Church after Covid

November 26, 2020

Bruce Murray

Understandably many churches seem to have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing and isolation by replicating as far as possible what they did before: streaming or recording Sunday services, meeting in small groups online, and continuing with or modifying existing pastoral care arrangements. Some have called for prayer and provided prayer resources; others have initiated or joined with volunteer groups to care for those most vulnerable. There is so much here to be welcomed and grateful for, including the speed, flexibility and resourcefulness with which churches have adapted.

Without gainsaying that, it might also be helpful to reflect on what else we might notice and learn from this general response, albeit tentatively, given that we are in the midst of developing events whose outcomes we cannot foresee. Times of crisis naturally bring into focus some things we may overlook or take for granted in more normal times. This altered awareness can stimulate learning, growth and positive change.

What we are familiar with

Most churches have some structured arrangements for pastoral care, and small groups in which individuals can be known personally and encouraged to grow spiritually. Leaders or others with particular pastoral responsibilities understandably tend to give most time to those whose pastoral needs are more acute or obvious, to those who are relatively new to the church, and to those who seem to have a useful contribution to make to help run church activities. It is not uncommon for pastoral needs to exceed the capacity (of time or ability) of those seeking to address them, and for spiritual growth to be encouraged mainly through Sunday services and small group meetings for prayer and bible study. Church leaders are usually very busy people, with multiple tasks and managerial responsibilities in addition to pastoral and spiritual ones.

One response to this is for the majority of day-to-day pastoral and spiritual care to be delegated to leaders of small groups. Some of these groups develop deeply shared lives, but many focus mostly on study, prayer or other activities when they meet, and may have little shared life beyond meetings. Many people, of course, are quite satisfied with this, and would not particularly welcome being more deeply known or sharing their lives more generally. The thoughts of regularly sharing meals and possessions as in the early church (Acts 2:44-46), or of participating in groups like those in early Methodism where members confessed their sins and temptations to each other, often evoke admiration but rarely imitation. The practices of home-based hospitality and pastoral visiting have also declined in our culture, in part due to increased busyness of work patterns and complications of family life.

The result of all this is that it is quite possible for a lot of church members to be mostly unknown more than superficially, to rarely enter the homes of more than a handful of other church members, and to have little awareness of the daily realities of each other’s lives at home or at work, or the true condition of their souls. Many church members are quite content with this: what they most value are engaging and uplifting Sunday services (whether that relates more to the preaching or to the worship), good quality provision for their children, and well-run events to attend or invite others to (including opportunities for interested friends to explore Christian faith). There is an understanding that, for this to happen, they need to attend, help to run some activities, and contribute financially to the cost of things like buildings and salaries. Much of the organisational leadership and delivery of Sunday services and other key events is done by a small number of gifted individuals and paid professionals, whose training equips them for such roles and contexts. Effective mission and church growth are often seen as dependent on doing all this as well as possible.

Concerns with the familiar

Not all church members, however, nor all church leaders are content with this familiar picture: concerns of various kinds have been voiced for a long time. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that this form of church is a congregation rather than a community, and one shaped by the wider consumer culture. In a congregation, people ‘congregate’ for Sunday services and other meetings, and as long as they turn up and play their part they are generally thought to be doing okay. In a community, people ‘commune’, connecting more deeply in more areas of life; the focus is more on quality of relationship with God and others than on attendance at meetings and running activities.

In a congregation, it is relatively easy for a majority to become largely passive consumers of what a gifted minority produce. Many church members experience the Sunday service as something provided for them to observe and experience. Even small group meetings can seem like being invited to participate in a study or other activity that a leader has chosen. Of course those who preach sermons, lead worship or create group studies seek prayerfully to make them relevant and accessible, and it is entirely appropriate that these things should be shaped and overseen by those called and gifted by God to be guardians of the gospel and of the people (2 Timothy 6:20; 1 Peter 5:2), those who are faithful, able to teach others and rightly handle God’s word (2 Timothy 2). But it can seem at times that some people are working very hard to supply the needs of other people who keep coming back for those needs to be met and so keep their providers busy – and so the system is self-perpetuating, but what is really developing beyond that?

