I thought it might be helpful to say a little bit more about what we might expect to happen with COVID-19 over the next year or so and how this might affect our approach to church life. I’ve seen a few people setting out some potentially scary scenarios recently. For example, in one very bleak case the person suggested that in one year’s time we would be recognising that if you were over 50 then a diagnosis with COVID would not have a good outlook and that serious illness and death in our 60s and 70s would be becoming the norm leading to much shorter life expectancy. It is worth noting that such an extreme prediction looks very much out of line with what we are already seeing now. Those that are most vulnerable to severe disease and death tend to be over 80 and with vaccines and repeat exposure, our experience of the Omicron variant has been less severe.
So, throughout the pandemic there have been two big questions arising out of people’s perceptions of the current and long term threat from COVID is.
- Is it possible to eradicate COVID-19 completely?
- Is it necessary to eradicate the virus completely?
Some people started out extremely pessimistic about the danger of the virus believing that if it mutated it would become more and more deadly. At the same time they were optimistic about our ability to contain and suppress the disease into extinction through lockdowns, social distancing, mask wearing, vaccines and anti-viral drugs. Others believed that eradiation was not possible because of the way that coronaviruses function. They thought that regular mutation would make it difficult to design vaccines that would be as effective as needed at targeting transmission and so herd immunity was impossible to aim for. However, many of those also thought that it wasn’t necessary to eliminate the virus, we would need to learn to live with it and be able to live with it so that our experience of the virus would become less and less severe.
Omicron has perhaps given us the best indication of which direction things are going. Currently we are seeing that this variant is less severe. That’s not because it has evolved into ma milder variant. From what I’ve read, it isn’t that the virus has traded off severity in order to become more transmittable. Rather, whilst Omicron is able to evade neutralising antibodies produced by prior infection and vaccines, it remains susceptible to T-Cells that fight the virus once present. It is because we have had prior exposure to the virus through infection or virus that we are now better equipped to fight it off leading to less severe symptoms in most cases.
This is in line of the arguments of scientists like Professor Francois Balloux of UCL, one of the Government’s advisors. He and others have argued that our best hope is that repeat exposure to the disease will lead to it becoming less and less of a threat to us. As this happens, it will become a seasonal illness with high prevalence during the winter months but for the vast majority of us it will be like another seasonal cold. There will of course remain some who due to weakened immune systems the virus remains highly dangerous in years to come just as we see with influenza.
Our early experience of Omicron suggests that this is the direction of travel for the virus. However, because it spreads rapidly, it is still possible for many people who have not been vaccinated or for whom vaccines have proved ineffective to catch the illness which is why there remain concerns about hospital admissions and deaths. Whilst the direction of travel is towards an endemic illness comparable to seasonal flu or even the common cold, we remain a long way off reaching that stage.
My personal expectation therefore is that we are going to see a bumpy road towards living with COVID over the next two or three years. There will still be times when spikes in cases put pressure on healthcare and we sadly will still see many more die from the disease.
However, I suspect that we are also seeing modelled in England what will become the normal response to future waves, particularly those triggered by Variants of Concern. In other words, expect to see some light touch measures brought back in such as face mask requirements and perhaps work from home. The general public will be encouraged to show caution in their social interactions, but they will not be subject to legal restrictions. I also expect that we will see further booster shots, perhaps updated against variants however, these will become less frequent and fewer people will be required to take them until like with influenza it will be elderly people and those with underlying conditions and other chronic respiratory problems that will be encouraged to have an annual shot.
This seems to be the view of mainstream medical science – the so called COVID-centric view.
Now, if this is what we are likely to see then it has implications. Obviously, it has implications for Government decision making. For example, I have persistently argued that we need to invest in the NHS’s ability to respond to spikes in demand by creating surge capacity through a National Health reserve.
However, my greater concern is to do with the implications for churches and the work of the Gospel. How is the future of COVID likely to affect us? The good news is that it is increasingly unlikely that we will be faced with the kind of disruption to church life we saw during the first two lockdowns with churches being asked to close their doors on Sundays and meet online instead. However, there may be times, as now when some restrictions touch on church life such as for example a requirement to wear face-masks indoors.
But I don’t think that we are going to be without challenges. First of all, there is the challenge that a lot of people still haven’t come back to in person church and I suspect that the majority of those who haven’t yet begun to return are unlikely to come back. It is worth noting that some of these will have not been believers, they attended out of interest or habit and were on the fringe. However, it will also include genuine believers and some who were right at the centre of church life. These will include people who remain cautious due to risk to family members who are particularly vulnerable, It will also include people who have become disillusioned with church both because of how their church was perceived to respond to the virus and because of prior issues. Some will have already been struggling with church attendance and the pandemic will have given them an experience of living without in person church.
What this means is that there will be a lot of people who continue to have a level of faith, who may well be the Lord’s but who will become de-churches. They may find other ways to access teaching and even fellowship, informally with other believers with similar concerns. I think there are two risks here. The first is that unintentionally they may give the impression to their children that faith is of secondary importance, a personal/private and optional matter. Secondly, the Bible is clear that we need that regularly gathering of the local church. We need one another for healthy faith. The risk is that we will have a significant number of people who are believers but increasingly weak and fragile in their walk with the Lord.
