From Church on Zoom to Church in a Room!
One American blogger I follow, wrote recently, “My family has survived 9/11, the anthrax attacks, war in Afghanistan, the Beltway Sniper, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Snow-maggedon, and two earthquakes. Yet none of those events accomplished what the COVID-19 global pandemic has: civilisation has ground to a halt.”
In parts of the majority world like Africa, India and Latin America, they are only now feeling the full effect of the virus. We in the West, meanwhile, are gearing up for life after Covid. A life which of course will not be without Covid. It may even have to cope with a second wave. But with the arrival of a vaccine next year, we’re looking at a return to some kind of normal.
As for the Church in the West, the post lockdown stage is perhaps more complex and difficult to get right, than the much more clearly defined lockdown stage.
Lansdowne organised a simple survey a few weeks ago to assess the appetite for change and risk among us as a Church Community. *You can read the assimilated analysis of that here ( link ).
Our next steps will be informed by those responses, among other things. Not the least being the Government’s Guidelines which seem to have more updates than an Apple IOS operating system!
But I want to step back and take a wide angled view of the things we have learned and what we might do well to take with us into whatever the future has in store.
Church 101 – its nature and purpose.
It’s been helpful, even if uncomfortable, over the last four months, to be forced back to basics, to have to define again the nature of Church.
I saw a social media picture of Christians serving in their community wearing t-shirts that said “The church has left the building.” As much as it’s easy to say the church was never a building, for centuries we’ve behaved as though it was. Church is the place you go to once a week. Where for an hour or so, you sing songs, hear a message, say a few prayers, have a drink, go home and repeat the whole thing all over again the following week!
Yet, theologically, there’s almost no Christian who would seriously argue that the church can only be a church if it meets in a building. If that is so, then how come we have ended up with a stereotypical view of Church where the Great Commission of Jesus, to go and make disciples, has turned into” come and be a consumer of religious rituals”?
There are lots of historical reasons for that. But here’s a confession. We have allowed, in the Western Church anyway, a model of discipleship to be embedded
which has relied too heavily upon the infrastructure of facilities to be maintained and a centrally organised programme of activities to be provided by, in the case of larger Churches, a professionally trained Staff.
Now, don’t mishear the confession. This is not an argument against buildings, paid Staff and a range of programmes for all ages and stages. Properly used, all these can be the means to the end of generating healthy, resilient disciples of Jesus. The problem with the inherited model is that it can become a bureaucratic, committee ridden, institutional monster, which we have to keep feeding financially and which actually produces over fed Christians who don’t know how to feed themselves.
I do wonder sometimes whether the leaders of the early church that met in homes, hallways, basements and lounges, would recognise the standard Church set up today.
Please hear me right, gathering Christians is critical. We are not a group of random individuals who believe a set of propositions and go about our daily lives independent from each other and the community which shares them.
What Covid 19 has done is confront us with the challenge of mission and discipleship, when all the typical support structures no longer apply. And if we get the response to that right, we could be onto the biggest spiritual win in a generation.
We’ve been re -learning how small and local can be adaptable and responsive to need. The great example of this for us has been the way that our mission on the Townsend estate has developed in lockdown. The church community there has been enhanced through their proximity to each other and their capacity to help local need, through local people.
The same lessons though are being learned across all our smaller scale ministries and groups. As we organise the Church for healthy growth based around household discipleship, local neighbour mission, one to one walks for prayer and study, cluster connections, we could actually emerge stronger, post-pandemic
Christians who realise they are the church will have a much bigger long term impact than Christians who simply go to church or consume content.
As much as we say it’s not true, there’s a nagging sense among many church leaders than unless the building is open, the church isn’t. If we’re actually going to reach people, that mind set has to change.
The Hybrid Model Church
The Church of the future will be both digital and analogue, virtual and physical. However much the wider social and work structures return to the pre Covid normal,
the digital revolution is here to stay. And that means a Church like ours will need both an online presence as well as an in person experience of worship.