We do not have to deny for a moment the great value of what many people experience through Sunday services and other church groups and meetings; but even some of those most involved in producing and delivering them know that more, or other, is needed to form missional communities of disciples of Jesus. One thing that is needed is for individual church members to take more responsibility for their own personal spiritual formation and lived relationship with God, to develop a Christian worldview that integrates biblical faith with the details of every area of their lives, and to develop spiritual practices that nurture lives and relationships of spiritual depth and Christlike behaviour.

Following Jesus for ourselves, in this way, doesn’t mean we need the rest of the church and its leaders less: in fact, we need them more, but in other ways. We need people with whom we can share mutual support, learning and gentle accountability as we ‘work out our own salvation’ (Philippians 2:12). We need relationships in which our lives and souls are known well enough to make prayer and spiritual conversation meaningful and transformative. We need leaders who will not just instruct us but coach us, and model the way of Jesus for us by letting us see their lives close up. We need experienced guides to show us how to develop spiritual practices, those who are familiar with the word of God, the life of prayer, the ways of the Spirit, the character of Jesus, the heart of the Father and the depths of their own souls. And if this sounds too inward-looking, the reality is that the formation of the life of Christ within us is the most profoundly missional and neighbour-loving, world-serving thing that can happen to us, because we will then take the life of Christ within us to everywhere we go, every person we meet, and everything we do, instead of relying so much on inviting people to attend missional events.

Few church leaders, and perhaps few church members, would deny these are worthy goals, not least because they are easily recognisable as biblical priorities and practices, as well as because they answer a hunger we often feel for more genuine experience of God and personal change, and sometimes a tiredness with the familiar. The fact is that the familiar form of church is often exhausting for everyone, but especially the active minority and paid leaders. That very tiredness can make it hard to contemplate significant change, along with the busyness that affords so little time to imagine alternatives.

There is something threatening, too, about the unknown (even if desirable), as well as something comforting about the known (even if not desirable). Where would the time come from to work on personal spiritual formation and community-type relationships, or for leaders to become pastorally available and to act as spiritual guides, without jeopardising the current church programme? How confident would church leaders feel to provide what, a long time ago, used to be called ‘the cure of souls’, or to engage in different styles of learning and discipling? How receptive would church members be to different emphases and to becoming less passive and more responsible for the spiritual formation of themselves and their families? While we might sometimes wonder about the long-term sustainability of the familiar, can we even imagine something different?

The impact of pandemic and isolation

The immediate response of most churches to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent social isolation does not show much evidence of imagining something different, but rather creativity in continuing with the familiar albeit in unfamiliar, mostly online, ways. But this may change, perhaps in subtle ways at first, especially if the ‘new normal’ persists for many weeks.

Already, some people are reflecting on what they have come to recognise about the old normal. Like the church leader who has determined to be a better pastoral carer from now on, and sees the altered circumstances as a test of the connectedness of church members. Like the man who received a call from someone in his church to ask if he was okay, and couldn’t help wondering why there had been no similar call over the last many months when life had been so tough for other reasons. Or the lady who received a similar call enquiring after her wellbeing – from someone in a church she had left quite some time previously, who clearly didn’t know her or that she had left! It’s dangerous to generalise from anecdotes, but it’s likely that both the church leaders and church members who find themselves perhaps for the first time speaking together on the phone about personal issues relating to individual family, work and living arrangements, will have cause to reflect about the reality of relationships and pastoral care hitherto and how it might be different in future.

There’s no doubt that watching an online version of a Sunday service, or participating in a Zoom group meeting, affects the dynamics. In some ways watching an online service is an even more passive experience than attending a regular one, and it can feel rather odd being preached to in your sitting room or listening to a single singing voice and maybe singing along at home. That very oddness may encourage more people to think of alternatives, at least for the duration of the lockdown, and maybe some of those alternatives will stick thereafter.

Joining in a Zoom group can encourage more active participation. The experience of watching each other watching each other, especially for those who are unused to it, often brings a kind of intensity and a greater impulse to contribute. And even the minimal background setting of people’s homes makes more tangible the sense of connecting in relation to life, not just church environments.
It’s reported that up to ten times as many people are attending some online church services as used to attend regular ones, and the surge of interest in Zoom meetings and equivalent online groups may last beyond the novelty as people appreciate the possibilities it offers to connect with others even when you can’t leave your home because of health, transport or childcare considerations, or if you want to have a brief meeting or shared prayer practice without spending twice as long travelling to and fro.

