Coronavirus and the Churches: Time to Pivot Again

At the end of March, hundreds of British churches switched overnight to running online Sunday services in response to the national lockdown imposed by the Government. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on churches was sudden and dramatic.

At the end of June, as the lockdown begins to gradually be lifted, has the time come for British churches to pivot again? Not this time back to congregational Sunday services - which remain banned under the terms of the emergency powers granted in the Coronavirus Act 2020 - but to much smaller expressions of church, meeting outdoors. With groups of six in England (or eight in Scotland) now being able to gather outdoors at a social distance, is it now time for churches to put their energies not into Zoom meetings but into multiple face-to-face gatherings in much smaller numbers?

Photo by Nandhu Kumar from Pexels

The case for a rapid pivot to smaller expressions of church could be made on several grounds:

  • The people of God desperately need face-to-face fellowship. From the point of view of pastoral care alone, most Christians and church leaders would agree that it is desirable that we see each other in real life in order to enjoy fellowship. Where this has not been possible, we are grateful for tools of technology that can at least provide some measure of human contact. The ideal, however, remains a gathered church in person - the body of Christ in the flesh (so to speak). Where two or three gather in his name, Christ is present in the midst.

  • The opportunity is safe and easy to implement. Just as creative minds were quickly able to apply practical solutions to running online Sunday services, we can now quickly move to weekly small gatherings of church members outdoors. These can take place in parks, gardens, on beaches and in the urban environment - anywhere outdoors where people will not be competing with traffic. We can limit the numbers and maintain social distance so that the gatherings are safe and comply with the law. A typical church of 100 members could expect to launch between 10 and 15 such groups next week. 

  • Traditional church services may not be possible till 2021. Research is showing that indoor groups of people are high-risk for covid transmission. Activities such as singing and physical contact increase this risk further. Pubs and nightclubs are high-risk environments; church services are not far behind in terms of their capacity to spread the virus between members. The outbreak in Korea was initially centred around a church. In Germany, churches have been able to partly reopen but congregational singing is banned (!) Against this backdrop, are church leaders genuinely committed to running Zoom services for another 12 months or more? And if a vaccine is never found, what then? Do we have a plan for socially-distanced indoor church services that provide the level of fellowship that Christians need or want?

  • Small groups at their best can be effective in disciple-making. In his compelling book John Wesley's Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples, Michael Henderson demonstrates the genius of the early Methodist movement in its ability to transform the lives of urban working class members who had been largely neglected by the established church. At the heart of this process was not only public preaching but a highly-developed ecosystem of close discipleship centred on the class meeting. It is fashionable in some middle-class churches to downplay the small group. The reality, however, is that there has never been a gospel-centred movement in modern British history that has made disciples of the urban poor as effectively as early Methodism. It is interesting that Wesley's class meetings, gathering weekly for fellowship, personal accountability and mutual instruction, were limited to six members each - the same number currently permitted to gather outdoors in England under current lockdown measures.  

  • Small groups would benefit from input from equipping leadership. Just as the Jerusalem apostles taught 'publicly and from house to house', the small expressions of church that could start outdoors tomorrow should be accessible and accountable to those with gifts to teach, equip and serve the members. If there were no longer a need for church leaders to be planning, running and evaluating online services, could their time and energy not be better spent visiting a small group most days to support and give input? Again, in a church of 100 members, a full-time leadership team of two could realistically visit the 10 to 15 small groups almost every week if they wanted. The modern Wesleyian circuit rider already exists and is probably sitting in an office planning the online Sunday service. A pivot to a radical small group model would be possible, if there were a will to do it. 

  • Small groups can sustain mission. I would not suggest that these groups of six to eight should try and replicate church services; nor should they be focused on the seeker. But, by nurturing the believers and providing fellowship and accountability, they can help to sustain Christians in their ongoing life as witnesses for Christ in their homes, families, streets and places of work. These opportunities are multiplying during the current pandemic.  There is no reason of course why those with the gifts to do so could not also start small groups for seekers that meet outdoors at a social distance. 

  • The summer months provide a window of opportunity. Although June is looking a bit sketchy weather-wise in Britain, at least we are not yet facing the pandemic in January. By starting an outdoor small group ecosystem now - this week - churches can refine and learn best practice while it is still dry-ish. We can then also plan creatively for the autumn and beyond. Two principles that may help this process are time flexibility and creativity. As the weather turns, groups should plan to meet between rain showers or on dry-ish days, rather than being restricted to a rigid weekly time slot. This of course is easy to do with only six people. We can also learn from pubs which have responded to the ban on indoor smoking by implementing new ways of defining 'outdoors' through the legal and judicious use of gazebos and awnings.   

I'm ready to pivot. How about you? 

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