This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the hardest post to write in this series.
It is also, I’m afraid, the longest and considerably beyond our usual post length (I hope some courageous readers will bear with me). That's ironic, because I hesitate to say anything about the shape of church after lockdown for two reasons.
Firstly, I hesitate because I can claim no special insights. Whatever suggestions I make reflect my understanding of Scripture and the times as well as my reflections on what I have heard from church leaders through this time.
Secondly, I hesitate because your context is not identical to mine and your ecclesiological convictions may not be the same as mine either. You will need to filter my ideas through your own convictions as you apply them into your own context.
With these caveats, let me tentatively suggest four respects in which what we rebuild may be different in future: personal lives of leaders; leadership teams; church gatherings; and church people.
I say what we rebuild may be different. In some cases it will be different if we don’t work to keep it the same, while in others it won't be different unless we choose to change. The overarching question that should, I believe, guide our rebuilding is ‘What do we believe to be most important?’ What are our non-negotiables – things we must do – and what are our values – things we care about that may shape how we do those non-negotiables and what other things we do in addition.
The first area for rebuilding is the personal and family lives of leaders.
At this point I need to remind you that this is the final post in a series in which I have already argued that rebuilding should come after refreshment and reflection. Please don't read on if you are weary to the point when the thought of doing so is just a burden and come back when you feel excited about what you might discover.
Some have discovered a new freedom in their diaries due to cancellation of programmes, reduction in travel or even furlough and being confined to home has allowed them to give more quality time to their families and their relationship with the Lord. Others have filled any gaps in their schedules with new activities and have been busier than ever, while being working exclusively from home has precipitated a blurring of boundaries between work and family life and a drift into unhealthy or sinful patterns.
As we look to the future, pressures that had been lessened may return and even greater loads may be added on top of those we have carried as we seek to find yet another way of working. It is imperative that we set clear and wise boundaries on our time and habits. We must prioritise friendships and family relationships, maintain freshness in our devotions, deal with ingrained sin habits and establish rhythms of rest. If you need help in any of these areas, Living Leadership’s ministry staff and associates are here for you, so please contact us.
We need to rebuild our private lives as leaders.
A second area for rebuilding concerns leadership teams.
In churches where there was no leadership team, lockdown has exposed the limitations of sole leaders to a greater degree. In those which have a leadership ‘team’ that isn’t really a team, but rather a group from whom an individual leader occasionally seeks advice or to whom that leader regularly issues instructions, the myth has been debunked. Where there was a team that is immature relationally, with limited trust, relationships have sometimes been strained, sometimes strengthened. Even some established and trusting teams have struggled to operate as a team in these altered circumstances.
Some of this may have been unavoidable and some may have been helpful – in times of crisis it is often necessary for an individual to provide directive leadership. I would, however, suggest that churches can weather prolonged times of challenge more effectively and bounce back more quickly where there is a strong team exercising spiritual leadership in true plurality. I am convinced there are biblical and theological reasons underpinning this practical benefit. Much more could be said about leadership in teams, and we in Living Leadership are devising a Formation Course to help churches develop and enhance leadership teams. We hope to launch it online in Spring 2021, but for now you can register your interest.
We need to rebuild leadership teams.
The third area for rebuilding is our meetings.
What will we be allowed to do and where can we do it? What elements are non-negotiables for us? The challenge here for most churches is to decide at what point a return to physical meetings in the church building. It is helpful in such times to return to Scripture and remember that a building is not essential for church – meetings in homes are an option – but also that it is vital to maintain the unity of the congregation under its spiritual overseers – house meetings must not be allowed to become disconnected from the whole. Unless, of course, we take the more radical approach of separating our larger churches into multiple smaller groups that can meet in homes. That is certainly an option and may have some advantages in the contemporary world as well as having excellent biblical precedent.
Whatever approach we take, though, we must be careful to ensure that our churches remain committed to the gospel and retain a self-understanding as part of the whole Church. Concerning the content of meetings, we should think carefully and creatively about what constitutes the church. Some people are concerned that they cannot have refreshments. Some wonder what church will be like if we cannot sing as a congregation. The bigger concern, in my view, should be around the ordinances (or sacraments if you prefer) – those things commanded by the Lord and constitutive of the Church. How can we baptise and break bread?