Although, I suspect, that once we are able to gather again in larger numbers without having to wear face masks and sit socially distant from each other, but can sing, drink and talk together, most of us will realise the uniquely powerful experience of embodied worship. We will want to be there rather than sat at home watching a screen every Sunday.
The truth is that the Online world had already begun to change the way we organise life, long before a virus closed all offices, theatres and places of worship. In fact one of the most frequently observed features of the pandemic, is that the crisis has simply accelerated and amplified change rather than created it.
So, for example, many of us had already transitioned to shopping online. The traditional town centre retail trade had begun to feel the effects of these new consumer habits years ago. That had also started to be the case for remote working and worship habits. We will see how much of those aspects of life boomerang back to the way they were. But I reckon a lot of that change is here to stay.
And on that we can look positively. For a hybrid church model, that is both online and in person, is an exceptional opportunity, especially to reach a new audience.
I regard many of those who have come to watch our services to be rather like Zaccheus who, in the gospel, climbed a tree to see and not be seen. Of course eventually such people need to invite Jesus into their homes, but the initial encounter is at a safe distance.
The lesson here is that Churches that over focus on their facilities and central programmes, run the risk of becoming like shopping centres in the age of Amazon, taxis in the age of Uber, or cable TV in the age of Netflix, Disney+ and YouTube.
The value of patience and the danger of division during the in between times
Over the last month, I’ve listened carefully to hundreds of Christians from all manner of traditions as they have expressed their fears and frustrations for the Church as an organisation during this strange in between phase.
We have been wrestling with a near-constant array of complex challenges related to the pandemic. The latest of which is perhaps the trickiest yet: how to wisely resume in-person gatherings.
The whole conversation is fraught with potential for division. If a congregation—and within it, a leadership team—is at all a microcosm of our larger society, it will likely contain a broad assortment of strongly held convictions. Some will be eager to meet
in person and impatient to wait much longer to get back to normal. Others will insist it’s unwise to meet at all until there’s a vaccine. Plenty will fall somewhere in between.
Patience is one of the rarest virtues in today’s insta-everything world. And yet patience has rarely been more needed.
We should long and pray for the day when “church on Zoom” gives way to “church in a room.” That day will come. But we should be careful to not rush it. To not go faster than governments allow, or faster than those in our community can understand. We need patience when the reopening process will be clunky; patience with one another as we figure out the new normal. As hard as it will be to practice patience, remember that in the scheme of eternity this season—whether it’s months long or years—will be but a blip.
Lessons for Leaders
God has impressed upon me so many lessons from lockdown. One of them was how to be a leader when you are not in control! For a leader that is one of the most disturbing features of this paralysing world.
We watched helplessly as human contact was abandoned. Handshakes and hugs were/ are out; elbow bumps were/ are in. Our cities emptied, our marketplaces were deserted, and our churches (buildings!) unused.
So here are a few lessons from the new Leadership Playbook.
Lesson one, how to look as though you know what you are doing when you haven’t got a clue!
Lesson two. Vulnerability is part of life. Michael Rosen, the children’s author, who spent seven weeks on a ventilator and in an induced coma because of Covid 19, told listeners to the Today programme on Radio 4, that he felt feeble and lopsided.
He reflected that the experience had shown him that vulnerability was a part of life not separate from it. Of course for many vulnerability is for wimps. An admission of weakness is just weakness.
Nietzche the philosopher railed against what he perceived to be the praise of weakness as practised in Christianity. He went ballistic at the Apostle Paul’s comment that God chose the weak things of the world. What kind of God would do that?
The God and Father or our Lord Jesus, that’s who! The Jesus whose embracing of weakness on the cross was an act of power. Of course suffering, of which the cross of Christ is the epitome, is a mysterious given in our world. But sometimes it appears to be given to people disproportionately. Covid cases and deaths here in Dorset have been small in comparison to the favelas of Brazil.
