The long haul pastoral job of bringing your church out of COVID

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Church returns to normal on the 25th July. What this means is that  all the legal restrictions we have faced will have been removed.  For various reasons, I think we can still expect it to actually take longer for things to return fully to normal.  I will keep repeating this but don’t expect everyone to be back in person on the 25th July.

Now in my worst nightmares, I contemplate the possibility that everyone who was willing to return to church has returned and that we could be seeing quite a substantial pruning of the church. If that happens, we need to be ready for it and to trust God’s sovereignty but it will force us to ask some searching questions about the health of our churches and ministry prior to COVID.

What I suspect however is that we are dealing with gradients of response.  It probably looks roughly like

  • 20% of congregations will have been enthusiastic returners. They will have been there pretty much as soon as you opened up.
  • 30% will be slower adopters and they will have started to return over time.  Quite a few will already be back and you’ll see more joining you through July and August.
  • 30% are more hesitant and will take time. It may be months or even longer before they come back.
  • 20% are not coming back and never were likely to.

Now, those are finger in the air proportions and they won’t be static.  Anecdotally it seems that likelihood to return is linked to size of church, smaller churches have seen quicker returns (especially if they were small in number but with large premises enabling social distancing) larger ones may be seeing a bigger drop off.  Older people and older congregations also seem to in a lot of cases be seeing greater return. Younger people are more hesitant. There also seems to be a little bit of alignment with political outlook. Brexit supporters tend to be generally more suspicious of lockdown than Remainers.

When looking at those who are hesitant I think that the crucial issue is the extent to which they have been engaged with the church through COVID.  If they have been involved in Zoom small groups, if they’ve helped with phoning round and staying in touch, if they have continued to interact with the online services then they are more likely to be ready to return sooner whereas if not the risk is that church fellowship has become less and less part of their life and indeed that they’ll find other aspects of return hard. As time goes by it will be harder for those who lose touch to come back.

And that’s where I think the pastoral slog will be. It’ll be in patiently staying in touch with those who are not yet ready to come back physically.  This will mean giving time to phone calls, door step visits (they may remain reluctant to entertain indoors still), texts etc.  It’ll mean continuing to provide online provision, especially interactive (Zoom rather than YouTube where possible).  I think it will also include providing other ways into to fellowship and gathering. Stepping stones if you like.

For example, some people may not be ready yet to rejoin you at the church building but might be amenable to getting together with another household for prayer, food and perhaps to watch a service together.  If that’s the case then it might mean making a sacrifice and deciding to be on a rota every 3 or 4 weeks to host or visit such a family and watch the service at home with them.

Now, on the one hand we can over worry about such things and we need to trust God’s sovereignty but on the other hand I think it goes too far to simply assume that if people know the Lord then they’ll be keen to get back. Yes, for some people especially those who never return there have to be searching questions about why and where their heart was. But for many it is more about the messy challenge of discipleship and so patience and love as well as a readiness to challenge from time to time is necessary.

So a primary responsibility that we will have as pastors post July 19th is to work hard on regathering the flock and encouraging and equipping them for the task ahead. Along the way we will also have the opportunity to engage with people who are showing an interest in the Gospel and who have started to engage online.