Of course, no online meetings substitute for face-to-face encounters. There is something about real presence, physical touch, multifaceted communication and shared experience that we miss – deeply and healthily so – and the very missing of these may perhaps awaken in us not merely a desire to return gratefully to social proximity after a time of social distancing, but to cherish and prioritise more intimate and meaningful connectedness than before.

Although some people, including some church leaders, seem busier than ever in lockdown, many others have less work, more time at home, more time with family members, less to occupy them, less (or different) routine, more worries about health or money…for a longer period of time than they can remember. It’s almost certain that, for many people, this will confront them with some realities about the true state of their souls, their relationships, their work, their aspirations, their faith, their security.

Some may turn to God in prayer and scripture, out of desire or desperation. Some may turn away. Some relationships may be healed; others broken. Some may review their direction in life. Some may re-evaluate their experience of church: some may so enjoy having less meetings and activities to keep going to that they decide not to return to them. Some people might take time to reflect and imagine. Some might seek the kinds of conversations with others where they can explore deeper spiritual formation and more meaningful relationships. Some may find that they get to know their neighbours better than ever before, and develop new involvements in the wider community through volunteering and helping others, or being helped, during the crisis period. They may wonder what the point is in getting busy again with lots of church outreach activities, when those would leave them less time sharing their lives and faith with those they now know in their neighbourhood.

There are other, more sombre, reasons why some churches may not be able, even if they want to, to return to the old normal. We are yet to see the scale and duration of the economic consequences of combatting Covid-19, but they are likely to be far-reaching. Clearly many jobs and livelihoods will be lost, and all kinds of working patterns are likely to change. It may be that many churches will have to adjust to significantly reduced finances, with implications for staffing and buildings, and that many church members will need to find or develop new work. It is possible that some churches will simply be unable to continue the same structures and programmes as before, that some church leaders may need to become bi-vocational, that church members may need increasingly to see their work as missional rather than seeing mission as church programme-based.

Hope for the future

But past history offers examples of new life emerging from unwelcome change. Tomas Halik gives one such example: ‘On the very threshold of its history, the early church of Jews and pagans experienced the destruction of the temple in which Jesus prayed and taught his disciples. The Jews of those days found a courageous and creative solution. They replaced the altar of the demolished temple with the Jewish family table, and the practice of sacrifice with the practice of private and communal prayer. They replaced burnt offerings and blood sacrifices with reflection, praise and study of Scripture. Around the same time, early Christianity, banished from the synagogue, sought a new identity of its own. On the ruins of traditions, Jews and Christians learned anew to read the law and the prophets and interpret them afresh. Are we not in a similar situation in our days?’

Those who cherish the familiar are more likely to long for things to revert to how they were pre-Covid, and to lament what does not return to the old normal. Those who have for some time struggled with aspects of the familiar are more likely to welcome the opportunity to explore change. It would be most helpful if we could all prayerfully listen to and learn from one another, especially as some change seems inescapable, and to discerningly imagine together some possible future normals.

In addition to the familiar, we do have numerous historical and contemporary alternatives to learn from, some of which may be especially helpful if we are seeking ways to encourage church members to develop greater responsibility for their own spiritual formation, more connected and meaningful pastoral and spiritual relationships, and ways of leading, teaching and discipling which honour and utilise those gifted to do this in ways that enable others to grow rather than be passive consumers.

For example, there is a wealth of experience in developing deeper Christian community in monastic traditions, some of which has in recent years been distilled in modified forms in new-monastic, third order and dispersed communities of various kinds. Members of dispersed communities support each other in maintaining rules of life, rhythms of prayer, spiritual practices and soul friendship, which combine personal spiritual growth, shared values and supportive spiritual friendship.

In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer advocated a discerning recovery of monastic practices as key to the church’s health and mission: ‘…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…

There are also helpful resources to draw from what is sometimes called ‘group spiritual direction’, a different small-group practice from what many of us are used to in which a handful of people come together perhaps once a month to share where God has been present in their lives and how they are seeking to grow spiritually, and to hold each other in prayer, to listen deeply and to offer back any comments or questions that they sense are prompted by the Holy Spirit for each other’s encouragement.

And we might consider how more use could be made of the rabbinic style of teaching and discipling that we see modelled by Jesus in the Gospels, where a group gathers around a person who has deeply studied God’s word and is deeply living God’s way, and learning takes place through lived example, shared experience and a process of dialogue, story, questioning and reflection as well as direct instruction.

