Author - Judith McKeown - Practical Placement Tutor, Tilsley College
Judith McKeown works at GLO admin and as the Practical Placement Tutor at Tilsley College. Before studying at Tilsley, she worked for the Christian Institute. Short-term mission teams had a profound impact on her own Christian walk, and she now organises GLO Summer Teams for others to serve in bringing the Gospel to Europe.
I suspect many of us have had similar conversations recently along the lines of, “Are you back to church yet?” or “oh, it’s a shock to the system to get out of the house on time!” I have benefited immensely from the variety of online church services over lockdown. However, what does the future look like now for church life as we re-emerge from lockdown? There is undoubtedly something comforting about getting back to our normal church services and the way things have always been done, but is our Christian life really about comfort and does what we have always done fit in this new world?
When we say that we want to get back to church – what is it that we want to get back to? Our normal routines and programmes? Perhaps we can be guilty of having a very set idea of what church is, based on habit rather than on a living relationship with Jesus. These questions can be unsettling, but it is almost certainly the case that churches will find coming out of lockdown will be more difficult that being in its jaws. This is because during lockdown we had fewer choices, but now that we are emerging, we need to ask these difficult questions and find the right mould for church in the future.
Rich Martin, writing for Premier argues that “we’ve taught a generation to fall in love with the culture of church more than Christ himself”.1 In the weeks and months to come, will we find that we have what Andy Hunter from FIEC describes as “a refined church emerging”? It’s a sobering thought that perhaps this has been a time of pruning for the church (John 15:1-2) and suddenly the motives of our hearts are exposed as to why we go and are involved in church. Is my attitude one of, ‘it doesn’t look the same, so I don’t want to be part of it’ or am I prepared to realise that the world has changed and as a church we must adapt to that?
In a recent article in the Guardian entitled, ‘How do faithless people like me make sense of the past year of Covid’, author John Harris makes the observation that “life without God has turned out to be life without fellowship and shared meaning – and in the midst of the most disorientating, debilitating crisis most us of have ever known, that social tragedy now cries out for action”.2
Is this a challenge the church is prepared to respond to?
Finding a new mould may involve breaking old moulds and habits; perhaps, more accurately, it will push us back into a more biblical mould. Let us remember that the template of Acts 2:42 tells us that church is about fellowship, teaching, prayer and communion, but there is little instruction as to how these things were or should be carried out. Are we prepared to move from what Rich Martin refers to as, “comfortable community to Christian community”?3
There is undoubtedly something comforting about getting back to our normal church services and the way things have always been done, but is our Christian life really about comfort?
What did a Christian community look like for the New Testament church? In order to fulfil Jesus’ command to, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28: 19-20) they didn’t rely on a weekly coffee morning or family services. The church in Acts was more organic. If anything, Covid-19 restrictions have shown us that we can no longer rely on larger events, and in order to survive, “churches will need to re(invest) in small group and one-to-one ministry in order to sustain connections, training and discipleship”.4 This move away from a reliance on larger gatherings may begin to mould our lives in such a way that discipleship becomes part of our everyday life. The challenge for my own heart is: is this a mould I am familiar with or one that I want my life to be shaped by? The latest dramatisation of the life of Jesus in The Chosen5 has helped me understand afresh how Jesus Christ lived his everyday life, alongside flawed individuals and showed them who He was and why He was worth following.
Post Covid, Martin Erwin from Counties discusses the model of disciple making used by Jesus. He describes it as the “Go, gather, grow” approach, as demonstrated in Luke 10. He argues that Jesus’ command to make disciples “sends us into the world, we ‘Go’, and those who are interested ‘Gather’. Often, in the New Testament, this was in homes and small groups, as purpose-built church buildings were still a long way off. The gathered group would ‘Grow’, learning together, worshipping and praying, all with the purpose of preparing to ‘Go’ once more.”6
However, practically speaking, what does this “new mould” look like?
In these post-Covid days there is much talk of the idea of ‘blended church’. Perhaps there are those who have just discovered church services online and want to continue to be part of that, those, for example, who are not yet comfortable coming into a church building. The question is – do we continue to cater for this group and how? Or does the continuing online presence of church services feed into the notion of consumer church, where we log-in when it suits us, with no responsibility or commitment? How do we disciple people and build a Christian community if we never meet them?
The Gospel Coalition (TGC) recently published some research after asking eight church leaders in America, “If we were looking at your church in 10 years, would you be able to point to a difference Covid made?”7 They found that their online meetings often meant better attendance and participation. Dan Green writing for FIEC argues that Zoom prayer meetings may be here to stay, as they are easier to attend and there is more of a willingness to pray because of what he describes as the “verticality of prayer”. However, one church leader interviewed by TGC sums up the dilemma that many churches may find themselves in: “It’s been a good platform for seekers who haven’t yet committed to come to a physical church building… On the other hand, we don’t want to train regular members to think, Oh, I did a worship service online, so I completed my responsibility.”
Undoubtedly the church must have a physical presence, but perhaps what we need is a more ‘back to basics’8 approach, a mould that is reshaped to include more time for people, with less emphasis on programmes and where an online presence is not seen as an add-on, but as a vital way in its own right of reaching people for the Lord and sustaining church life.