Many of us had pinned our hopes on June 21st being “Freedom Day”and so we may be feeling a little crushed and disappointed at the moment. Of course, the 21/06 was never really the make or break “Freedom Day” that the media had foolishly built it up to be. WE have already substantially unlocked the country over the past few months and we have been reminded each time that the dates on the roadmap were/are “the earliest” rather than definite milestones.
However, this stage was significant for churches because it potentially marked an end to social distancing, face masks and singing bans. So it will be disappointing to have to wait longer. Yet, just as it seems that this delay is what the country needs if the Government uses it wisely to get better data, to check assumptions and to vaccinate more people, so, it may be just what many of our churches needed, if we too use the time wisely.
The reality is that we probably were not going to see people coming back immediately to normal in person gatherings. We as churches may not be ready and individuals may not be quite ready too. We have got used to a different way of life and become unused to spending time with lots of people together. I suspect there were a lot of people who would not have just walked back in on Sunday 27th.
So, how can we use time wisely? Well, first of all, if you haven’t done this already, I would be getting round and talking to every church member, every person who used to attend your services and as many people as possible who have been engaging online. Ask them whether they feel ready to come to an in person service and check what obstacles there might be. For some people, there may still be some lingering concerns about COVID safety so this will alert you to things you can do to reassure them.. For example, I’ve mentioned before that whatever the rules say, some people may still be looking for a bit of social distancing space and whilst 2 metre and 1 metre gaps might not be possible if you want to get everyone in, you may find that you need to reduce capacity in order to help people feel safe. So, if this means that you have to run two Sunday services at 50% capacity for a time, then that might be what you need to plan for. Who knows where that will lead longer term.
I’d also encourage people to be interacting with other believers and not merely passive watchers. One church is doing this by encouraging two households or groups of six to get together on a Sunday morning and watch the service together. The service has been adapted to create space for interaction, prayer and discussion in these bubbles too. Another way of doing this might be by encouraging people to move from watching a Facebook service to joining on a zoom call. Finally, you might want to organise some social events in the run up such as a picnic, some BBQS and some walks, or maybe inviting a few people over to watch the football.
Finally, I’d encourage you to use the space to think about how you will do church post-pandemic. There are two helpful prompts for this. First, there are lots of people who have joined in online who have never been to church before. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that they are unlikely to be ready to come to a church service yet and maybe our church services won’t be ready for them.
Then there are people who used to attend our services but there is a real risk that they aren’t coming back or if they do, it will be less frequently. Indeed, if someone used to come once or twice a month expect that to become even less frequent. Now, in some cases that will reflect their own state of spiritual health. The pandemic will have shone a light on the health of our churches and shown where we are not as solid as we thought we were. WE have to accept that some people were not followers of Jesus and that others were simply coasting along on the fringes. We pray that God will work supernaturally in their lives to change that but we also know that the pandemic simply sped up the inevitable.
However, there may be others who are genuinely hungry to know God and yet we’ve pushed them away and failed to draw them with his word. When we meet and how we meet may have put up barriers. I’m not talking about our proclamation of the Gospel itself. That will always be a stumbling block to many but let’s make sure it is the only stumbling block. So, take time to consult with people about when you gather and what you do when you gather.
At the moment, the delay may feel like bad news but if we respond correctly, we may discover that it was exactly what we needed.
 Regular readers know that I was sceptical that all of this would happen immediately.