Pastoral Perspectives

When the Scattered Church Re-Gathers

Covid-19 has thrust churches to grab whatever technology might keep them in doing ministry not as an emergency measure but as a new normal. Technology is changing the way the world works.. Businesses have been revolutionized. Families and lifestyles have been reconceived and transformed by our digital world. The church was one of the last remaining institutions to remain mostly unchanged.

Now leaders are planning how best to return to church after Covid-19. It is interesting that some felt that the new habit of watching church services at home will continue even after the Circuit Breaker is totally lifted. Others believe that Christians will miss the fellowship with other believers and will crave being with them in person. Respondents to a survey done by Salt and Light Ministry* indicated that they are positive about the online Church service – the weighted average of 3.92 out of 5 coming close to a “very positive” score on the whole. When asked to rate their online church experience, the result was:

Less than 10% of respondents said their experience was somewhat or very negative. Looking forward will you head for the church or continue to visit the online services?

Slightly over half say they will only physically attend Church, eschewing the online option. A small minority, 5.36%, may opt out of physical services entirely, preferring the online experience. A significant proportion – more than 4 in 10 – say they will likely do both. Based on current sentiment, almost 49% of viewership could be retained even when physical services restart.

Very interestingly, the younger respondents were significantly more likely to attend physical church when the time for services resumes. More than half of every age group of those below 34 said they prefer the physical church experience, in contrast to the age groups above 35.

(*Source: Beyond the Circuit-Breaker, will Christians still visit online church? (Check-In Survey Findings, Part 3) by Edric Sng, May 21, 2020)

One result of the current pandemic situation may be higher church audiences, but less active participation. People are watching church services on the internet but are much less participative than they were before. The convenience of worshipping at home in front of a computer, tablet, mobile phone or television has become what many are calling the “new normal” of church life.

As a church, we have to start thinking about the possible scenarios, “Will people come back to active, in-person church attendance following the COVID – 19 crisis?” It’s hard to tell what church will look like after the current practice of social distancing. Many agree that our future depends not only on the behaviour of the virus, but on the actions of people – as individuals, churches, communities, and governments. The way forward will not be a matter of following a timetable, but of faithfully discerning the signs of the times, and responding accordingly. If we don’t continue our efforts to contain the virus, a new wave of infections and deaths will cause further damage, and we will lose what we’ve gained from the measures we’ve already taken. We may need to move back and forth between phases if second or third waves of infections emerge.

It’s vital for church to truly take time to pray and think through creative ways to initiate the transition into the physical location of the church to ensure the safety of our community is prioritized adequately. The Great Commandment states, “You shall love the Lord your God … and love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39, ESV). During this pandemic, we express our love for ourselves in the ways we protect ourselves from getting infected. In the same way, we express our love for our neighbour in the ways we protect them from getting infected.

An adapted model for re-gathering in-person*:

  1. Gather in phases – Create a system that allows community gathering, safe entry facilities and temperature taking cameras positioned at entrance. Use a RSVP or ticketing system to monitor the number of people that can attend each service until we can gather in large numbers again. Communicate safety plans and best practices to the congregation.
  2. Small Groups or House gatherings – This will include people gathering within each other’s homes and streaming services together with 10-15 people. It’s going to be vital to keep these groups with those staying in close proximity and obey social distancing guidelines initially.
  3. Accept changes as the norm – Acknowledge that some traditions, such as communion, baptism, funerals, marriages may have limitations this year. Collections of offerings will go digital and e-bulletin will be the way to go.
  4. Hybrid worship services – Pastors may find themselves becoming even busier because they’ll be balancing both virtual and in-person worship experiences. There are still many who will want to participate from home. Continuing online options allows more people to hear the gospel, so if you continue virtual options, be sure not to make online attendees feel less valued than those in-person.
  5. Church mobile apps – The church will need to look into tools that are crafted specifically for church purpose. Those needs prioritize member engagement and visitor acquisition. Segmented in this way, church will be enabled to optimize the sites for new visitors and optimize the apps for engaged members. This means that small group curriculum, sermon notes, digital giving, event registration, and church communications will all be routed through the church mobile app.

(*Adapted from: “Reopening Small and Mid-Sized Churches: A Discussion on Leading After COVID-19” by William Vanderbloemen April 27, 2020)

What most churches don’t know is that the world has been setting churches up for this transition for a long time — and as it would have happened, COVID – 19 just expedited the process. I call this church online – we need to have our digital infrastructure in place, set up for scale, and work toward maximum engagement and growth. If we want church to grow in engagement, we will need to start implementing these future realities as much as we can now through a paradigm shift so that when these become common practices, members and visitors are ready to jump on the band wagon. Scripture says: “Though I have many things to write to you, I don’t want to do so with paper and ink. Instead, I hope to be with you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). Kind of paradoxical – the consequence of the technological revolution in churches today.

When we take the communion together, pray for one another and confess our sins to one another, it is better done in physical community with online enhancement or augmentation, not replacement. I prefer the phrase “church online” more than “online church.” Our church should be online, but I don’t think it should be an online church. As such, people should be transitioned from an online community to a physical one whenever possible, without abandoning the online aspect. Some people can’t get to church because of illness. Someone may be in a country where the Gospel is persecuted. Those and similar groups can continue to engage the church online. Those participants matter to God. They are real people.

So, the best way to do church online is to intentionally work to move everyone possible from being alone on the screen toward being in community with others and being incorporated into a covenant community. Church online can be a valid outreach if the church communicates that the normal expression of God’s intent and design is that we gather in worship with people and then scatter for the work of mission in the kingdom. A good balance could be for churches to say about their online presence, “We will be there only if you can’t be here.”

(Adapted from “Is an Online Church Really a Church?”,  Christianity Today, April 2 2014)