Rev Mat Harry asks what forms of communities could we provide for people to engage with, and deepen, their Christian faith when places of worship can re-gather in person? He frames his response using the framework of a Discipleship Pathway, such as Call, Alongside, Invite, Equip and Send.
Call – Salt in turbulence
Everyone has lived through a turbulent couple of months, so far.
The level of uncertainty and the shake-up to “normal life” has been immense and people have been impacted differently. Some fortunate people have experienced social restrictions in a positive way, transitioning to working from home and have been able to spend more time together as a family. Conversely, thousands of employees have lost their jobs and many business owners who may have spent decades growing their business have been forced to go into hibernation – with great uncertainty about when they can reopen. Anxiety for such people has become an unwanted companion.
It is within this divergently-experienced context that Christian communities have been called by Christ to be salt and light and be alongside others as yeast leavens bread. As the story of Pentecost reminds us, the function of the church is to equip people to live Kingdom lives within all contexts.
Alongside – On the Platform too
Due to restrictions, the primary method of gathering for Christian communities – the worship service – cannot be conducted in a face-to-face manner. This disruption has demanded experimentation and innovation with available technologies. Like the diversity of individual experiences of the impact, so too there’s been diversity in the responses from churches. Often, the way of adapting has largely been determined by the technology the church membership already utilises. Use the technology and platforms that the people you wish to communicate with utilise.
For some with limited access to technological platforms, churches have been printing resources like prayers, sermons and studies and dropping them into people’s mailboxes, posting them on websites or sending them via email. Many have been video recording the worship service during the week and uploading it on to YouTube and/or Facebook for parishioners to watch over the weekend. Still others have prioritised connection and participation and have utilised Zoom for worship. Of course, many churches have been providing a mix of these options to include everyone, so worship has become accessible across a range of platforms.
Due to these adaptations churches have made a discovery; there are family members, friends, acquaintances, people who are a part of our missional activities and others we are yet to meet in person, who are curious about faith. There are many people on these platforms who are interested in, or curious about, being a part of Christian worship or discipleship. Many church leaders are excited that there are many more people reading the sermon notes, or viewing the service online than ever attend an “in-person” worship service. Often this is due to the format being more easily accessible to a broader audience. It is also less daunting for those who are simply curious, who can remain anonymous if they wish.
Engagement is growing beyond the people who have faithfully been a part of the worshipping community. This dynamic is shown in a recent study into the behaviour of Australians during the pandemic. 26% of those surveyed said they had spent more time praying or on spiritual pursuits during the period of the restrictions and wanted to continue that practice afterwards.
Presumably, with fewer distractions, a world-wide disruption to normal life and less options on how to spend time, Australians are asking questions about meaning and then acting on them by spending more time on spiritual pursuits. Apparently, they desire to continue that into the next stage of their lives. It poses the question; how are we deepening relationships with these people so spirituality can be explored? How can you better utilise the platforms you communicate through to be more deeply alongside the curious during this time of greater openness?
Ideally we would find ways to build relationships of mutual trust and respect, as people explore the idea of being a disciple of Christ.
Invite – Help us
The recent innovations have helped us to discover there are other means of gathering; there are other means of communicating our message; there are other ways to include those who can’t be physically present. Let’s not lose those discoveries.
However, in the easing of COVID-19 restrictions there will be another dynamic at play – the rush to return to face-to-face. My wife, Susan, is a psychologist and during this time she has been meeting clients over Zoom. With the relaxing of restrictions, the office is now accessible, so Susan has offered all of her clients the option of meeting over Zoom, or meeting in person. Very few clients have suggested they want to continue meeting over Zoom. Susan will continue to offer both options.
People have a natural preference for in-person connection. So it will be a surprise if there won’t be a strong push to return to worship in-person as soon as possible for those not in the vulnerable age groups. The potential is that the form of gathering in community will be based upon precedent; returning to the ways we gathered for worship and discipleship before the pandemic arrived. This push will most likely come from those previously deeply engaged in the Christian community.
What about the other people we have become alongside more deeply during the restrictions who have engaged in worship and/or discipleship? It may be that the people newly exploring faith aren’t ready for in-person church. Or the type of in-person gathering we previously offered may very well be a bridge too far for them to cross.
As the story of Pentecost reminds us, the function of the church is to equip people to live Kingdom lives within all contexts. We need to consider those we are alongside, who are not presently a part of Christian community, when we return to in-person gatherings. Essentially this is a moment in church history when we have a real opportunity to adapt our form so that it follows the function. The way we gather should reflect the reason we gather. This is distinct from gathering the way we have gathered previously, simply because that is the way we have gathered previously. This is a time when we can adapt so that the form of the church (community) follows the function (living Kingdom lives in all contexts) of the church rather than ‘form following precedent’.
In what ways can we keep open the doors that COVID-19 has unlocked?
How will we continue to deepen connections with those who we now recognise were excluded by our past practices?
Do we have the courage to invite the new connections to assist us to shape the form Christian community will take, to better include them when in-person gatherings recommence?
How will we maintain our communication across various platforms as has been developed during the COVID-19 restrictions?