Circumstances have compelled us to change churches. I’m very grateful that there are a couple of other churches that have been very loving and caring, looking out for us as we make that transition but not everyone has that luxury. Ordinary church members are less likely to have church leaders watching out for them specifically and offering to help them in a period of transition. People new to church completely will find it even harder.
I am a week into the transition and my dominant thought is “Why on earth would anyone in their right mind, of their own volition, choose to change churches in the middle of lockdown?” So I wanted to share some thoughts on this
If you are thinking of leaving/changing churches … don’t
I really mean it. This stuff is hard. You’ll need a very good reason to make the jump. I’m talking full on serial adulterer, known abuser pastor or out there whacky false teaching level reasons. You see, we simply are not yet set up to help people join churches during COVID. This means that you are unlikely to actually join another church. Rather you are going to experience church as a visitor and consumer. As well as it being a tough place to put yourself into, it is also going to risk encouraging you to develop new habits and attitudes towards church. It’s so easy to be a consumer, so easy to become passive and anonymous, so easy to hear the pastor drive home an application and think “That’s not really for me.”
Furthermore, I hope that the constraints of lockdown will give you pause to think about why you are leaving. Is the issue so big that it cannot be dealt with? One concern I have here is that we don’t really give people chance to be reconciled where there is a problem. It is difficult to judge during lockdown what steps a church is taking to put things right. Walking away denies them the opportunity to make amends. At the same time, it may be that there are things you needed to hear from them. Walking away also denies the opportunity for difficult but necessary conversations, ones that people would rather not have over Zoom or shouted across 2 metres in the park.
If some one is joining you – act cautiously.
It probably isn’t going to help my own position much but I spoke to someone on the pastoral search committee for another church the other day. It’s a church I know and love but it wouldn’t be the right time/place for us. So, I was advising them about looking. I pointed out to them that sadly, there is a reasonable assumption that if a church is looking for a pastor in lockdown, then there have been problems and if a pastor is looking for another church in lockdown then that may indicate that they have hit problems too. Of course, that might not always be the case. Yet there is a good chance, after all, I am not just in the process of looking because it felt like a good time. We have been constrained by financial circumstances in our previous church.
The same applies if someone turns up and books into your socially distanced masked services or logs into your zoom room. If they have come from another church, there is a reason. This is potentially the case outside of lockdown but the stakes are higher in it. The risk now is not just that you enthusiastically welcome people into membership and give them roles without asking questions. The risk is that you are more likely to let them sit on the back row without any questions. As you will see from my point above, whilst they may be boosting your viewing figures, it could well be that they need to be back at their home church. Even if after the pandemic God does move them on, it shouldn’t be without getting things sorted out first.
So, talk with them, find out what is going on. Talk to the church they have been part of. See what needs to be done. Can you help them get reconciled (whether responsibility lies more with them or the church? If they go back and stay, becoming useful like Onesimus then you have done a good thing for the kingdom. If they still stay with you at the end, not only is your conscience clear but you may have also built up a relationship and partnership with another church that will serve you well in the future.
Think about how you welcome new Christians and enquirers
Now, over COVID we have been blessed with many people dipping their toes in to the water, watching Facebook and YouTube services and events. I suspect that we haven’t seen as many new visitors as is assumed and most early viewing figures were probably inflated by people checking out other churches and enjoying some extra stuff. Then there will be the people double and treble clicking on links. However, there have been people showing an interest. How have we been responding to this.
Here are some thoughts
- Did you create the shop window for them to have a look. Usually enquirers can pop int your service anonymously. If you did not provide some means for them to at least have a look then it would have been like holding services in private. That’s why we provide both a Facebook version of our service and Zoom as well.
- Were online versions of courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored made available? If those are your usual methods of introducing people to the Gospel and you did not provide them then you were sending a message that basically people had to wait until the virus was over before they could become Christians.
- Have you provided means for new people to actively join the church. Is there the equivalent of an online welcome desk? (We used online hosts in Facebook chat and on Zoom to basically do this). Is there a newcomers zoom break out room to find out more. Have you considered how to introduce people to each other online and how to welcome them into small groups.
A pandemic is not a great time to be leaving one church or joining another. We should think carefully and work things through only making the jump when it is truly necessary. If leaving, then we should leave well. Churches should therefore exercise caution and pastoral care when new people join by transfer from another church. At the same time we should be working hard to make genuine newcomers and enquirers welcome, just as we would in person.