The coronavirus pandemic has upended and, in some cases, suspended life as we know it. With quarantine and stay home orders in place around the world, we are all experiencing changes and making once-in-a-lifetime decisions. Schools have moved online, more people are navigating remote work than ever before, and businesses have had to shut their doors and find new ways of engaging their customers.
Church, as we know it, has changed
Churches, whose weekly activities depend on gathering together in a physical place, have been greatly affected as well. With no more handshakes in the lobby, sharing a cup of coffee, corporate worship, children’s church, or communion, it’s safe to say that church looks very different these days. It has been difficult to make decisions, plan for the future, and continue serving a scattered population. One Children’s Ministry Director I know said that “not knowing, not having a solid end date to look forward to” has been one of the hardest parts for her team. When do we get to go back to normal? And what will “normal” even look like?
Christians everywhere have been working hard to reach their communities throughout this unprecedented time. Although this forced change has taken a toll, the body of Christ has risen to the challenge with innovation. Churches have scrambled to pull together online services and digital engagement for their congregations. Bible studies and small groups are doing Zoom calls. Youth ministries are engaging on Instagram and Snapchat. Church is going digital all over the place. Tim, a pastor at an Arizona church, had his own unique challenges to overcome. He says, “My church is 95% senior adults. This has been extremely difficult for us. Most of my people don’t have email addresses let alone attend worship online. We switched to Drive-In Church and saw a massive spike in attendance/participation.”
How will church be different when life goes back to “normal?”
Just about everyone would agree that this time of social distancing and forced isolation is not, and shouldn’t be, normal. It’s difficult to pull out the positive when you’re operating in survival mode without a clear end in sight. Even so, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good things we’ve discovered during this time, things that we will bring with us when we move into a post-pandemic future and are able to resume usual church activities.
1. How we engage with our congregations
Many churches have stepped up their pastoral care game. They’ve been calling their members, personally reaching out for prayer requests, and actively recruiting to their care and connection teams. This may be a strength your church has already, but it is definitely one worth keeping around to guard against other demands that can tend to push out.
Bible studies or ministry events via Zoom have made it possible for small groups to connect across the distance. This is a low threshold, non-building-dependent way for people to engage with church, Men’s and Women’s ministry, or youth small groups. There could be a place for this in the future.
2. How we use online tools
Churches who had never published a sermon online before the COVID-19 pandemic just got a crash course. Live streaming or posting services online later can serve not only your congregation but also others who come across it online.
Did you know that most people visit your church website before they ever step foot in the door of your church? This is a good time to take a look at your site, updating it with helpful information for new visitors. Make sure it gives a good impression.
Many churches have increased their engagement on social media, using live video and devotionals created by staff, volunteers, and members. Content driven by and featuring people is a win.
3. How we do Sunday morning
Because everyone is not able to be in the same building, churches have done a great job of highlighting the stories and testimonies of their member families. Sharing these testimonies and snapshots during a church service gives a richness to the experience to the body of Christ together.
Online church has opened up a host of possibilities, not the least of which is wear your pajamas to church day. Well, we can try. Beyond the dress code, the ability during online church to turn to a loved one and discuss a sermon point or ask a question has been valuable. Sunday mornings might include a little more interaction, a Q & A, or discussion questions.
4. How we move in the community
This time has helped us become a little more aware of the needs of our neighbors, both globally and literally down the block. Churches have stepped in to help with stocking food pantries, supporting health care workers, and offering scholarships for counseling and mental health help. Strengthening these connections in the community will lead to more opportunities down the road.
As opposed to surface-level relationships with those we happen to be with at work or school on a daily basis, this season of isolation can teach us how to be intentional about the relationships we cultivate. When we ask, “how are you doing?” we can truly listen for the answer. We can be more aware of those prompts from the Holy Spirit to encourage a friend or bring up the gospel.
Encouragement for the in-between
For all of the talk of the future when our churches are back to normal, times are still uncertain and changing rapidly. We are still in the in-between, in the midst of the crisis. We are not the first to experience this! Think about what the Christians experienced when the Church had just begun. Following the death of Stephen, in Acts 8:1,4 we read,
"A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria… But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went.”
Even as the Church was scattered and believers fled for their lives, they shared the Good News. After Philip shares Jesus and performs signs in Samaria, “So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).
God uses hardship to turn up His message and break down barriers to His love. Let us remember that before this is over and before we can go back to church as we know it, we are the carriers of that same Good News, the conduits of joy.
What have you seen that has worked well during this time of online church and social distancing? What would you like your church to keep doing?
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