But all suffering and the vulnerability it brings has to be faced. We can’t avoid suffering, we have to endure it. And to do that together as a Church community is preferable to facing it alone.
We are, as church, rather like that family in Michael Rosen’s most popular children’s book, “We are going on a bear hunt”. When they encounter trouble along the way, they realise that “We can’t go over it, we can’t go round it, we can’t go under it, oh no, we’ve got to go through it. “
I’ve learned that over these last months and have been very grateful for a team of Staff and Trustees who have joined me in the vulnerability of going through the tunnel of chaos together.
Leadership Lesson three. The Church exists for those who are not yet its members.
Churches focused only on those who are already attending have been on the brink of extinction for a long time. Gone is the day when people just showed up to church because they felt a certain amount of obligation to be there.
Models that rely on just passing church from one generation to the next and not reaching out to see new people come to the faith are not living in the real world anymore.
Churches that reach out to people who are truly disconnected from the message of Jesus will win the day long term. Provided that they are committed to making disciples and not just a new bunch of consumers.
If we are more worried about the “keep” than the “reach,” we will find ourselves increasingly marginalised and unable to survive what comes next.
The local church has always been the only organisation in the world whose sole mission is to serve those people who are not connected yet. Churches that get that mission backwards won’t recover from Covid 19.
Church closures are as likely as the closure of shops and restaurants because of the economic impact of the virus. The worst recession in a generation is bound to be a threat to the church coffers. But it also represents an opportunity. One which, in terms of Lansdowne, we had already identified before going into lockdown – Online, electronic giving.
This was the way things were heading and once more the crisis has accelerated the change.
I remember the first time I saw a contactless payment hand machine in a Church welcome area next to the Danish pastries! It made the point, not so subtly, that though the pastry and coffee was of good quality and free, someone was paying for it! Giving by mobile phone texting, Apple Pay, as well as pressing the donate button on a website, are not the future, they are the present!
We’ve been able to mitigate some of the negative impact of four months of non basket offerings, which across a year, normally average out to £1000 a week; by encouraging online giving. And as I write, we have been able to manage the budget to date, quite well, because with income just about holding it’s own, our expenditure has been smaller than planned.
If this trend continues, then we hope to be able to see out the year in better shape than we thought possible in April. However, it’s not perhaps this year but next where the real financial impact will be felt.
But right now, two encouragements stand out. Firstly, the way that the promises of Interest Free loans and previous pledges to the Building Project, which had been made before Covid 19, have held up. It has been moving to see that, in spite of the uncertainty, people have continued to give generously and sacrificially.
The second thing has been the setting up of a Global Fund which will enable us to respond financially to some of the huge needs there are in the world right now.
I have always believed that God honours those who keep making the last, the least and the lost a focus of their praying, giving and going.
Lesson five. Trend v Tradition. Style v Substance.
Whether a church had an online service prior to the Covid shutdown, there was a novelty to online church all of us experienced.
I remember the buzz of the first few weeks, especially because Sian and I found ourselves operating in a broadcast world with which we had some familiarity. And of course as a Church we already had an Online Church Community platform up and running.
What happened nationally is that Church online went from being one option to being the only option. So a surge of interest and viewing figures that were in the thousands, wasn’t that surprising.
Nor was the novelty when it began to wear off. Two months into lockdown, research identified that whereas, at the beginning, 80 % of regular church goers joined the online experience of their church, by month three that had dropped to 50%. More than that, people began to migrate to the Churches that really did Online worship
well. I think that suggests that in the end, however good the Online experience, it’s never going to replace the “ real “ thing.
Also the digital, You Tube world, is designed for life in a highly individualised, consumer culture. And if you feed the consumer with a product, then most people will behave like consumers.
The Christian faith, of course, is neither about novelty or consumption. And one of the Leadership challenges of these weeks has been about not chasing the numbers. Improving the “ product “ yes, but not at the expense of the content. Style may attract people, but substance keeps them. We need to resist the idea that newer is truer, that only what is recent is decent.
