What will church life be like in the “new normal” which is emerging as the Covid19 lockdown is gradually lifted? The new reality is that until a vaccine or an effective cure is found, in the same way as offices and factories and shops and public transport and the hospitality industries have changed, church life will not just go back to the way it was before. In what forms might such activities as worship, teaching, prayer, fellowship, pastoral care, mission, evangelism, work with children and young people, community involvement and prophetic witness continue? How might the work of ministers need to change?
There are six features of the life of the Early Church listed in Acts 2:42-47. They are teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayers, signs and wonders and spectacular growth. I explored each of these in a booklet of sermons which is online at http://northspringfield.pbthomas.com/?p=541. Considering those six essential elements of church life, this article will discuss what church might look like after Covid19. Some changes may only be temporary, imposed by constraints such as social distancing or reduced finances. Other changes may prove to be desirable and become permanent. Naturally, congregations will differ in the ways they go forward, not least depending on the levels of vulnerability within the memberships. The primary focus here is on Baptist churches and other self-governing self-financing congregations, but most of what is said will apply to churches of all traditions.
Bible teaching on core beliefs, ethics and Christian living, has always been at the heart of church life. The lockdown has introduced very many Christians to new experiences of learning and inspiration using technology such as livestreaming and video conferencing. These will surely continue in the post-Covid church to make teaching accessible to those who cannot easily leave their homes, not only for health reasons but equally e.g. because of childcare needs. Sermons will continue to be presented on YouTube or Facebook, as well as in person. Bible Study Groups can continue to meet on Zoom or Teams as well as in person. Helping disciples grow one-to-one will become even more important because that can happen easily over the phone or face to face even when larger groups cannot meet. Many Christians have discovered the joys of personal study using books or online resources and some have embraced a variety of patterns of personal devotions. All this is very good.
There are two obvious dangers here. The first lies in the variable quality of the materials available, especially via the internet. Not all online teaching is actually Christian and many sites ranking highly on search engines come from non-Christian agencies. A preacher’s popularity is a poor guide to their reliability. The rise of the health, wealth and prosperity teachers, and the cults of celebrity, have already given ample warnings of these risks. Style may triumph over substance, especially in the eyes of new Christians and seekers. Then there is the ever-present danger of consumer Christianity, where a smorgasbord of teaching simply reinforces individualism.
Following Jesus is both personal and corporate. The plural of disciple is church, and participation in the Christian community is not an optional extra in faith. To serve and safeguard their congregations, whenever possible local churches will need to continue to offer “virtual church”. Church leaders will need to assume responsibility for providing their churches with good online content and also for guiding them through the maze of very mixed material available. That said, most ministers have said that their online sermons are shorter than they used to be in person, often with more detailed preparation and less waffle. Online services using a video conferencing platform where everybody can participate have often included more discussion, or times of open prayer. It will surely be good if these new patterns continue.
Asking Christians what they have missed most in the time of lockdown, some reply it is the coffee and the cakes after the services. Most would say they have come to a greater appreciation of the importance of fellowship in their lives and to their faith. The heart of the common life of the church is the relationships between Christians, “not meetings but friendships.” Even though people have not been able to meet face-to-face, friendships have usually been sustained by phone, WhatsApp or Messenger. Many churches and Christians have rediscovered the value of newsletters, sent out by email and even by post. In many churches existing networks for mutual support and encouragement have been strengthened and new networks have been created. In this time when ministers and pastors have been required to suspend their usual patterns of pastoral and hospital visiting (sometimes because of their own health issues as well as those of their congregations) many church members have stepped up and been providing all kinds of vital practical pastoral care to their neighbours and their communities. Pastoral care is not “the care the Pastor gives” but rather the mutual support and encouragement and practical help which every Christian gives to fellow-believers and to their neighbours. It is to be hoped that all this will continue to be a feature of the life of every church but it will be important to ensure that no members of the congregation are left out in the “new normal” especially taking care of those with frailty or disability or no access to technology.
On the other hand, many of the events and activities which churches have customarily arranged to facilitate fellowship may not be possible for months or years to come due to constraints on meeting together in larger groups in limited spaces. This may include many of the “crossing places” churches organise to serve the community, from Toddler Groups and Pre-schools to Cafés and Drop-Ins. As well as strengthening the networks of small groups within the congregation, churches will need to be creative in finding new ways to serve and bless and reach out to their communities.
Worship and the Breaking of Bread
The purpose of gathering together is not to escape from the “real world” by a time of “worshipping God” but rather to equip and sustain Christians so that we may better worship and serve God in our daily lives. At their best, “virtual church” gatherings have not attempted simply to reproduce “in the building” experiences of church for home consumption. They have often involved much greater participation by members of the congregation, either in advanced preparation of elements in pre-recorded “broadcast” services or at the time in livestreamed or video conferencing gatherings. These elements will surely continue in many more services post-Covid. Sung worship has inevitably been different and many Christians have been discovering the benefits of less familiar elements such as set prayers or liturgies. As with teaching, churches will surely want to use technology to continue to enable remote participation alongside those who are gathering in person. Churches anticipating a congregation larger than their building will accommodate with whatever social distancing measures are imposed may need to consider multiple services. We await with trepidation the forthcoming guidelines regarding singing and musical instruments which may well change the shape of our collective worship. Some churches may choose to use technology to weave together singing in the home with a message and prayers gathered in person. In particular, churches for whom singing in large packed congregations is a major feature may have to wait longer than most to resume their former patterns of worship. One exciting possibility would be for small groups including more than one household (as regulations permit) to gather in homes while socially distancing and participate remotely together while some others gather in the building.
