Are churches ready to open?

Aug 1, 2020 by

By Martin Down, CEN:

As the new dictatorship allows us, step by step, to leave the house again, are we ready to go? With the opening of places of work it seems that there are two groups amongst the workers: some who are desperate to get back to the office or the factory, to the jobs they enjoy doing, to seeing their friends and mates, to getting a full salary and, maybe, a bit of overtime: others who are very happy to go on getting paid for doing nothing at home, except fish or play golf.

What about the church?Some of us, I know, are desperate to get back to worshipping together, to communion, and fellowship with Christian friends, to singing and sharing together.Meetings on Zoom, and services streamed from the vicar’s kitchen are a poor substitute.But there are also reports that many more people have been watching services online than used to come to church in person; of people searching for books and websites to help them to pray.It would make sense.People have been deprived by this lockdown of so many of the things that have preoccupied us all for so long: shopping, eating and drinking, pubs and cafés, outings with family and friends.Perhaps there is a hole where these things used to be, that God could fill.The threat of the Coronavirus has also awakened in us a fresh awareness of our own mortality and the nearness of death.Perhaps people have been asking themselves, is death the end, or is there hope somewhere?

If so, when we are all unlocked again, there may be many more people coming to our churches, not only those of us who were used to coming before, but others searching for comfort and hope in a God who, up until now, they have ignored or rejected?In any case, we are going to face new problems after lockdown about how to do church.We need to prepare, so that we are ready to go.

It seems certain that however many people presents themselves at the church door in the next few months we are going to have to keep a social (or should we say, an antisocial) distance between us.That will mean reducing the seating capacity in our churches, as in our buses and trains, by about two-thirds.That might not be a problem in churches that were less than half-full before Covid-19, but to churches that were full or even half-full before, that will be a problem.And then there is the possibility of all those new-comers to be accommodated as well.We need to do the creative thinking now about how we are going to cope.

The multiplication of services is obviously one possibility, but there are limits.Another possibility is the use of other additional venues: school halls, concert halls, village halls, other churches that were not full before.Problems in every direction, but what great problems they would be!And what about the open air?John Wesley preached in the open air, why not us?Sports pitches, parks, greens, gardens, fields.This is probably not a solution for all weathers, though people do have umbrellas.These days we would need access to PA for words and music – the world around us was a much quieter place in the days of Wesley.OK, problems everywhere, but what wonderful problems to have!This could be an opportunity not to be missed.

Yet the problems are not just logistical ones, to do with buildings or technology, there will problems of personnel too.Wherever we meet, we will need more preachers, more musicians, more technicians, more administrators, more helpers.

Some dioceses had already taken tentative first steps towards training and equipping people for church planting or revitalization before the coronavirus came upon us.These are exactly the plans and strategies that we are going to have to fast-forward if we find ourselves with a revival on our hands.God forbid that we should drop the ball.

If there are people joining us after the pandemic who are searching for God and a firm foundation for faith, then we need to be ready with those courses that many of us have been running for new Christians for the last 30 years, Alpha, Christianity Explored, or other locally devised introductions for seekers.These will need trained leaders who can handle both questioners and objectors.

Christians, especially new Christians, need more than opportunities and places to worship: they need fellowship and discipleship, and this can only happen in smaller groups.Jesus chose 12 to teach and train, and we all need to be in smaller groups such as this, to learn together, to support and help one another, to love one another.Such small groups under one name or another have been the key to church growth in most denominations for a generation at least.They were the key to the Wesleyan revival.

Whitefield, who was at least as gifted a preacher and evangelist as Wesley, is said to have observed sadly at the end of his life, “I put my coins in a pocket with holes in it; Wesley made purses for his.”The purses that Wesley made were the Class Meetings.We will need to make purses for new Christians too, so that they do not fall through the holes in our pockets.Such house meetings need gifted leaders, but they are also the seed-bed for growing future leaders as a church or a movement develops.

We used to say, “Every new Christian is a new problem.”Or at least, new Christian brings a whole bunch of new problems into the church with them.So our resources of listeners and prayer ministry teams will be stretched too.

Churches that plan ahead now for whatever the next few months may bring, may reap a fresh harvest.But whatever happens, it will be too late to start thinking about all these things on the Saturday evening before the church doors open again, and people start coming up the highways to Zion.

Martin Down is the author of Love Each Other, Emblem Books 2012

Church of England Newspaper

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