Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am
persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What will the Church, and especially our churches, look like after Covid-19? As I am writing this, there is so much uncertainty about every aspect of life right now; I don’t think anyone could have predicted what the world would look like a few weeks ago and certainly my ministerial training never covered what we do in situations such as we have experienced over the last few weeks and months. And whilst most of us are trying to stay safe in our homes and so much of what can be called ‘normal life’ is on hold, there will come a time (yes, it will) when the lockdown is over, the fear is past and the church doors will be open again. But what will we find?
We have all seen disasters in the recent past: 9/11, 7/7, foot and mouth, Grenfell Tower, terror attacks on our streets as well as the economic crash of the late 2000s and many others all come to mind. This is on top of other local disasters. Wildfires, floods, tsunamis and earthquakes are a regular part of our life here on earth and if these disasters don’t directly affect us or our friends and family, they tend to fade into the background and soon be forgotten. Covid-19 is not such an event – this is affecting every single one of us and will not be forgotten easily.
One thing that has traditionally followed from such disasters is an upturn in church attendance. I remember vividly the days following the nightmare that took place in New York on 11 September 2001 when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit. During those next few weeks of my first ministry, I remember seeing news reports with images of churches holding candlelight vigils. The pews were packed; people were searching for answers – the type of answers that science does not have. But I think this time it will be different. This time, the church buildings that we love so
much have not been able to be open and we have had to find different ways of ‘being church’.
In the past, the Church was one of the places that people began to look for answers. I don’t think that we have been particularly good at answering these questions. It’s not because we don’t have good answers but in general people don’t particularly want to hear our answers. And now, the culture has changed.
As secularisation has increased, church attendance has dropped. The younger the age group, the larger the percentage of those that do not identify with a specific religion. It’s no longer expected that people will go to church. In fact, Church is now counter-culture. You are a bit strange if you do go to church.
So there has arisen a growing belief that the answer to all our problems is the Government. I’ve noticed a trend with this crisis in particular. We want every answer to every problem and issue now. Right now! In a way it has mirrored the debate over climate change. There seems to be a growing belief that the only solution to all our problems is government of whatever colour.
The younger generations are deeply concerned with injustice. This is a great thing! Where I think they miss a step is in thinking that the Government is always the answer to every problem. There are things that the Government does very well – and there are things that they don’t handle so well. This is not having a go at the Government; no institution can be all things to all people. Like the Church, governments have been caught out this time.
I have thought for a long time that the Church has not handled technology and change in general well. Digital hymnals, words on screen and songs from YouTube have not always gone down well, and as for asking you to move seats in church – well, I think we are seeing all this play out now. Many smaller churches (and many older ministers) have never considered holding an online service and are now in the difficult position of trying to learn how to do so. We have had to discover Zoom and Skype and home delivery shopping. In the middle of a disaster this is probably not the ideal time to learn how to do these things.
Many, many people will miss the interactions with other people that has happened before and after Sunday worship, and at coffee mornings and lunch clubs, and this affects especially our older generations, but there will be a percentage that find they actually enjoy staying home and watching worship online. If they don’t like a hymn or the sermon, simply play fast forward and get to the good bits! People that may have never considered doing so in the past may now make this their preferred worship method.
Now, don’t worry, I am in good spirits. I have never really worried about church attendance apart from what it means for ministerial scoping. I know that there will continue to be a reduction in church attendance as it becomes less and less popular in our society to be labelled as a Christian, and it is probably a good thing and a healthy thing. Those who come to church simply because it is what is expected, or have always done will fall away. But even though our numbers will be reduced, those who are left will be stronger.
In our ‘online meet ups’ I have been hearing of many good things that have been happening within the church community. Daily phone calls to isolated individuals (not just churchgoers) discovering that ‘so and so’ has a really great sense of humour, delivering food parcels and standing outside our front doors applauding those who struggle to help us. If you have a moment (probably a daft question), read up in the Book of Acts how the first Christians behaved. Yes, we have found new ways of gathering in our homes, of sharing meals, of worship.
The church buildings have been left empty for very good reasons and there will be celebrations when we can gather together again in corporate worship, but I don’t think we will go back to how we were before.
Those of us that remain will not fear being outcasts. We will not crumble when society wants us to bend to its will. We will not break when persecuted. The truth will be spoken boldly by us. And when the promises of a broken world fail to deliver, we will be there waiting with love and compassion.
I want to end this rather longer than usual message with some words written for another community who were in transition, moving from one place to another, one reality to another, and let them be a reminder to us all of God’s presence and purpose for us as a community of believers ….
But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Saviour. I gave Egypt as your ransom … because you are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.’ [Isaiah 43:1-4a, adapted].
Sit quietly with these words for a bit, then perhaps read them again replacing the names of Jacob and Israel with your own name. Then after another quiet time, read the text again and put your church’s name in place of Jacob / Israel.
God bless, and keep safe