Unlike some other traditions, Baptist approaches to the Lord’s Supper have mostly been happy with remembering Christ through Bread and Cup remotely. We all long to meet together to share one loaf and one Cup again, but the pattern of pre-cut pieces of bread and individual communion cups is likely to become almost universal for non-conformists.
Prayer is the heart of the individual believer’s relationship with God and of the life of any church. The first Christians were “constantly in prayer”. (Acts 1:14) Online services have often involved more prayers than some churches had previously included and many Christians will want this to continue. Online prayer meetings have allowed some to participate who would not have been able to gather physically through frailty or family commitments. Perhaps most significantly, many Christians who had never done so before have valued simply praying with each other over the phone. (Matthew 18:19-20) Many have also discovered set prayers and patterns of personal devotions sent by email or by post or found online. Most Christians would say that prayer in their everyday lives has increased in importance to them during the lockdown and churches will want to nurture all these new contexts for prayer.
Signs and Wonders
The vitality of the post-Covid church will depend more than anything else on the openness of God’s people to His Holy Spirit. During the lockdown Christians have been rediscovering that the church is not the Building, nor the Programme of events or activities, but the church is the People of God. Central to that identity as Christ’s Body, the Household of Faith and God’s Holy Temple is the Presence of God, the activity of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22). Along with so many aspects of everyday life, so many parts of the ordinary life of churches were suspended in March. We are now trying to discern which parts should begin again (and when), which parts need to change for the “new normal” and which aspects of church life as it was we should be ready to relinquish. In all of this, Christians and churches should not be relying on human wisdom but instead we will surely be seeking the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
The spectacular growth of the Early Church was not due to programmes and projects but simply faithful witness in the face of persecution, not only by the apostles and church leaders preaching and proclaiming and debating but also by nameless individual believers “gossiping the gospel” wherever they went. In the lockdown most of the mission activities which local churches were running on their premises had to stop and many of these will not be able to run again until social distancing is no longer required. Outreach and evangelism and community service will not be able to be expressed as much in centralised events and projects. The focus will become more on individual Christians and small groups caring for their neighbours and talking about Jesus to people they know. Our principal witness to the world should be our transformed lives. “Evangelism is the overflow of our joyful faith.” (Lesslie Newbigin) Outreach, like pastoral care, should not just mean organised activities or events. Although these have their place they may not be possible for a while. Outreach should flow naturally from the shared spiritual life of the church. So the church’s role will be much more to equip and support Christians in their service and witness in their workplaces, with their neighbours and with their families, by nurturing prayer, love, faith, holiness and discipleship.
The life of Ministers, Pastors and Church Leaders
The Covid lockdown has led to a drop in income in very many churches, due for example to loss of rental income, closure of fund-generating activities like cafés and Pre-schools, and the changed circumstances of some donors. Some of these strands of income may not return immediately, and others not at all. Some churches will find that they can no longer afford stipended ministry. It is very likely that there will be a reduction in opportunities for full-time ministers, and increased part-time or bivocational posts. Regularly preaching in “virtual church” may have prepared the way (both for ministers and for churches) for more ministers to lead and serve more than one congregation.
At the same time difficulties may continue in making pastoral visits to homes, hospitals and care homes. School assemblies may become much rarer, limited by social distancing. Ministers are likely to spend less time presenting to large groups or attending “crossing places” or initiating and running projects and events and “meetings”. The tasks of ministry may focus more on making disciples, teaching and praying with individuals and small groups and training lay-leaders to do the same. Many of these activities may be undertaken from home through technology rather than face-to-face.
Probably depending partly on personality type, but also on age, some ministers will relish inventing new expressions of church and new ways of ministering. Others are no doubt already grieving the loss of patterns of ministry which they have lived for years or decades. Some could well already be feeling completely exhausted by all the new things they have had to do in the last few months and be dreading the prospect of all the challenging and draining work it will take to lead churches into the Post-Covid19 era. It may be difficult for some ministers to find ways to guard their own health in the usual activities of ministry, due to underlying health conditions or age or disability.
So Where Next?
Some people may be thinking all this sounds difficult and scary and much too radical. Others will be saying there is nothing new here and it is not nearly radical enough. There are some common features on church life which we are accustomed to which I haven’t discussed – in what shape might they resume? My purpose here is not to provide answers but to raise issues which I believe to be important. Each church will need to discuss and pray to find their own answers. In this we must all put our trust in God for the exciting possibilities which lie before us.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)