We have had to learn the importance of trusting the Word of God to do its often hidden work in hearts and lives. One of the most difficult things to measure during this crazy time, is what is actually going on. It’s impossible to know. Anecdotal evidence is all well and good, as are the number of Online service views, likes and dislikes for a You Tube video.
But in the Gospel, the sower just keeps scattering the seed. All by itself, whether the sower is awake or asleep the seed grows, though he does not know how!
Lesson Five. There’s no going back. When you consider what’s been set in motion during the pandemic: from working from home, the rush to digital, a damaged economy, massive unemployment, the re-emergence of regional governance, deeply restricted travel, the instability of entire industries, and, of course, the virus itself, to think that life is going to simply go back to the way it was, is not a wise projection.
The world we are now in is the result of disruption not interruption. With an interruption you go back to the way things were eventually. With a disruption, things are never the same. I’m not sure I want to go back anyway to the way things were.
The best question to ask in a disruption is “What does this make possible?”
And as much as it’s easy to focus on loss, we need to focus on what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown and what we’ve gained.
We have gained a deeper view of God hopefully. The God of the storm who controls it and will bring us through it. We have gained, again hopefully, greater understanding of what makes, matures and mobilises disciples. And maybe to that extent, we have exposed our past failures in this area.
Crisis doesn’t create failure, it accelerates it. As hard as it is to admit, this crisis has been revealing what was already there among us. If people went into lockdown with a fairly disengaged attitude to Church, that has been amplified. Conversely, if people
were really part of the Church family, they have probably grown even more committed.
As for the future, well, it’s both digital and physical. Retailers were having this debate two decades ago. Interestingly enough, the retailers who have stayed ahead of trends quickly realized that “clicks lead to bricks”. In other words, the best way to keep their stores growing is to have a really effective internet presence.
Crisis is an accelerator. Nobody knows that better than the Church right now. Crisis forces you to do things you previously thought about doing and put off.
It moves you to do things you’d never thought you’d do (like move to video teaching in some cases). And it pushes you into massive change you never signed up for. What’s making it more complicated is that as much as you wish things would just go back to normal, they won’t. At least not exactly as they were.
To be clear: just because real-life counts doesn’t mean online doesn’t, and just because online counts doesn’t mean real-life doesn’t. They both matter. And that is something we are going to have to reflect upon as we contemplate the exciting opening of our new centre for Christian Mission at Lansdowne Road.
This once in a generation moment is only a year away and we need to start getting ready for it.
I have often reflected on the many possible reasons for the delays we have experienced throughout the Building project. The one that sums it all up is “ we were not ready “.
God knew that. So He set about refining us and our faith. Covid 19 has done us a service. For, like the delays to the Building Project, it’s been a good indicator of who is really with us. Faith and the family of God has been tested, tried and purified.
There’s also the mystery of timing. God knew a pandemic was on the way. God knew what that would do to the culture of an entire generation. So now we can truly prepare for a digital and physical future and for a mission to a world very different to any we have known before. I’m not sure that we would have had the same incentive to get ready or the room to manouevere if we were already in the new building.
Once the dust settles a bit in this crisis, I believe we’ll discover an amazing truth: digital (Online Church) scales in a way analogue (in person church) doesn’t. It transcends geography, physical and time barriers. I don’t believe it’s the finishing point of mission. But it’s a starting point. That’s because it can be easier for someone to start a connection online than in real life. And, if done well, the digital can point people to real-life experiences: groups, weekend gatherings, personal connections—all of which are necessary and vital to life.
Digital just helps you reach more people more quickly. Church online will continue to grow as a front door for the curious, the skeptic and the interested. It will be their first stop, a temporary resting place for people who are a little too afraid to jump in until they muster the courage to jump in through physical attendance,
So here’s to the new world. For as is true in all aspects of Christian faith, the best is yet to be!
Peter Baker | Senior Minister