There have been lots of posts and podcasts about the impact COVID and lockdowns has had on the church over the past 14 months and they have been, by and large, really helpful. Yesterdays post by Andy Robinson on Lessons to Unlearn was also really helpful in thinking about the way we’ve been shaped by restrictions and how we need to unlearn those new habits and patterns as we emerge from lockdown.
However, there’s also something we need to learn and apply more than ever before as we emerge from the restrictions and into the new normal. Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, Peter exhorts us to love on another deeply, and Paul calls brothers and sister in the church to bear with one another in love (more than once). And I think we need to learn those lessons and apply them perhaps more actively than we’ve ever done so before in the coming months.
As we emerge from the restrictions, blinking into the light of a new reality, we have all been shaped, but shaped differently by our experiences and reactions to the last 14 months.
Some have been frustrated by the restrictions and their impact, champing at the bit to get back to normality, longing for the day they can rip the mask off and sing God’s praise loudly and get back to close (in proximity and relational depth) fellowship again.
But others are by nature more anxious, more cautious, more hesitant to do so. They may have relatives who are vulnerable who they remain concerned about. They may have additional reasons for their hesitancy. They have missed so much during the restrictions but find themselves nervous about what comes next and what lies ahead and how others will respond to them.
What was your reaction to those two extremes? Which camp are you in? Who do you instantly dismiss as being too gung-ho or too cautious? That is the danger for us in church over the next few months. The danger is a loveless fracturing of church unity. A dismissal of one another, a failure to love and bear with one another.
Yes we need to unlearn lessons as well as learn other lessons. But perhaps the biggest challenge ahead lies for us in this area; will we in love flex to care for others? Not to pander to them, there may a need to gently and compassionately challenge, but will we lay down our rights, will we patiently bear with those who think differently to us? Will we lovingly bear with and forgive those who come too close too soon invading our new personal space norms? Will we love and bear with the person who doesn’t want to take the mask off or sing or come over for lunch?
As we unlearn those lessons will we do so lovingly, patiently, growing in our unity and applying grace to one another? I think that may be the biggest challenge ahead for the church and it’s leaders.
That’s the question that I cannot get out of my head as we think about life post COVID restriction. I know we’re not their yet, I know we’re still emerging from lockdown and I know there may be bumps in the road ahead and potentially some set backs along the way. But I still cannot escape the ‘why?’ question.
Not why COVID? But why do we do what we do? And why did we do what we did? And why would we restart it? I’m starting with everything, why do we meet at the time we do and do our meetings the way we do? What are the biblical norms that drive us to do that in that why? Have the cultural reasons that shape the way we do what we do changed and if so what does that mean?
So for example, why do we do church on a Sunday? Why do we do it in the morning? Why do we only have one service? Why do we have Sunday school? Why do we do communion at the frequency we do and how we do it? It seems like we have paused so many things during this pandemic and that space has been helpful in giving a new perspective from which to think theses things through. To stand back and ask why? What are we commanded to do and how? And what are we flexible on? What can we change in light of our desire to equip God’s people to be and speak grace where God has placed us?
I’m not suggesting change for changes sake. But I am suggesting it’s worth us re-evaluating what we do and why. It might be we change some things, it might be we don’t, but in the process we gain a fresh perspective on why we do them as we do and a new vision for what God wants to achieve through them.
How has COVID reshaped church? How will it and how are you planning for it?
Andy Crouch has written and spoken about viewing COVID as a blizzard, a winter, and an ice age. The blizzard is a short period of fairly intense disruption, but after a few days of adapting life things get back to normal. And pretty soon the impact of the blizzard is forgotten. Winter is a prolonged period of change and struggle sometimes following on from a blizzard; it lasts months and requires more adapting to than the blizzard. But the hope of spring and summer is never far away.
An ice age, however, is totally different. An Ice age lasts years and totally changes life not just for its duration but in the months and years afterwards. It is a life and norm-reshaping event. COVID hit like a blizzard, turned into a winter and is now more of an ice age. It has created totally different living conditions for an extended period of time, 15 months and counting. And even when we emerge from the 18-24month COVID ice age the world will continue to be shaped by it.
We’re already becoming aware of that as we hear more about the probable need for some form of continued social distancing after June 21st. As some suggest we may need to re-impose tighter restrictions later in the year. As we live with lateral flow testing. But we also need to think about the longer-term impact, the changes in approach and attitudes that this extended period of COVID imposed restrictions will bring.
We’re already beginning to hear of them with stories of greater demand for mental health support, and accounts of increased abuse and marriage breakdown. Today’s Telegraph carries a story about COVID anxiety syndrome, where some people who are vaccinated will not go out because of fear even as things ease and numbers infected and hospitalised fall. Those in education will tell of those who have missed key developmental milestones whilst doing home learning and the impact of that going forward for their education.
But it’s also true of us as a church. As we begin to emerge from lockdown we cannot do so with our approach and attitudes unchanged. It would be foolish to think we can just snap back to our early 2020 programming and plans. We need to stop and prayerfully rethink. As we do so here are questions I’m taking some time to think through.
1. What has changed both in the community and in the church?
People have responded to this pandemic and it’s impact very differently and that means an increasing polarisation both within the church and the community. People are now more different than they were before this all started. Our community has seen people leave and people move in. It has seen new businesses open and new estates start being built. Our area is different. We need to take stock of that and think about how we reach it with the gospel. We also need to think about the changed needs of the community? We must ask who do we serve and how?
But the church is different. God has blessed us and some families had joined us just before lockdown, others have joined us since, and there is now a small gathering of regular online viewers who we know of but have had little contact with. How does that change our approach and attitude? Some in our church family have been online exclusively since March 2020, they haven’t met those who are new or been coming a year. Relationships have changed and shifted. The church feels very different now than it did a year ago. How will we build relationships as things reopen? Do we need to spend time going over our vision and values?
We also need to ask how people are as we emerge from this. Some will be anxious. Some will want to make up for lost time. How do we maintain unity? Who do we have with us as we think about the future and growing disciples? Who will be willing to volunteer and how will that be different? How does that need to reshape what we do and how we do it?
2. What opportunities stand before us and how can we meet them?
The world has changed. The community has changed. The church has changed and we as leaders have changed. So we need to stop and ask what does each need? And what can we do in the conditions we are currently in? What have we learned during this time that will help us going forward to do that?
We need to do that both in terms of programs and people. We can’t go back to normal because restrictions are still in place. So though we’ve restarted our toddlers it has had to be adapted. 2 one-hour sessions of 15 adults max. Not one longer session with 25+ parents. That has implications for leaders and resources and everything else. The church service is adapted and will continue to be? What have we learned and what have we lost and how do we maximise the gains as we see restrictions ease?
Those adaptations need to be thought through with everything we want to do. Some programs and plans will need to die. Some will need to be put on pause until we’re clear what the new normal will look like or until we have enough people to run them. New opportunities will require innovation.
3. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned?
I wonder if that’s been the most helpful question. For me it’s that we need to focus more on equipping people to disciple themselves, they families and others. I want to take time to think about how we do that well going forward. I’ve always met with a handful of people and sought to intentionally grow and stretch them in discipleship. But how do we multiply that, how do we do that as a church. How do I equip people so that if this happens again we’ve multiplied leaders at every level so that if we can do things in small groups of 6 we’ve got enough leaders to run 10 small groups even in a small church?
And what will it mean we need to change so we can achieve that? What needs to be shelved and what needs to be put in its place to reach that goal?