COVID-19: The learning challenge

COVID-19: The learning challenge

No-one can believe how much has changed in church life in the last few weeks: changes in how we are at mission and service in the world, gather for worship, and support one another pastorally in community.  Among the multitude of challenges, many of us have suddenly learned how to stream worship online and meet via Zoom.

The BIG learning challenge before us is not just what we need to do during the COVID-19 crisis, but recognising that we will never return to old normal.  While, yes, a time will come when all movement and gathering restrictions are lifted, we will have formed new habits in how we act and connect in lots of different ways.  What can we learn NOW that will enable us to be more effective in mission and service, worship and belonging, in the coming years?  Here are some examples to think about:

Many congregations have experienced “virtual church growth”.  By this I mean that congregations who are live-streaming worship are finding that their online attendance is far greater than their usual face-to-face congregations.  It is critically important to decide how to relate to those people after the C-19 period is over.  Of course some may be members of other congregations and are just viewing out of convenience or curiosity, so will re-engage with their previous congregations.  However there will be many who will have come to see your worship as THEIR worship.  I encourage Church Councils, elders and ministry agents to begin to think about how to engage these new potential members post-C-19.  Here is a model of how people join churches which may help in becoming more intentional:

  • Contact: Examples are attending worship (including online at the moment), going to an event at church such as a garage sale or concert, attending a funeral or wedding.  People usually have to have had a number of different contacts to begin to have a sense of connection.
  • Connection: A lot of churches think that they have connections to individuals and the community when they just have contacts.  Connections arise when people are involved in more than one thing.  For instance, if people go to a group after having been to worship, or are invited to coffee or a meal.  NOW is the time to think about how to grow connection with people we are contacting online.  Will you invite them to a face-to-face gathering when these are possible?  Will you set up online groups for these people to connect virtually?  Will you invite them to lead in worship online now as a foundation for the future, even if just Bible reading or having a way to collect prayer points?
  • Belonging: Only after people have had multiple connections will they have a sense of belonging.  This is when our church becomes THEIR church.  Not achieving belonging is the point when, if people don’t feel that they are accepted as a part of the whole, they will drift away.  It’s a common experience in “ordinary” church for newcomers to attend for six months, and the congregation to think that they have joined, but for them then to drift away because their connections have only been with individuals.  Congregations need to ensure that newcomers are fully integrated into systems of pastoral care and the life of the community.
  • Leading/Serving: This is the final stage of the joining cycle.  Newcomers are now able to contribute in meaningful ways.  This is not the same as putting them on a roster!  This is when people’s gifts have been recognised and released.  No longer newcomers, these recently-joined members are now providing contacts and connections to others.

Now is the time to ask yourself how to move on-line contacts through connection and into belonging.  Even if you are not doing online worship, make sure that you re-engage fringe and new members you had before we had to cease gathering.  Developing these habits post-C-19 will help our gatherings and groups to be more intentional and missional long-term.

Continuing online

Apart from the question of growing connection and belonging with online participants in worship, as many congregations have developed great ways of doing on-line worship, another question is “what next?”.  Even when we return to gathering face-to-face, we might find that more online presence of worship will be valuable to continue as a way of reaching far beyond the gathered community.

What really matters? 

As we have had to go back to basics in worship and pastoral care, it’s prompted us to ask what really matters.  As one minister said to me, what is it that people treasure in worship, not just “this is what we always do”.  This may also be about “less is more” –  dare I say that people are making their on-line sermons and reflections much shorter than face-to-face.  Maybe that’s a habit to continue: have people fully engaged for a shorter time, rather than tuning in and out for  longer time.  This also applies to groups and activities.  While everything is in recess, not everything could or should resume.  What are the most important things to resume, and just as vitally, what new things should we start in place of many of the old?

Pastoral care

Many congregations have actually strengthened this through more active phone calls, better lists, etc. Hopefully this has included incorporating fringe and new members better than in the past through being more intentional.  How will we take these new ways forward?

Social Media

A lot of congregations, groups and individuals are also increasing their use of Facebook and other social media.  I have written a “Social Media How-to” with helpful hints.  Here is another brief recent article which talks about what posts get most responses, which in turns make them more likely to show up in people’s feeds.  (The sort answer is: posts that ask for an action AND/OR use humour.)

Meetings, meetings, meetings

We have been doing so many meetings by Zoom!  While sometimes exhausting through their intensity, they are often more productive through being focussed and saving travel time.  They also help save time the planet through reduced travel and thus emissions.  This is a habit we will take forward.


Many congregations have increased the proportion of their people who give by direct debit.  This a good strategy for long-term sustainability, long after COVID-19, especially in a world where “regular” attendance is monthly. Even more, as many experts are predicting that COVID-19 will be end of cash, with almost all transactions going to contactless.  We can’t expect people to arrive in church with more than loose change which they might have been going to spend at a sausage sizzle.  Contact Uniting Financial Services (UFS) for more information.

In what I have written I have offered both questions and suggestions.  Fundamentally, we have to consider not just what to do over the coming few months, but how we will do things differently after the Coronavirus.  Things will not return to the old normal.

Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane is Presbytery Ministry Leader for Parramatta Nepean Presbytery


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