If you’ve read much of this blog and/or follow me on twitter you will know that we as a family have been in the process of trying to buy 2 fields in the area where Grace Church is based in Doncaster. You’ll know we’ve been looking for a long time for a permanent base for the church to serve the community from without any success, and with lots of eye popping high 6 and 7 figure asking prices.
You’ll also know that about 15 months ago we had offers accepted for 2 fields. Well it’s been a long drawn out process but it looks like we’ll finally be able to complete the purchase this week, with assurances and agreements in place that changing use to put a building for church on one of the fields won’t trigger the overage clause and require us paying a large sum of money to the previous owners. Ensuring that is what has caused the long delay.
That doesn’t mean we’re immediately leaving the school where we meet and enjoy a good relationship. Neither does it mean we immediately embark on a building project. What it does mean is that as a church we can pray and start thinking and dreaming about what ministry here may look like in the future even as we stay focused on our mission here and now.
Hayfield is a strange community because of it’s history. It has grown up around what was RAF Finningley, now Robin Hood Airport. It has doubled in size in the 14 years we have lived here and is continuing to grow. But it is a diverse community that has all the social groups, needs and divisions of a large town compressed into a small area. It has many needs and not much social capital or investment.
We are grateful to God for having provided for us. We are prayerful that things complete this week. And we are patiently yet excitedly seeking God for what he would have us do next. There are many steps ahead, many challenges, especially for a small church, but we are so grateful that we can take the first of these because we serve a God who answers prayer.
Is life back to normal? No. Is church back to normal? No. Will it ever get back to where it was in February? I just don’t know. Do you want it to? Now that’s the question.
Church had to go online in March and many of us were unable to meet together in person until July, or August, and some are still waiting. We’ve been back to meet together in person but we’re nowhere near back to normal. No singing, 1 church family split into 3 congregations (2 gathering in 2 services and one still online), no Sunday school, toddlers, gospel group or kids work yet. And it certainly looks like that, or significant parts of it, will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, at least until after the winter.
But that is where my question comes in. It’s been nagging away at me for a while. What will it look like for us to get back to normal as a church family? Will it just be a return to the old normal or is their a better new normal that we could be preparing to return to?
We’re not an old church. I’d like to think we’ve contextualised quite well. We’ve been going 13 years and regularly adapt what we do, trying new services in new venues, taking risks in evangelism and are generally outward looking. We’re not dying on our feet. We’re engaged in our community in providing practical, emotional and spiritual triage. Numbers fluctuate due to evictions, moving away for work, health needs, students leaving for uni, and all the other normalities every church faces. We have regular contact with lots of unbelievers and run evangelistic courses and have unbelievers joining with us every Sunday, even post-lockdown. But are there places where we could fulfil our God given mission of ‘speaking and being’ grace better?
It’s not a crisis that is posing this question. But is the old normal the normal we should go back to? What could we do better to fulfil our God given task of mission and maturity? If we were relaunching (which we all kind of will be come Spring 2021) how would we relaunch in a way to engage with our community post lockdown? Will it mean meeting at a different time? Maybe we’ll scatter to reach those engaged in Sunday morning sport and gather in the afternoon around God’s word instead of gathering on Sunday morning. Perhaps if we find a significant portion of the congregation and our community have had to get new jobs that mean they now work Sunday’s we ought to be thinking about a second service not on a Sunday but on a Thursday evening.
What about in terms of maturity? If the pandemic has made people miss their distant scattered family more, perhaps we ought to move the service to Sunday afternoon to give them greater opportunity at the weekend to care for ageing parents and work out their growing maturity in the gospel that way? What about setting the church up to to better disciple those in it to maturity? How could we relaunch in a way that made it more difficult for people to be spectators or consumers or passive and instead required them to get more engaged with one another and with God’s word and in service when we gathered? I know that produces the fear of people leaving, but I think it’s likely we’ll see fringe folks not return post pandemic lockdown anyway. If statistics I’ve heard bandied about are true up to 20% of our congregation won’t return.
What about in terms of our young peoples work? How will we reimagine and relaunch Sunday school to evangelise and disciple not just teach Bible knowledge? How do we better involve parents in this? How do we resource it?
What about our online presence? Many churches have invested considerable time and effort in creating watchable online content, what will we do with it long term? Will we keep it as it is, accepting that some of our folks will default to comfy couch church? Or will we see it as the church porch, the first step to getting non-believing friends and family to engage before coming in person? And how will that impact what we do and how we do it?
I know lots of pastors and elders are feeling overwhelmed by the constant churn of change. But if we’re short sighted and don’t think about what about when we emerge from restricted church we will miss so many opportunities. What if we spent the Autumn and the Winter working through the new normal we want to see when we emerge rather than just assume the new normal is the old normal by default? What if we were ready to hit the ground running, with a church fuelled for mission and maturity? Engaged in evangelism and discipleship?
Don’t waste this opportunity to at least think about these things. We may think and pray and study and decide ‘no’ what we were doing was right, great. My hunch is that we won’t. But the greatest tragedy would be just to sleep walk back into a return to normal without seeing the potential to innovate, pray, prepare, and change.
We’ve all had to get used to writing risk assessments over the last few months. To walk through the building and the church service and other activities with new eyes, trying to spot potential pinch points and transmission risks and taking steps to minimise them. It is right and good that we have done so. But I think there’s also a problem inherent in doing so.
We only tend to carry out a risk assessment for physical risks. The problem with this is that it means we’re hyper aware of them. The are made more real by the action os assessing them and we take appropriate steps to counter them. But what about the Spiritual risks? What about the spiritual dangers?
As Christ’s disciples we ought to be used to thinking on these two different levels at once. We know there are physical and spiritual realities, that the two are real. It is right that we follow Government guidelines as regards physical risk especially at the time of a global pandemic. But the government won’t think on these two levels, whereas we ought to instinctively and the spiritual risks ought to influence the physical actions we take as a result. And yet have we taken time to carry out a spiritual risk assessment?
How about as church leaders? If we were to carry out a spiritual risk assessment for our church flock what would we conclude the biggest threats are and what steps would we take to prevent long lasting harm? Isolation? Loneliness? A growing association of church with online not physical? Teenagers who disconnect? Children who don’t engage? Loss of discipleship? Decaying relationships? Consumerist attitude to church?
What are we currently risking spiritually because of our physical actions to limit risk and at what point do we weigh one against the other? What steps are we taking to limit the risk to discipleship, evangelism, pastoral care and church health? How do we build unity in a time of separation?
What about as families? What are the dangers of not returning to church? What are the dangers inherent in consuming church online? What are the dangers inherent in being in church but socially distanced and what steps ought we to take to mitigate this?
What about as individuals? What are the spiritual risks that come with our response to the physical risks? And what steps do we need to take to minimise these or overcome them all together?