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?