UK churches are beginning to leave lockdown. We have finally been granted permission to re-open our buildings for public worship. Now, at this stage, we are going to face some collective challenges together. In many respects, it won’t be easy for us. I am reminded of the incident in Ezra where the rebuilt temple is dedicated and the older people who remembered the previous temple and all its glory wept because the new one faded into insignificance. We will back but to misquote Star Trek
“It’s church Jim but not as we know it!”
We will be limited by social distancing, by the ban on singing and by the fact that many people will still be unable to come due to shielding or self-isolating. Yet as I explained here, there are good reasons to start gathering again at our building. There are also lots of people who we might say “could” gather, specifically those who are not having to shield or self-isolate. Some will find this more challenging than others. Those with young children will have to consider the challenge of supervising youngsters who are not yet able to fully appreciate the importance of social distancing. So I expect church members and attendees at this stage to fall into three main categories:
- Those who definitely cannot come due to shielding and self isolation
- Those who come technically come but who are likely to face a variety of obstacles to coming
- Those who could come
At the same time I recognise that in the “could come” category are likely to still be many who feel unable to come, they remain nervous about the virus, wary about government advice and believe that this is too soon to be ending lockdown.
So, at this stage, I believe it is important that pastorally we recognise this. I do not believe that a harsh legalism that insists people must attend will help, nor do I believe it fits with the way that the Bible approaches things. I’ve heard a couple of people seeking to reassure others this week by saying “We will not be forcing anyone to come” Well, I hope that we never force people to come to church (I’m personally in the camp that says you shouldn’t force reluctant children to come with you). I would rather see the message as following the example of Jesus who invites people to come to him and because of who he is draws people to him.
At this stage, I think the emphasis should be simply that we are opening for those who can come to do so as they feel able. We will be making it clear that we are not providing two tiers of involvement in the life of the church. We remain one church and there should be a sense of unity and equality between those joining in via zoom calls or Facebook and those joining in from the building. The re-gathering at one venue is more of a journey/process.
However, over time, I think this will change a little. There is a Biblical mandate to gather together and we should do that to the best of our ability. As the virus recedes, it will become clearer that “to the best of our ability” does mean at the building to all but a few who are housebound (and we will need to keep thinking better about how we include those in the life of the church).
This means that the emphasis will change from “you could gather…” to “you should gather…” It’s not that we are going to start knocking doors on a Sunday morning at some point but rather that there will need to be a change to the message. Whilst we don’t compel people to do something, it is important that there is a sense amongst us that God’s word does place some obligations on believers. It is also important that we see that when it does, then those obligations and duties are for our own good and joy. There should be a joy and delight in being able to come together.
I’m not quite sure when the transition will come. However, I think we need to be alert to it and I think it is important that we start thinking now about how we will help people pastorally move from a mindset that says “we could come…” to a mindset that says “we should come…”
What are your thoughts on how to approach this?