Coronavirus – how can churches respond?
Many say the world will never be the same again. They say we will experience a new normal after a season of intense disruption. They say that life as we know it now, will change forever.
That is all likely to be true. As a society, we are bracing ourselves for changes around lack, loss and suffering. Businesses will suffer, the economy will suffer, human beings will suffer. These are unprecedented times. However, whilst lack, loss and suffering must never be minimised and will be real and felt at many levels for many people, there might, perhaps, be some beautiful changes to our way of life, that we haven’t yet considered. Some changes that might be for the common good. Some changes that might actually create the context for another Great Awakening.
So, what might change? Well, right now we have an epidemic that is less talked about than coronavirus; the epidemic of loneliness in our neighbourhoods. The number of people living alone in the UK has surpassed 8 million. This has been driven by significant increases in 45- to 64-year old women and 65- to 74-year old men living alone.
One of the responses to the outbreak of the virus, inspired by something Ann Clifford shared at the Pioneer Leaders Conference, has been for many of us to put notes through the doors of local neighbours to say ‘let’s support each other at this time’. Neighbourhood WhatsApp groups have been forming in the last week, so that the vulnerable, elderly or those with symptoms who are self isolating, can stay in touch with neighbours, can post requests for shopping, a listening ear or even a simple meal. Christians are becoming the catalysts for community building in their streets. We are learning the names of people who were just faces before. We are decrying fear, individualism and disconnection and creating community cohesion. We are building friendships with those God has placed around us. If it’s true that the best way to share our faith is to share our lives, then we’re beginning to share our lives with our neighbours in a way that hasn’t happened before – certainly not in my lifetime. Jesus said ‘Love Your Neighbour’. Let’s just do it. We will find that it creates rich soil for the seeds of the gospel to be sown.
What else might change? Right now, families spend very little time together. Very often, both parents are out at work and children are at nursery, school or college. When families are all at home together, under the same roof, it’s common to find they are all on their own screens. Today, the stats tell us that 50% of young people brought up in christian families don’t follow Jesus into adulthood. It’s not just a stat. It’s a huge Kingdom loss that needs to be reversed in order to see young firebrands from christian homes carry the torch of revival into their schools and colleges. Deut 6 v 6-7 says “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Perhaps we might be given a gift of extra time together as families to create new habits and rhythms to reconnect and actually talk about the things that really matter? Now is a fresh chance to make home the primary place of spiritual formation.
As sporting fixtures are being cancelled, many parents, perhaps especially dads, have time that is suddenly freed up. Travel with work is likely to be reduced, again freeing up time. Workplaces may begin to recommend working from home. Nurseries, schools and colleges might be closed for a season.
I wonder what might happen if we thought about the unexpected gift of more time together as families, from God’s perspective? What if we were woken up to creating new habits of emotional connection between parents and children that led to more opportunities to tell the God stories to the next generation? What could be the memories you create with your children with this unexpected time together? Is there something you could make, create or build, a project that could be achieved together that would be a lasting memory of this time together? What could be the changes made to everyday routines? If no-one has to be at work or school before 9am what about….slower breakfasts, reading a bit of the bible and chatting about it together? What could be the fun ideas that would take your children by surprise like….making an indoor den and then all sleeping in it and making shadow puppets to tell stories to each other? Or a walk at midnight to see nocturnal animals at play? Children who enjoy their parents’ company are more likely to enjoy their parent’s faith.
Could a Great Awakening begin in our homes, with families reconnecting, parents having the time, the relational connection and the confidence to actually share their faith with their children and having the privilege of praying significant life-defining prayers with their children and then actively discipling them in the ways of Christ to be a revival generation.
Finally, the church will have to change. We instinctively resist the idea of creating consumers, often encouraging many pathways to serve so that we all get to contribute and church isn’t something done to you or for you. And yet…..for many of us, our churches started off as house churches, small, flexible communities with deep discipleship and missional effectiveness. And then, over time, many have grown and developed. Maybe there’s paid leaders and staff now, maybe there’s an array of programmes and ministries that equip church members now, maybe there’s a building to maintain now. We know that mission should be the organising principle of the church…. but is it still? To the same extent it used to be? What would happen if corporate gatherings were paused for a season? If we had no venue to gather in, no band to lead us in worship, no gifted communicators to unpack scripture to us? What if we were left with small groups of people who just had the word of God, the empowering of the Holy Spirit and a mission: to make disciples of their neighbourhoods? Would it be enough? I think so. Perhaps it’s exactly what is needed to change the mindset of every Christ follower from consumer to empowered disciple maker, so that leading others to Christ wasn’t just the experience of the ‘professionals’ or the ‘evangelists’ it was the experience of the many.
So, there will be changes, for sure. But they won’t all be negative. This next season will be hard, inconvenient, and for some, like our NHS legends, hugely demanding. But underneath all that, the changes could also be beautiful, relationally enriching and spiritually significant as we contend for the next Great Awakening.