In many ways the coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented phenomenon, but when it comes to responding to large scale health emergencies the Church has been here before. Inspirational accounts have made their way back to us from the second century when the heroic actions of Christians made a vital difference to communities suffering with the plague, or more recently from Sierra Leone where churches led vital initiatives during the Ebola crisis. Now that we can’t meet together physically as churches it is time to ask how we can pursue our mission and ministry during this period of enforced social distancing, and how do we play our role as good neighbours and citizens during this time of national and global crisis?
1. Recover true worship
Non-essential social gatherings have been suspended in the UK. Pubs, restaurants, theatres have closed indefinitely. Churches are letting people know we have to close our services and postpone our festivals. Although this is distressing, it brings with it an opportunity to recover the true meaning of worship. In Amos we read of a time when God said he could not accept the assemblies and festivals of his people. God himself summoned songs to stop. Instead, justice and righteousness were to be rolled out like a never-ending river. Similarly, during the national crisis of exile in Babylon, Jeremiah instructed believers to seek the welfare of the city where God had sent them in punishment. It is more than possible to worship God while we are in our own form of exile – now is the time for the Church to shine for him in our towns, villages and cities by being the voice of help, hope and healing. We cannot easily sing our songs together, but we can offer God the kind of worship that he prefers anyway: caring for the vulnerable in our society. (see James 1:27)
2. Prioritise the vulnerable
At St Peter’s church in Brighton this weekend I heard Archie Coates passionately explain to his congregations that even if everything else were to close he would maintain his church’s homelessness project. While some of our ministries need to be considered non-essential for a period – such as serving communion, Bible study groups etc, there are others that remain essential. We have to continue to be vigilant when it comes to protecting the needs of the vulnerable, young and old. Perhaps it is time we consider new dimensions to our ministry: for example adding a delivery service to our foodbanks, visiting our elderly community members virtually, securely holding next of kin details for those living alone, providing extra support to children at risk, or making provisions for those who have no roof under which to self-isolate.
3. Embrace the digital revolution
There has been a lot of criticism of the dangers of social media and new digital technologies destroying communities and taking up too much of the population’s time and energy. While there are legitimate concerns, now is the time for the Church to make full use of all of the opportunities to connect and communicate through these digital tools. While they can never replace face-to-face interaction, they can be a lifeline for those in self-isolation. There are many ways we can move forward in our digital ministry. Services can be livestreamed, even if led by a team of one, with no more than a smart phone, a Facebook account and a Wi-Fi connection. If this is too difficult, then consider directing your congregation to join in with other digital services or make use of other opportunities, including Premier Christian Radio which already allows hundreds of thousands of people to connect with God at home. Skype or Zoom can be used to enable people to pray together wherever they are in the world, by simply sharing a link and setting a time. Inviting your community to write about their needs and concerns could be a simple way to pray for the needs of those around you. WhatsApp Bible Studies have been in use in many parts of the world now. Setting up a group is relatively easy if people share their mobile phone numbers. However we choose to do it, let us maximise the communication routes we have available, whether web pages, web links, emails, social media or church notice boards and news sheets. I’m sure many people would appreciate regular updates about your recommended podcasts, blogs, sermons, and news.
4. Pick up the phone
Sometimes it seems our phones are used for everything except to telephone! It is time to ensure that we have up to date contact details for everyone who wishes to be contacted regularly. Offering a daily call to anyone in your community that would appreciate it could be a lifeline during lockdown. Phone trees can be designed so that each participant both receives and offers calls to others guaranteeing at least two conversations a day, and the opportunity to report those in need of shopping or medication deliveries. This can be empowering for the vulnerable as they will have a key part to play. Make sure the phone tree has a selection of central numbers to try if someone doesn’t receive a call at the designated time so anxieties are not heightened by the system. It may be time to introduce more people to video phonecalls such as via Apple Facetime or Google Duo, especially for those who are missing human contact most or are hard of hearing.
