After yesterday’s announcement from No. 10 (more fulsome guidelines to be issued in due course), the prospect of meeting again as church post-lockdown is on the horizon. That seems to be a good opportunity to reflect on some of the good things that have come out of this time and some of the less good things that we might be glad to be rid of.
So, in no particular order, here are some of the good things to have come out of lockdown:
Without doubt, the best thing has been the engagement. Live streaming our service has seen far more people tuning in than we would usually expect to see on an average Sunday morning. Our reach has been increased. More people are engaging with the gospel simply by tuning into our online content.
Perhaps the best thing to come about as a result of that, we are aware of people who have trusted in Christ, or reconnected with their (at best) dormant faith, as a result of tuning in. Others, who are married to believers but aren’t themselves Christians and wouldn’t usually come with their partner to church, have been tuning in as well. Others still, who we have had some contact with in the past but we wouldn’t ordinarily see, have been tuning in and discussing what they have heard with family members who do meet with us regularly. All of this has, without doubt, been good.
Longing to meet
Whilst there are, no doubt, going to be exceptions to this, the overwhelming feeling amongst most is a desperate desire to meet with their church family again. Far from making most of our folk leap for joy that they can simply tune into a live stream in their pyjamas from bed, the majority have simply longed for the day where we can be together again. Some of those now longing to meet were those who once saw the church as a place to go if nothing better was on. The old phrase has proven true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.
If nothing else, this period has given us a good awareness of what it is like for those who struggle to meet with us week by week, not because they don’t want to but because they can’t. It’s all too easy to forget what it is like for those who are unable to join with us. But when none of us have been able to meet together, we have gained a fresh perspective on what it is like all the time for those who simply can’t join us as they would like. I would hope this new realisation causes us to take more seriously the need to include such people, as we are able, in the life of the church.
Another positive is that lockdown has taken away the tyranny of the rota. Everything has had to shut down and we are forced into some essentialist thinking: what do we have to keep going and what can we drop? There are, no doubt, some things we would have liked to maintain but we can’t under the circumstances. But I am also sure there are a few things that – having wound them down for a time – we struggle to see the value of reviving them when we can meet again. The simplification of church life – which is often complicated not by any demands of scripture but by ourselves – may well benefit us in the longer term.
There are some positives that have come out of this period of lockdown. But what are some of things we might be glad to be rid of when we can meet? Again, in no particular order:
Preaching to camera
I know we all hate it. It is sterile and we have no idea how those we are engaging might be responding. It is interesting that most of my sermon scripts have remained exactly the same length in lockdown as they are when we meet in person and yet my sermons are typically about 15-minutes shorter. I take that to indicate that at least a third of my average sermon is doing more than just repeating words I thought up in my office. It is interacting with the people in front of me, and responding to them, and engaging with them and (hopefully) landing much better with them as a result. That is not to say we shouldn’t continue to live stream our services (the first and third points above makes a good case for carrying on) but it is to say that watching exclusively on a screen is something I, for one, will be glad to see the back of.
I think it is harder, in many ways, to communicate effectively through a screen than in person. But it is all the harder still when you are trying to do that to people who don’t speak your language. In our context, we run most things bi- or tri-lingually depending on who and what is available. There are usually other first languages in the room beyond this who have good enough English that we don’t need to translate. But as hard as communication is through a screen at the best of times, it is all the harder still to those who don’t share your language. We have a range of ways we can mitigate the issues around language in person; we have not found a good or credible way of overcoming that barrier whilst live streaming. If there is one thing I’ll be glad of when we are back meeting in person – as I am sure will most of our ESOL folks – is the ability to communicate and translate more helpfully.
As hard as it is livestreaming sermons, trying to do Sunday School content online is even harder still. Some have made a good fist of it, but it is something we found to be very difficult. What is more, though some level of church community continues virtually – we can text, ring, Zoom, whatever – the reality is that children often don’t see all of that. Nor do they see the church communally living out the gospel together. Children – and adults, if we’re being honest – need the physicality of seeing corporate worship and the gospel lived out in community. All of that has been stymied by the lockdown.
We’re all pretty sick of staring at pixels of each other’s faces by now. Our family was absolutely overjoyed to be able to sit in the yard of some church friends and have lunch together yesterday. Seeing people, in person, communicating in a normal way without worrying about what we looked like on camera or any weird pauses in conversation. It was normal. And it was brilliant. Whilst Zoom and online communication have a very helpful place, being unable to sit and talk and converse in normal ways will be one thing I will be glad of when we can meet in person again.
There are, no doubt, loads of other things you can think of too. Good things that we might hope to continue as well as some bad things that we will be glad to see the back of. Roll on physically meeting again!