Reflecting on reopening buildings for worship after COVID-19 lockdown.
As lockdown eases and we’re given the go ahead to return to our buildings, I thought I’d offer some thoughts. They come out of a number of conversations I’ve had in recent weeks with both ordained and lay people across the connexion, with members and leaders in my own churches and our Circuit Leadership Team.
Firstly, it’s important we understand how all people in our churches are feeling. We can often be guilty of assuming we know what others need or want and try to impose that view on them. Even if we believe something different, we must understand the perspective others are coming from and have open conversations.
Some people are incredibly nervous about returning to any location where people gather and many of those will have positions of responsibility in our churches (e.g. stewards, local preachers). Many members also have a strong sense of obligation and duty to their churches. It should be ensured that no one feels under obligation to act against their conscience in the reopening of a building for worship. They should be reminded that staying at home during the current climate is as much a Christian duty as enabling buildings to open.
Reopening buildings has to be a response to local need. While Circuits can offer guidance and ensure procedures are followed for the safety of members, a blanket reopening will not be as effective as allowing each setting to develop out of their situation. Some buildings will be under pressure to open for other purposes which arise out of their work in the local community, therefore when it comes to reopening for worship, they might already have their building prepared. Others will need more support from Circuit and it may take longer to make the necessary preparations.
During lockdown, different churches have had different experiences. In my own church we have built up a very successful online fellowship through Zoom and connected people through a fortnightly magazine: it has even brought people who don’t normally attend worship into our fellowship. This has given us pause for thought about how we move forward. But I’m also aware that some churches in my own Circuit have had little contact with others throughout lockdown or little sense of fellowship. This will have an effect on what people want to happen when buildings are allowed to be used for worship.
It is clear that there is risk involved in opening our buildings for worship – as with any easing of lockdown – but I’ve also been reminded that there are those who are at risk because of their mental health and feelings of isolation. The church also provides many of our elderly members with a focus and keeps them active – it’s often when elderly people stop that their health can deteriorate. These considerations all need to be balanced carefully.
If people wish to return to their buildings for worship, what do they wish to return for? It’s going to be a very different setup. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to sing. We will need to be socially distanced. We can’t hand out materials or books. If they already have opportunities to worship in other ways, is it just that they wish to see other people? If so, could this be facilitated in other ways outside or away from the church building?
Our Circuit is in the difficult position of not having enough preachers to return to the services we had before lockdown (we were already overstretched) and I’m sure there will be many Circuits in a similar position. We are unable to just say that worship resumes on a particular Sunday. This has been a long-term issue, therefore the ‘restarting’ of worship in buildings is an opportunity to pause and discuss whether new patterns can be found. It’s also an opportunity to ask ourselves about work in our communities. Can we free resources to better engage in mission work in the world?
It’s also an opportunity to reflect on how we worship. I’m keen that at Circuit level we are strategic about how we use our buildings for different purposes. Do they all need a Sunday act of worship? Are some more focussed on community work and outreach? Would worship at other times be possible? Can services rotate as is the case in many Circuits already? Do they all need to continue as an hour service? Would shorter acts of worship be better with reflections, prayers and some music to listen to? Would participatory models be better with discussion or sharing in aspects of worship? Do we need all of the buildings? The ultimate question being, what is each building for and how do we need to resource it? The opportunities are endless.
In my own church, we will need to consider whether we keep our online Zoom service indefinitely – and I’m keen we do – but we will have to make changes to ensure we still have the resources to keep this going. This is going to mean difficult conversations and stopping some things that have previously happened – but lockdown has opened the opportunity and we’ve seen the benefits. It’s also important we share these successes across Circuits to show the potential of what can be done and achieved. These conversations are important so people understand what sacrifices are made for.
One of our ministers has said that when he can reopen churches for worship, he plans on gathering people in a socially distanced circle – they will then pray, read a passage from scripture and talk. They’ll share where they are in their journey and talk about what it now means to be church. From this they can shape how they move forward.
I think it’s incredibly important to recognise that if your church returns to how things were as soon as you can, you will unlikely have the opportunity to easily make changes in the future. Our patterns and routines have stopped; it’s a great time to think outside the box. But it’s also important to remember that if you do start doing things differently, it doesn’t mean that’s the permanent way of doing it. It’s much easier for us to try something if we believe it’s temporary and we can change it if it doesn’t work. Let it be organic and let the Holy Spirit guide. We also mustn’t find ourselves in the trap of trying to think too big as though we have to solve it all from the start. Just get going with something simple and see where it leads – pray, discuss, tweak, change and keep doing that to meet the needs of the world. Remember all it takes is a mustard seed.
I have no doubt that God’s Spirit is moving in the Church at the present time. I’ve seen seeds start to sprout. I’ve seen people adapt to very different ways of doing things and embrace them. I’ve seen younger people engaging in new ways and find a sense of belonging in our fellowships. There’s no returning and there shouldn’t be a desire to. This is an opportunity to listen to God’s voice, to embrace our calling to be Christ in the world, and to let the Holy Spirit nudge us into new ways of being church. It’s unknown territory, but it’s exciting!