5. Get down with digital youthwork
With lots of children off school and others missing their usual extra-curricular activities, what could digital youth work look like? I have seen one church that has already started Skype small groups for their young people. WhatsApp groups moderated by youth workers seem to be widely used too to help young people stay in touch and offer pastoral support through these difficult times. There are of course safeguarding issues to be attentive to, but as long as youth workers are abiding by their church's policies there is lots of room for creativity. How about some non-physical contact interventions such as a short video making competition, art or craft workshops, or poetry challenges? From online homework clubs to discussion forums, virtual book groups and journaling or synchronised film nights, there are some exciting opportunities that could bear fruit for faith among our young people.
6. Become your street’s pastor
With so many people either in self isolation or working from home to avoid unnecessary social contact, our neighbourhoods become more socially significant to everyone. Too many of us barely know our neighbours and now is the time to rectify this. Some of us have also started WhatsApp groups for our street so people have a way of staying in touch with one another easily and offering or requesting help. Encouraging Christians to see their street as their parish can be a way we release compassion and kindness across our towns, cities and villages. In times like this, when even offering someone a toilet roll runs counter to the general trend, a little selflessness can go a long, long way.
7. Minister with your families
For some parents, their worst nightmare is school being cancelled. With six children I have some sympathy. How on earth are we supposed to entertain our children for weeks on end in a confined environment? What if we rub one another up the wrong way? How are we going to get them off their games consoles? It may feel daunting spending so much time with our children, but one thing is for sure – they will never forget the lockdown of Spring 2020. It is worth investing in those memories. As churches how can we support and encourage families to seize the opportunities ahead? Whether it is a weekly walk in the rain when nobody else is out, or teaching them to grow tomatoes, or us learning the rules of Fortnite or struggling together with maths homework or breadmaking, we have a precious opportunity for our families to foster positive relationships with each other, and instil the values of our faith. Even if it is only for lockdown, reading the Bible together, talking about the news together, or praying occasionally may turn out to be lifechanging.
8. Support the supporters
There are people in our churches and in our communities who are on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus. Your church may contain teachers, medical practitioners, government officials, delivery drivers, vaccine researchers and more. We need to recognise the extra hours and efforts they will be making at this time. They may be too busy to log in to prayer meetings, manage the church’s finances, or photocopy the newssheet, but they need to know the Church is behind them. Let's get alongside them and ask if there are practical ways we can help them. An extra meal on a doorstep, or returning home to find the lawn has been mown may give them a boost in an otherwise difficult day. Please let them know regularly that you are praying for them.
9. Be open and vulnerable
I have spoken to a number of Christians who are very open about how the Coronavirus has left them very worried, nervous and unable to sleep. Some of them feel embarrassed about this, thinking that their faith should mean that they don’t experience these anxieties. To counter this myth, let us be open about what we are feeling and show that the Christian faith is about God’s strength and not ours. Because we have somewhere to go with the worries we experience, we do not need to show some kind of stoic emotional separation from these strange times. If we are willing to open up about what we are truly feeling, then others will feel able to do the same and we can then offer to pray together with people not from a position of superiority, but from a sense of mutual need. Sometimes crises bring out the best in people, forge the strongest relationships, evoke the deepest conversations, and change us all for the good.
10. Be good news
We have good news to tell. The God who made us and died for us, cares about us and invites us into eternal relationship with him. There is more to life than food, work and sleep. Death is not the end. Sometimes it is hard for people to hear this good news. Sometimes they are too preoccupied with busyness of life, or too weighed down by anxieties, or too confused by our culture’s mixed messages. It is more important than ever that Christians are good news people when there is so much bad news all around us. Are there stories of people in your community doing something amazing, extraordinary, altruistic? Are there positive side-effects of the lockdown? Are grace and compassion becoming contagious? Are people beginning to engage with spiritual questions? Is God answering prayers and performing miracles around you? Is faith beginning to go viral? Let us be open and vulnerable, but also let us be good news communities, and counter the bad news with good news stories wherever we find them.
Let your light shine
It has been important over the last few weeks to provide copious amounts of tissues and hand gels to maintain a hygienic environment inside our church buildings. Now the focus is changing, and we need to provide copious amounts of non-physical contact and emotional and practical support to maintain a spiritually healthy environment outside our church buildings. Just as brothers and sisters around the world and throughout history have taught us – when the world is in its darkest hour it is the time for the church to shine brightest. Or as Jesus said: “let you light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”.