Here are some thoughts I put together on how we can move forward as churches as we come through the other side of the pandemic.
Covid-19 led to churches having to close their buildings and many of their weekday activities. We were able to go online for some things and on the one hand this has led to a lot of new contacts. Some people found that they could engage with church in a way they could not through normal means, others have been looking for support and answers in dark days.
Conversely, we have also seen a lot of disconnect. People who were engaged with activities may not have joined in online and some church attenders have got used to having Sunday’s off. Thom Rainer has suggested that in the States, churches may expect to lose about 20% of their membership. Whilst, I think that there is more cultural Christianity and therefore a greater fringe for the US church to lose, I believe that the UK church will still see losses. It is not just about loss of attendees, it is also about disruption to community engagement and evangelism.
The virus has held up a mirror to our society so that we have seen the ugliness of death and the horror of isolation. We are seeing a great need for community and companionship. A lot of people have suffered greatly from fear and anxiety. There is still a lot of fear “out there.”
Meanwhile people have practical needs. They have health worries and job worries. The economic impact of the lockdown is likely to lead to hardship and greater food and fuel poverty.
Unsurprisingly, people are asking the same big questions that come up in response to life’s circumstances. They are asking “Why is there suffering?” This is both the big philosophical question about why suffering exists and the intimate question “why are my family suffering and grieving?” They are asking “Where is God in all this?” and “Is there hope?”
In a lot of ways, it is a case of going back to the basics. First, we need to meet people where they are. This will mean creating space for hospitality, it will mean rebuilding those contacts with neighbours and finding time for work colleagues. It will include renewed efforts to link up with local schools. It will also mean that we need to continue to make creative use of online contact.
Meeting people where they are means finding out the questions that they are asking. I also would suggest that we need to “Go short to go long.” This means rather than the old 10 week Alpha and Christianity Explored courses, we need shorter series like First Look and Rooted that people can dip into from time to time. It also means that we still need to “Go small to grow larger” by emphasising small groups and 1-1 discipleship.
We need to gather people around God’s Word. This is because that’s what people need to answer their questions and feed their spiritual hunger. Furthermore, it is how we prepare and equip the church. We need to be reminded again of the wonderful saviour we have so we can share the good news with others. We need to develop a culture of grace not just in words or even in deeds but within the very fabric of our church family.
We need to take people to Jesus. He is the one who can answer their questions and meet their needs. This means that the church needs to know and be able to tell the big story of the Gospel. It also means that we need to be able to know and tell the little stories of our own testimonies.
Some practical ideas
It is important that we develop long term online content that people can tune into. This will provide for believers who are unable to get out often and for non-Christians who want to dip their toe in the water. At the same time, there will be things that we have learnt from our online content that we will want to bring into our events and gatherings at our physical buildings.
One way that we can help people overcome fear is by demonstrating that our buildings and events are safe. It may be worth offering people the opportunity to physically walk through first of all. We may also be able to partner up with the local public health team to run practical events to help people rebuild their lives after COVID.
Events like Messy Church may be the best way of engaging families, enabling parents and children to stay in their household bubbles and providing an environment where they are confident about safety.
We will also want to encourage a sense of everyday church. This will mean encouraging church members to build relationships in the community through things like garden BBQs. At the moment we will want to make as much use of the outdoors as possible for walks in the park, picnics etc.
We must be ready for a long hard slog ahead. It is not going to be easy and the longer that life carries on this this unusual state of affairs, the harder we will find it. However, we must not lost confidence. God remains sovereign and even if we cannot see how at the moment, he is working his purposes together for good.