The coronavirus pandemic has been a terrible global tragedy in the true sense of the word, with a huge death toll. It has also swallowed up jobs and businesses and sent economic shockwaves around the world.
And there are other less-seen costs, too, resulting from the isolation that lockdowns or restrictions have caused, in the areas of mental health, domestic and family violence, addictions and relationship stress.
Even for people not personally affected by the loss of loved ones, health or livelihood, the virus has taken away things many of us have taken for granted in our comfortable lifestyles in Australia and New Zealand. Work, school, family, social activities and even church life have been affected. No restaurants, no sport, no pubs or clubs, and no church on Sunday – at least, not the type of church we were used to.
All of a sudden, congregations were forced into the digital online world, streaming, meeting, or sharing worship via various internet platforms, emailing sermons and other faith-life resources to some parishioners and physically delivering them to others.
Amid all the suffering from COVID-19 though, God has given us some precious and, in the context of the 21st century, rare gifts. He has given us the gift of more time, less busyness and distraction, and the chance to rest in him and reflect on what it really means to be the body of Christ, his church in the world. In doing so, he has challenged us to look outside ourselves and what we have been used to.
Some of the LCA/NZ’s leaders in local mission believe these gifts present an opportunity too good to miss in fulfilling the Great Commission, and that many of us are looking for something other than a return to ‘normal’.
The South Australia – Northern Territory District’s Assistant Bishop for Mission, Pastor Stephen Schultz, says that, pre-COVID, many of us saw worship on Sunday as the be-all and end-all, and that we would offer worship only on our terms and expect community members to simply come to us and fit in with us. He says this model is flawed.
‘Basically, you’d rock up to church and tick a box to say, “Yep, I’ve done that, I’m a good little Christian”, and away you’d go’, he says. ‘And we’ve been thinking that model of church needed to break down. But that was going to require a culture change, and a culture change takes years, maybe generations.
‘And then “bang”, along comes COVID and what normally would take years, we’ve been able to achieve in months. So from my perspective, we don’t really want to miss this opportunity and the rhetoric we’re hearing from people is that we don’t want to go back to the way things were.
‘Of course, some people have seen this as a momentary disruption. But this is not a disruption, this is a revolution. This is an opportunity for us to rethink “church”.’
Pastor Stephen says he had heard the story of a congregation which, like many, had been declining in numbers. While previously there had been between 50 and 70 people attending worship with the congregation each Sunday, since going online with worship it has made approximately 100 new non-church contacts. Pre-COVID, the congregation’s Messy Church program had been reaching a few non-member families, whereas it is now in touch with around 20.
‘It’s almost like church had been happening behind closed doors’, Pastor Stephen says. ‘It’s as though it’s been a private thing, it was for the religious people. And the attitude has been, “How do we get people into our territory, onto our turf?” And so we’ll put on amazing programs, but it’s all been on our terms still, it’s all operating mission from a position of strength.
‘Well, it’s as though God has said to us, “I’m shutting your doors, you can’t go on site, so what does it mean for you to be the church offsite? Forget your programs. Get out there. And what am I giving you to take with you? I’m giving you the good news”.
‘Well, hallelujah, praise the Lord, that’s all we need!’
Pastor David Schmidt, Queensland’s ministry and mission director, says that, after speaking with and listening to many people from across the church, there is a view that many of us have ‘developed a very narrow understanding of what word and sacrament are about’.
‘My interpretation of what I’ve been hearing is that we’ve thought it’s simply about what happens in the sermon on Sunday morning and getting holy communion’, he says. ‘But what was reinforced from a conversation I had this morning with a bunch of pastors was that the word is actually incarnational. It’s got to be out there and transforming lives.
‘One pastor said that he’s been challenged through what has happened to realise that he hasn’t done discipleship well, that discipleship is about walking alongside people.
‘And he said the other part of it is sacramental. He said the sacramental aspect of God coming to us is absolutely true and that’s what people are yearning for and missing.
‘Some people have been wanting to go back to church for no other reason than to have holy communion. But it’s important to recognise that we are sacramental when we are engaged in the world around us and to start understanding that word and sacrament is not a narrow perspective in our Lutheran world. It’s actually a broad perspective.’
Dr Tania Nelson, the LCA’s executive officer for local mission, says the restrictions and isolation of the pandemic have by necessity changed some of the ways we engage in discipleship. And, she says, recognising people’s limitations and responsibilities in the way we serve them is also important, as was reinforced by a recent conversation with an LCA/NZ church planter.
‘He said that he had been meaning to work more with his members on discipleship but because many are young families with young children and are very busy, he has felt a certain amount of guilt about asking them to be involved’, she says. ‘Generally, we might bring people together for a pastor’s study group one evening a week, but how can young families do that? They possibly can’t – let alone single-parent families.
‘So this pastor started up a Bible study group online in the midst of COVID, and he’s reflecting that the group members probably won’t ever meet face-to-face because the online meetings have been so successful. That way you can put your children to bed and then meet, and husband and wife can take part. No-one really wants to return to a face-to-face group because this is more accessible for people. For busy people with commitments, it’s the perfect way to be discipled.’
Pastor Brett Kennett, who serves as the Victoria and Tasmania District’s pastor for congregational support, says there is a will among the pastors and leaders he supports to ‘change and adapt’ with what is happening in the world, making use of technology to enable us to reach more people, rather than to “snap back” into how things were done pre-COVID.
‘While I think we’re still in that space where some people will be wanting to snap back, I think the majority are wanting to lean into this and lean out and forward’, he says. ‘One of the regional pastors, even while being able to have a small live Bible study group, has put a big flat screen monitor at the end of the table and has combined that with Zoom so that his wife, with a little one at home, (and others) can join in the study. I asked him whether he saw this as a paradigm shift and he said, “No, but I see it as a major augmentation”.’
Pastor David says the enforced slowdown for many people has meant the chance to reflect on what is truly important in terms of home, work and church life.
‘Congregations are saying that they don’t want to be as busy as they have been, so to move to a new way of being church we need to answer the question, “How do we actually be church without having to put this massive service together every week, when we’re just running out of energy trying to do that”’, he says.
‘People who want to go to church while they’re still at home provide our congregations with opportunities. But how do we engage with those people in meaningful ways, so that we don’t just teach them to be really clever Christians, but rather to engage with their next-door neighbours over the fence? I think that’s the key area that we need to work on.’
It seems that if the pandemic has proven anything, it is that God’s light and love can shine into even the darkest, most desperate situations and bring the hope of new life – and that he never rests from building and shaping his church on earth. We just have to be open to him working in us and through us.
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