I wanted to start here because I think too many of the conversations and articles being shared seem to focus on attendance from a church size and viability point of view. I’ve seen advise to the effect that pastors should stop talking about their pre-pandemic congregation. The people you have now are your church and that’s okay was the comment of one leader. Now, that’s a helpful corrective to those who seek to compare the size of their church to others and find comfort in numbers. However, it misses the point that there are lots of people out there who, if we follow the model of the Good Shepherd we do have a responsibility for. Good pastors will have a concern to see those people re-gathered, to make sure that they are going no well with the Lord, using their gifts and protected from the attack of wolves.
The other implication relates to evangelism. There are people who have been engaging with the Gospel through the pandemic including those who started to engage for the very first time (or afresh after many years) through online church content. However, many of them will still not feel ready to join in person church. That will partly be because they are not yet ready to take the next step. However, there will be another factor at play. I suspect that society is going to be significantly divided in its response to the new normal. Whilst many people cannot wait to get back to pre-pandemic normality there are others who remain ultra-cautious, who would prefer to see the Government keep severe restrictions in place and believe that eradication of COVID is necessary.
Therefore, I expect there to be a wariness about congregating indoors amongst much of the population for some time to come. Some people may never quite get over the PTSD of the pandemic and always find large indoor gatherings and close contact socialising difficult. There will be enough of a majority who won’t feel like this for a good number of churches to draw crowds again but once more that’s okay for finding our security in size but not enough when it comes to our duty to reach the lost.
So, if our concern is merely to maintain numbers then it will be a case of writing off our pandemic losses, gathering the remnant and seeing who turns up through our doors, rebuilding attendance over the next few years. Some churches will get there quicker than others helped by the closure of other churches that didn’t survive the pandemic.
However, I would encourage us to think differently. We should have a concern for those who are already part of God’s family but have been scattered by the pandemic and we should have a concern to reach those who are open to the Gospel but for whom our traditional pre-COVID gatherings create a stumbling block other than Christ.
What does this mean in practice? Well, I think it means the following.
First, we will need to do some work in terms of helping people to see the World around them through God’s eyes, to think Biblically. This means that we should not duck difficult questions with people about what stops them from joining in. These conversations may be tough if the reasons are not just fear of COVID and may require repentance on our part for where we have failed and reconciliation. However, it may also involve the patient work of helping people to see where their response may not be proportionate and may arise out of fear rather than love and faith.
Secondly, I think we need to think longer term about how we help people to gather who may be apprehensive of doing so. Of course there have been people who due to health conditions and/or anxiety have long struggled with large gatherings regardless of COVID and perhaps this will help them too.
So, what might that look like? Well, I think we are going to increasingly see congregations that never grow beyond 4 or 5 people meeting in one place. This might mean that you have very small house churches, or networks of house gatherings either functioning as a church/congregation or linked into an existing church. This will enable people to connect with others in person in small groups, outdoors and spaced out where possible and confident that there others meeting are known contacts who will make sure they are fit and well before joining in. If we go down this route then we will need to think hard about how we support such groups/networks. First of all, there will be challenges in terms of safe-guarding and accountability. We will need to re-model policies for this. Secondly, we will need to think about how we equip such groups so that those involved are able to feed and encourage one another with God’s Word and able to use their gifts.
Secondly, we will want to look at technology and online content for the longer term. This may include providing live or pre-recorded YouTube, Facebook and podcast teaching and discussion content that can be picked up by these “raw church” groups. Secondly, it may involve continuing to provide Zoom/Teams infrastructure to enable those in the small groups and those completely unable to mix to remain connected with the wider body.
This means that for some Christians, their Sundays might look like the following going forward. First they will meet for Breakfast/Brunch with four or five others. They’ll then listen and join in with some sung worship at the house. Perhaps a member will bring a guitar or perhaps they’ll choose some music from YouTube/CDs. They might then listen to a talk, live streamed from a larger church gathering or pre-recorded. Then they’ll discuss it together. They will pray together and break bread. Later in the day, they’ll join in with others from their church family on a Zoom call with break out rooms for prayer and fellowship.
For others, it will mean that their involvement in their church will primarily be through their midweek small group. This was something that we had already built towards during my time at Bearwood Chapel. Our traditional membership policy was that members were expected to be at the Sunday morning family service each week and absence over an extended period of time would lead to them being removed from membership. However we had several people who due to health, work or family reasons struggled to make it along each week, sometimes with long gaps. However, we found that they could join in with a midweek Home Group. So we changed the emphasis from “you must be at the Sunday service” (we had three of them plus a Saturday night anyway) to “make sure you are gathering with God’s people at some point in the week.” That might be Sunday morning, Sunday evening at the building or Wednesday afternoon in a home. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more people falling into this category over the next year or two.
Thirdly, where we’ve put so much energy into running attractional events and clubs from our church buildings over the years, we will want to re-calibrate this. Some churches may find that such events still have their place. However, we are going to have to put a lot more effort into helping believers be effective witnesses in their communities. This will include helping them to share their own faith naturally over a BBQ or out for a walk in the woods. It will also include continuing to provide good online content which neighbours will want to tune into and church members will then be able to make connections to.
Now for some of us, what I’ve described sounds scary, hard work and potentially disappointing. At the same time, I suspect for others it looks quite exciting. With the challenges of a post COVID world come opportunities to think afresh about church life and evangelism. Whatever your response, remember one thing. God is sovereign, it’s his church, his Gospel and he has not been caught off guard by COVID. He will continue to build his church, he will continue to love his people, he will continue to be glorified whatever happens.