Tomas Halik advocates something a bit similar: ‘I am convinced that our Christian communities, parishes, congregations, church movements and monastic communities should seek to draw closer to the ideal that gave rise to the European universities: a community of pupils and teachers, a school of wisdom, in which truth is sought through free disputation and also profound contemplation. Such islands of spirituality and dialogue could be the source of a healing force for a sick world.’

Some combination of elements of dispersed community, group spiritual accompaniment and rabbinic-style discipling and learning could perhaps shape practices which bring together individual responsibility, participative connected community and guided discipleship. This could be done now online and in the future face-to-face, or some combination. It could be done with more flexibility and fewer resources than previously. Leaders could learn from abbots, spiritual directors and rabbis how to be pastors and teachers in fresh ways.

Such a development is merely one avenue to explore, and maybe there are many other better ones. Nor does it address all the potential difficulties it might entail, or the other areas of healthy church it does not cover or refer to. That is not the point, though. It’s just an example of how some things could be done differently – and may need to be – in the future normal. It could be a way of starting to think, imagine and pray together.

Opportunities for mission

If we do find ourselves more streamlined and less busy in future with much of what we have hitherto taken for granted as necessary to church life, and if there is a shift of focus away from consuming congregations, centred on Sunday services and other meetings, to personally guided and more deeply connected communities of intentional disciples, then there may be interesting possibilities also for mission. Not only may we have more time to build relationships with neighbours and colleagues who have been learning to connect differently post-Covid, we may be able more often to join with goodwill initiatives and associations emerging from within the wider community and workplaces rather than always inventing our own Christian versions of them.

Joining in with what others initiate and manage might enable us to build relationships in which we are not the ones in control of the agenda, or busy with its organisation, but where we can be learners and listeners as well as teachers and tellers, and bear witness to Jesus in that different dynamic through the ways we speak and serve, pray and work. Sociologists say that these days there are less religious believers, more atheists, more people simply uninterested in religion, but more seekers after meaning. We may find it more helpful in relating to seekers and making connections between their seeking and the gospel by joining others on their turf rather than inviting them onto ours. At the same time, churches often have huge social capital in their communities, extensive networks with agencies, and established outreach to many social groups, not least young people and the elderly. These may be tremendous resources to offer in the post-Covid social and economic landscape.

Many churches also have significant property, and some church members have sizeable homes. Rather than being mainly places where members gather for worship, could church buildings become mainly places of service to non-members? Could those with extra space in their homes offer hospitality to those who need a roof or some respite, or a loving family to live with? Pope Francis has suggested the church should become a ‘field hospital’ to help people who are physically, mentally, socially or spiritually afflicted. There is good reason to suppose that the number of people in those categories will only be increased in the wake of the pandemic.

Pete Portal, a church leader in South Africa, puts the challenge more robustly: ‘If what happens in wartime is an amplification of what is already happening in a society in peacetime, then this time of ‘war’ against the virus is very instructive as to the effectiveness (or not) of our church models. If your church has little to offer during lockdown beyond a live streamed Sunday performance, then what does that suggest? Might we have ended up somewhere so far from the biblical example of church because we started with a consumer-driven, events-based model? Might it suggest the consumer-driven model equates to conceiving of church more as watered-down Sunday entertainment than fired-up covenant community? Might that expose the fact we have thrown out the hope of grassroots discipling movements in favour of a top-down loyalty to Christendom? And might that be the reason that instead of streaming with life, we’ve settled for live streaming?’

Many voices are saying that there will not be a return to how things were before Covid-19, and many are calling especially for reflection. That seems a good idea for churches too. One contributor to the Initiatives of Change International website asks, ‘Will we have the courage to engage in self-reflection, to change direction where necessary, and to persevere in that new direction?’

Might the coming months be a time for encouraging, and inviting one another, to engage in such reflection, and maybe to begin to explore or experiment in simple ways with some fresh ideas or approaches? What about hosting some Zoom meetings with friends or church leaders to discuss this? There’s no real need to dignify such conversations with names and labels, but if they need to be called something one could always try Conversations Of Virtually Isolated Disciples.

These seven essays were written, in this order, between March and September 2020. Inevitably, a few of the facts and figures will be out of date by the end of the year.