For many years, my wife had an orchid plant I had bought her. Neither of us are particularly green fingered but out of all the plants we ever tried to grow, this one seemed to survive and thrive. Each year we would have to repot it to allow for new growth. Having spent some time involved with helping church revitalisation and replanting, I’m beginning to think that the imagery of repotting and replanting is helpful to us as well.
During the pandemic I argued that for many if not all churches coming out of the pandemic, we would experience life as “re-plants”. It would feel like we were having to start again. This would bring plenty of challenges, for a lot of us, it would mean that we were starting back small again. It would mean re-establishing many contacts. With the challenges would come opportunities. We had a clean sheet of paper. Ministries needed re-starting but in fact there was no pressure to get them going again. We could do some fresh thinking about what was needed in our post covid world.
But that wasn’t the only time we were going to have to re-plant post COVID. The reality is that we’d already been through at least one replant phase during that time. You see, our churches weren’t mothballed because we couldn’t open our buildings. So, we had to replant into an era of online connecting when it wasn’t possible to see others in person at all. We had to think about how to enable people to gather and how to share the good news during lockdowns. That was the first replant. Then there was the initial emergence out of lockdown in the summer of 2020. Some churches were able to run some activities in buildings but it wasn’t church as we knew it. There was a second replanting for the hybrid church phase.
It’s about a year now since churches were able to regather for public, in person worship following pandemic lockdowns. Though it took longer still before we were really able to get back to something resembling pre-COCVID normality as for a long while there was still a need to mask and to keep some distance.
This is maybe a good opportunity to take stock and see how things are going. Has the replant taken? Are those you expect and hope to see gathering for worship joining in? Are you finding ways to connect with others for the Gospel? But it isn’t just about whether or not we are seeing people turning up and whether we are able to do evangelism. We want to assess fruitfulness as well. Are those who turn up engaging? Are they using their gifts? Are they being fed? Are they being equipped to live for Christ, grow in godliness and share their own faith? Is our evangelism effective and bearing fruit too?
How do we know the answers to those questions? Well, the best way to find out is to ask them. Take time in home groups, pastoral visits and members’ meetings to stop and ask questions that help you to get a feel for where the congregation is. If you are feeling particularly brave, why not consider preparing a questionnaire and going round to visit homes in the community to find out how people are coping as we come out of the pandemic and how the church can serve them.
Then there are the people who haven’t come back yet. Now, it remains my view that if people haven’t yet come back consistently then they probably aren’t planning to come back anytime soon. Further, I suspect that by this stage, with a few exceptions, we cannot really say that it is because of the pandemic that they no longer come. The pandemic may have given them an extra reason to stay home or they may have chosen to move church.
This doesn’t mean we should give up on those who haven’t returned, even as we reassess priorities. This might be a good stage to go and revisit a few people and to ask them how they are doing, to show an interest in their lives and to find out what is going on spiritually.
It may be that for some, the shape of their lives has changed but that they haven’t closed the door to gathering with God’s people and getting to know him through his word. Those are the ones we should be particularly concerned about. Now, we may wish that they were where we think they should be in terms of attendance and involvement but that they are not does not automatically mean that they are not seeking to follow Christ. Are there people who will struggle to return to the old normal but still are hungry for God and that we should be still looking out for? Is your church set up for that?
It may be that you are happy to continue with some pruning but confident that the church is heading in the right direction. However, for some of us, another replant may be necessary.