I think our relative lack of concern about having lost the ordinances (at least in some traditions) reflects the poverty of our ecclesiology and a gnostic non-physicality in our spirituality. Some congregations which normally have weekly communion have not celebrated the Lord’s Table for months. I realise there is a serious concern for some that a virtual communion where people aren’t eating from the same loaf in the same place or with an ordained minister presiding in person is not truly communion. There is no space here to discuss that question. As we move back towards physical meetings of some sort, however, we must prioritise the question of the ordinances. Can we find a way to take communion together while maintaining the biblical meaning and symbolism of the act? How might we perform baptisms when the need arises?
This is part of a wider question of priorities in public worship. I suggest we need to be careful not to create services in which people come and receive from one person from ‘the front’ rather than participating without asking how this reflects our understanding of the church. I suggest too that the priorities of the first church in Acts 2:42 should be ours – teaching what the apostles taught, caring for one another, breaking bread and prayers. I was impressed the other day when a church elder told me that his congregation has started to use their building midweek for a prayer meeting first. This is an expression of their desire to hear from God but also to avoid some of the problems with public services.
We need to rebuild our church gatherings.
A fourth area for rebuilding concerns people.
Who engages with our gatherings and how are they growing in discipleship? I know some church leaders are concerned that some people will drop off, simply not returning when we recommence meetings. Some of these may be lost sheep who have drifted from the Lord. Others may simply be consumers who found a ‘better option’. We will need to be careful to focus more on the former than the latter, making our approach more pastoral/evangelistic – seeking the lost and bringing them back – than commercial/marketeering – boosting our advertising to regain market share.
Thinking of those who identify with our congregations, the idea of returning to buildings needs to be weighed carefully against continuing online services. Many of our church buildings will be unable to accommodate all our people with social distancing. How, then, will be allocate the few available spaces among the many? Most will, I think, be understandably uneasy about turning people away at the door, in which case they will need to have some system of booking or allocating places in advance. There are significant risks that some may be inadvertently disadvantaged, or at least feel they are. We will need to be scrupulous in avoiding favouritism or unfair advantage to some.
Older and vulnerable people (groups at extra risk from coronavrirus) are less likely to able to come and may be consigned to being online spectators of an event happening in the building. Of course, these same people may be the very ones who struggle to access online services anyway. Might our efforts be better expended in equipping them for virtual access rather than reopening buildings for a select few? Or might an alternative be for small groups – in some cases, where a vulnerable person is concerned perhaps only two households, meeting together to watch an online service or engage in one through video call technology?
As I write this, I can’t help thinking that these groups have been outsiders in some churches for quite some time before lockdown. How well does your church include the older and less able members? Inclusion of people with disabilities is about so much more than making our building accessible. Are they invisible in the background or are their contributions valued equally to those of others? This moment is an opportunity to address such questions more deeply that we have for some time. The biblical pattern, it seems to me, is that these parts should be given greater honour.
A second question concerns families who may have become used to worshipping together during lockdown, with members of different generations watching the same content (either intended for adults or for children or both) on screen and perhaps discussing or applying it together. Will we return to the standard pattern in many churches of children being in age-specific programmes during at least some of the service? Is that desirable? It certainly hasn’t been the norm throughout most of church history and we would do well to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages before we assume it should be the norm today.
A third question surrounding inclusivity in services relates to evangelism. Many of our churches have become accustomed to Sunday services being their ‘front door’. But can we really expect unchurched families to register for seating in a church service? We will need to be more creative and consistent in relational evangelism and also less dependent on services as a way into the church. We need to rebuild our sense of inclusivity for all our members and outreach to those beyond our number.
I have more thoughts on all of the above, but this post is already too long. I may return to some of these issues in the autumn and I’d love to hear your questions or suggestions, but I hope for now this is some food for thought. If you are feeling overwhelmed by it all, then I suggest again that you may need to take two steps back. Get refreshed. Then reflect. And only then, in the Lord’s strength and by His wisdom start to rebuild.
Your church will not fall apart just because you take a little longer to restart things. Honestly, it won’t! I know that because it isn’t really your church and I am persuaded that you can trust the One who is its Chief Shepherd, Lord and Lover.