by the media we use. However, it is also worth considering too that the media itself is affected and develops in line with how we use it and what we use it for. To put it bluntly, if the dominant use of social media is for porn and pick ups then that will influence its design and development, imagine if it is used for church and for genuine social connection primarily.

The other question has been about how we teach/preach online. 

  • Should we be doing more or less provision. Initially, some people thought we should do less. We usually have three Sunday services but maybe we should just do the one service each Sunday.  I have found that there is appetite for more. Now, this has to be sustainable.  I think the best way to do this is by not trying to add too much new.  Rather, we can build our online time into our natural daily routines. So our evening and morning prayer rather than being something extra is an invitation to join in with Sarah and me for our devotional life. This means for example that I am not preparing in advance for the Scriptural meditation but I am looking at the text for the first time that day with you.
  • Do we need to shorten our talks?  There have been some suggestions that attention spans will be shorter on line. My gut feel is that this will be generally true. However, like most things we can make hard and fast rules. After all, we have constantly got the battle over how much attention span people have off line. The answer is that it varies and can adapt. Further, the assumptions are based I believe on use of social media for conferences and presentations.  If you go very formal, reading scripts from lecterns, I suspect that shorter time spans will be needed. However what we and others are finding is that people are tuning in, there is an appetite not for slick presentations but for home-spun imperfect offerings. I suspect that this desire for normal interaction will also compensate for shorter attention spans. However, we mix it up. I am offering 10-15 minute talks on youtube and Sundays have been shorter than usual.  However, we are also running a midweek “lecture” which runs for 50 minutes with an in-depth exposition. We do well to remember that Clayton TV have found an appetite for broadcasting sermons and convention talks online too.

I suspect as well that the more interaction the better. Where we have two people interacting in conversation rather than just a single presenter seems to encourage engagement.

All of this means that our focus needs to be on the interpersonal side of things. It is tempting to be rushing around finding the best platforms and purchasing new tech. The risk is that we become experimental at the very point people need stability.  Our focus is better placed on getting the human interaction right and keeping relational connections.

It really is church but we hunger for something more

There have been debates about whether or not we are gathering. These have included metaphysical conversations about what it means to physically gather. Some have also expressed their frustration and the obstacles and inadequacies they experience. Finally we have those who are concerned that people will enjoy this experience so much, that it will be more convenient if they don’t have to go to church and so not return at the end. This has also affected conversations about communion.

We have taken communion together. In my experience so far:

  • Using technology to try and facilitate meeting isn’t perfect. The frustration and obstacles are real. I think this can help us to appreciate more the obstacles that people in persecuted churches and those who experience obstacles such as through disabilities face.
  • There has been a real sense of gathering and sharing fellowship though. Indeed communion is doing its job in helping us to know and experience our unity in the body. The loss of some aspects of physical connection makes this more, not less necessary.
  • The people who gather this way are more likely to want to gather together in  our building at the end because they are the ones who are proactively seeking fellowship and teaching.  They are more likely to hunger for our gathering together at the end. There is a genuine sense of longing and hunger for more. They know they are loved and looked after and this keeps people together. We have also engaged with people who were on the fringe plus new people.  I suspect that those likely to drop off from our normal gatherings will already have started to drop off as they won’t feel the need for fellowship and teaching.

I believe that we are likely to want to do something special when we get back to the old normal. We will want to celebrate. It will be like Easter, Pentecost and Harvest rolled into one. However, I hope there will be things that continue. We won’t go back to exactly as things were.

Adrenaline and culture shock

Some have warned about culture shock. My suspicion is that we are not hitting culture shock at the moment. Rather, we are in the honeymoon period when we are enjoying the drama and we are pumped up on adrenaline. However, the longer this goes on, the more stamina we will need. Chris Green has described things as being like a series of sprints and we have hit the ground running. However, it is still likely to be a marathon. We need to be prepared for the implications of a phased ending of the lockdown, things wont be as normal as we might assume for some time. Further, even as we prepare to celebrate, there will be sadness. There will be physical deaths to mourn but there will also be spiritual sadness, this time will sift us and there will be those who don’t stick the course (as mentioned above). Even though that will simply be exposing the reality of hearts it will hurt. At the same time I am confident there will be the joy of new life as we see genuine conversions.

But this means that the return could be more challenging than the absence.  Culture shock is often worse during the return (reverse culture shock) because it comes without the excitement of special mission. I suspect that there will be some of this to watch out for too.

Over to you

So those are some of our experiences, reflections and lessons. What have you been discovering?  What have you learnt so far?

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