We are enjoying our new church and particularly the prayer meetings and mid-week community groups. Often at these, one of the elders will pick up on a key thing from the Sunday sermon and encourage us to think about practical application before turning to prayer. The other Sunday, the speaker had talked about Christ returning from 40 days in the desert, full of the Holy Spirit and so on Sunday night, we were asked “what will it mean for us to return from the desert experience of COVID full of the Holy Spirit.” My answer, looking at 1 Corinthians 12 is that being full of the Spirit will include a greater awareness of the body of Christ, the church.
Now that might seem a strange thing to say, after all, we will be back meeting together at the same place on Sundays and seeing each other in one another’s homes for community groups. Surely we won’t need to work so hard at recognising, listening to and loving the body then as we have now will we? Well hear me out, there is I think a danger that after we’ve worked so hard by necessity at such things that we will become complacent again. So how do we avoid that?
Be alert to those who find it difficult to join in with in person worship
Churches were very quick to react to the pandemic by launching online content. This was brilliant but also provoked a response in some quarters to the affect of “where have you been all this time.” There are lots of people who struggle to access in person church services primarily due to physical or emotional health. There are others who cannot make it regularly to a Sunday morning service due to work or family commitments. Let’s not forget about them as soon as we are back to normal.
First of all, this means continuing to provide some form of online content. Personally, I’m still not a fan of just broadcasting out a service every week to the general public. I think It does change the dynamics and we don’t want to continue a long term culture where Christians just log into a church that could be anywhere. So, what I would personally do is continue to provide a zoom link for those who cannot make it in. This would also provide opportunity for fellowship and conversation.
Secondly, I would continue to provide some form of online content for people to watch or listen to in the week. Fascinatingly, whilst I originally assumed that in the modern era people would prefer to watch than just listen and so focused on video content, I’ve since discovered that there is a far greater appetite for audio only podcasts.
Thirdly, we need to think carefully about our theological assumptions. What I mean by this is that whilst there clearly is greatest benefit to in person fellowship and whilst we do not want to encourage a gnostic detachment between physical and spiritual, I was concerned at how quickly some people wrote off zoom etc as “not proper church.” The argument was that we needed embodied gathering and that zoom could not possibly count as this. Yet, after a year I’m still waiting for a thought through Biblical case for this. All we’ve been given is a bit of philosophy and personal preferences. Given the number of people affected by our theology, we need to do better here.
Be alert to the different ways that people struggled during lockdown
There are other Christians who have struggled and will continue to struggle with returning to in person events. At times this led to some hyperbolic comments about the decisions people and churches made. To return to in person events was to court controversy for being “reckless” and fail to “love your neighbour.” These accusations came even when you had carefully followed COVID-19 guidelines and demonstrated that your gatherings were safe. At the same time, those who were nervous about returning and churches that held off were accused of cowardice, of obeying man instead of God and not having faith enough to trust God over death. We will have some work to do to rebuild fellowship. I would encourage teaching form Romans 12-14 and a theology of the weaker brother.
Be alert to what God has been doing in people’s lives
God has been at work in COVID. For some people, the challenges of the pandemic have meant that God has used suffering as a form of discipline to grow patience, perseverance and hope in thm. For others, the pandemic has provided a form of sabbatical where they’ve actually found rest and had time to get deeper into God’s Word. We need to be alert to how God has grown people’s gifts during the lockdown so that as we return there will be a celebration of every Christian being able to offer service as part of God’s family.
Be aware too that not everyone will have yet been able to see what God is doing in their lives through this time. Think about how you can help them to do this. Be aware that there will be others who will have, or at least feel that they have failed and fallen during this period. Provide space for repentance and restoration too.
Be aware of those who have lost so much during this time, their own physical or emotional -health because of long covid or because of disruption to normal health services, the loss of friends and loved ones either directly to the virus or to other causes but without the normal means of mourning. There will be other types of loss too. For example, people will have lost the opportunity to properly celebrate a wedding, a major life milestone or the birth of a child. How will you give space for them?
Be alert to new people joining
Yes, there have been people who have become Christians during COVID-19 and Christians who have moved churches. How will you welcome then and help them to settle in. Then there will be families coming along with new babies and of course young toddlers that have not had any social interaction or contact for the last year. How will you help them to settle in?
Be alert to the things that were not so great before the pandemic
I mentioned before that some believers have experienced a form of sabbatical during the lockdowns. They were so busy and exhausted running programmes before. Meanwhile others just related to church as consumers. How will we make sure we don’t go back to that.
Celebrate and commemorate!
In my article about post-covid evangelism I suggested that we put together some events to give thanks to God for his provision and protection, he has kept us safe through this time. We also need space to grieve, remember and commemorate the loss we have experienced through the pandemic. This will be helpful for the church family as well.
We will need events that remember and provide space for grieving. I suggest that you plan in for at least one memorial service and encourage those who lost loved ones to be involved in the preparation for these, I suggest that you include a major thanksgiving event. This might include some form of community day followed by an act of worship that will roll together the Christmas, Harvest, Easter and Pentecost celebrations of the last 18 months.