Returning to in person church after lockdown – how can we look after one another?

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Whilst many churches have re-opened the doors over the past few months, actual in person attendance has in most cases been unavoidably limited. What we can do in person has been extremely restricted and social distancing has limited capacity. Some churches have not been able to open at all due to renting their premises. 

Therefore, the June 21st re-opening if it goes ahead is likely to be the point when we can start to properly reopen and to welcome people back into our buildings.  After so long away and with a level of nervousness around, I suspect there will be challenges to get through. 

So, how will we get through this next stage together?  Well, it is worth thinking through some of the issues that we are going to see.

  • There will be some people who are enthusiastic and ready to return to normal.  They may have already been coming back for limited in person meetings and they’ll be looking forward to throwing away their masks, warmly greeting others and singing lustily.
  • There will be some people who will be nervous about returning. They will want to return, they will have missed the in person gatherings, they will see the need to be together as God’s people but they will also be nervous about getting back to “normal.”
  • There will be some people who still will not be ready to return. They may be nervous about risks still or they may have become used to a different way of life.

I want to suggest that we need to bear in mind two bits of Scripture that will give us some helpful practical advice. The practical principles are that we will need to manage expectations and we will need to encourage the church to bear with one another with patient, humble love.

The first Scripture is Ezra 3:12-13.  The people are beginning to return from Exile and they have worked on rebuilding the temple, what a joyful, emotional occasion, however ….

“…many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple wept aloud when they saw the new Temple’s foundation. The others, however, were shouting for joy. 13The joyful shouting and weeping mingled together in a loud noise that could be heard far in the distance.”

Whilst there will be the overwhelming joyful emotion for many of a return to gathering together, we also need to be ready for disappointment. I think we need to be ready to look around and realise that we still aren’t fully back to normal. Some restrictions may still be in place and even if not legally required, we may wish to continue with some for a little while out of love for others (more on that to come).  Furthermore, there will be people missing. This will include those who died during the pandemic. It will also include people who are still not ready or able to return and it will include people who are not coming back. There will be sadness mingled in with our joy.

We need to prepare people to be realistic in their expectations but also we need to equip people to deal with both joy and disappointment.  How do we do that? Well Ezra’s focus was on re-teaching people the Law. Why? Well because the significance of the temple was not found in how grand it was but in its purpose, that it represented God’s presence with his people and because it represented the offer of atonement.  We can help one another to lift our eyes to see God’s bigger purpose and plans, to remember why we gather so that it is Christ who remains at the centre of what we do. And we can help one another by encouraging anticipation. Just as being on zoom is better than having nothing and attending an in person meeting is better than zoom but on each occasion, we also end up hungry for more, so we will find the full return better than our socially distanced meetings but there should still be anticipation for more, for that greater day to come when all of God’s people gather to worship him.

The second Scripture is Romans 12:3

“Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.”

This passage leads into Paul’s teaching in the following chapters about how we love one another and the specific examples of how stronger brothers and sisters are to respect and encourage those that they see as “weaker” in faith. It means not throwing your weight around.  It means being humble and gentle with others.

Now one of the things I find helpful at this stage is not to try and second guess who is weaker and who is stronger. We should assume it is others that need our support and encouragement rather than that we do.  So, we need to think carefully about how we will look after those who are hesitant.

One practical way of approaching this may be to think in terms of phasing in return. Rather than setting up this expectation that everything will return in big bang fashion in June, we may want to slowly bring things back.  This might include:

  • Gradually building towards full capacity. So if you are at about 25 -30% capacity now, then at the end of June why not increase that to 50% capacity and then in  July to 75% capacity.
  • Begin with outdoor singing.
  • Continue to encourage face mask wearing over the first month back.
  • Continue to provide sanitisation points and one-way systems.
  • Continue to enable contact tracing provision (this may well be a requirement anyway)
  • Start off slowly with a shorter service and gradually build up
  • Consider how you will provide for communion and tea and coffee in a manner that shows COVID security.

There may be other practical things to do.  Some of these may well be good practice anyway. For example, in terms of hugs and handshakes, we need to think in terms of whether the other person wants/needs a hug rather than whether we want to hug them.  That’s kind of obvious when you think about it isn’t it really? 

The crucial thing is that we approach these next few months with an attitude of grace, looking out for one another’s  needs and thinking the best of each other.