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5 Principles for Thinking Through a Return to Church

Seven months ago, when COVID hit our nation and shut the doors of churches all across the globe, there was, for the church, perhaps one dominant question which reverberated throughout church teams: ‘What does it mean, now, to be the church?’ That is, what does it mean for us to be the gathered people of God around the Word of God when we cannot physically gather?

Now, as the doors of our buildings open again, the question remains.

Here are five principles for church leaders and church teams to consider as they wrestle with the question of how to now, be the church in this season:

1. Physical proximity of members primary to church.

i. Physical proximity and church

When we speak of physical gatherings, we are speaking of what theologians have described as the visible church, as opposed to the invisible church—that is, the gathered assembly of the church on earth, gathered around the Word, not the invisible and spiritual gathering of God’s people in heaven.

The visible church, in this sense, comes into existence every time that a physical church service takes place. This physical gathering has been a significant feature of the corporate identity of God’s people throughout the ages and marks out the church as the church in the world. As we gather, God is among us, and he is manifest to the world.

ii. Physical proximity a proclamation of our salvation

Our physical proximity to one another anticipates the new creation where the spiritual and the physical come together in perfect unity.

This physicality says something of our anthropology—that is, what it means to be human. It signals the significance of our bodies to our personal identity and communal connectivity. It also says something profound of our soteriology: it says that our salvation is not just spiritual (that is, excluding non-physical existence), it involves our whole selves—including our bodies.

Thus, as we smile at, walk into church with, sing with, pray with, listen to the Word and share the sacraments with our brothers and sisters, we are displaying, and reminding each other of, the nature of our salvation which has united our body to Christ and the church. Indeed, together, we are the body of Christ. We are one in him. Furthermore, our physical proximity to one another anticipates the new creation where the spiritual and the physical come together in perfect unity.

iii. Implications for church

What are the implications of this? This may sound basic, but if we are making the effort to go ‘back to church’ then—given the church we speak of is the visible church on earth—we must prioritise the physical as much as we are allowed. Where there are multiple models of ‘church’ possible, we choose one which will maximise the opportunities for physical connection and engagement.

It would be a shame to go to all the effort to organise a form of physical gathering and find that it doesn’t really provide the opportunity to make best use of our new physical freedoms. 1.5 metres distance is a distance, yes, but just because I can’t rub shoulders with someone doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful opportunities to enjoy being (1.5 metres) close. Similarly, just because I need to wear a face mask doesn’t mean there isn’t a great power in looking someone in the eyes while they are speaking or watching their body language while they talk.

2. Recreating, not returning.

There are endless possibilities for joy and blessing in this new mode of church if we can let go of the old.

In our return to church it is important to remember that as long as COVID is part of our lives, we are not returning to what was. With limitations on the way we greet one another, on the distance between church members which we will need to uphold, on the need for facemasks, and with gathering numbers capped, church is not, and cannot be, what was. I am not saying that the nature and identity of church has fundamentally changed, but the mode of church available to us has.

This is hard and may mean that our first experience of church will be disappointing. We will have to let go before we are able to create and to enjoy something new.

For those of us with leadership roles, this means we will have to work to gently and lovingly lead our church teams and members through this process. We will have to think freely and creatively as we recreate our gatherings. We will need to consider new and innovative ways to engage in person when post-service mingling isn’t allowed. We will need to work to recreate a sense of celebration and worship when everyone is wearing facemasks and we can’t sing.

There are endless possibilities for joy and blessing in this new mode of church if we can let go of the old.

3. The power of normalisation.

Prolonged disruption of these rhythms can create feelings or experiences of anxiety, sadness, loss, isolation … any return to ‘normal’, is likely to be beneficial.

That said, there is much power in what psychologists sometimes term ‘normalisation’. Normalisation is engagement in the ‘normal’ (often taken for granted) rhythms of life. Prolonged disruption of these rhythms can create feelings or experiences of anxiety, sadness, loss, isolation, and other negative emotions. For good or for ill we are ‘creatures of habit’ who find a sense of stability and identity in the repeated rhythms or habits in life.

This means that any return to ‘normal’, is likely to be beneficial. For example, if we can meet in the normal location or building that we did pre-COVID, that would be a powerful experience for many. Personally, I long to walk up the escalators of Melbourne Central to Hoyts again where our church meets, to walk up the ramp towards cinema 11 and to walk into a gathering of God’s people. Perhaps my church can provide that—or you can create your equivalent normal.

This principal may at times feel in tension to the principal of letting go of the old and stepping in to the new. And at times, it may well be. But it is important tension to keep in place. At times, it will bless to recreate rather than return, and at times it will bless to return rather than to recreate.

4. You can’t achieve everything.

Unavoidably, whatever we set up will be a deficient expression of church.

For those in Sydney where congregations are not allowed to sing, for example, this deficiency manifests in restrictions on singing. For as long as the Church has existed, singing has been a fundamental expression of our identity in God, as well as a means of communion with God and with each other.

  • There will be other deficiencies:
  • not having the freedom to mingle;
  • not being able to share food after church;
  • not being able to hug, or to greet someone with a handshake;
  • having to leave a gap between ourselves and the next person in our pew, where we’d usually signal them to move in close.

Yet, while we cannot do everything, there is more than we can do when we gather in a COVID safe expression of church, than if we were not meeting. So, if we choose to gather, we will need to be okay with deficiency. We will need to be okay with what we can’t achieve, embrace what we can, and thank God for the wins.

5. Free to choose.

As we make the most of physical proximity; as we recreate rather than return and return rather than recreate; and as we learn to be content with the achievable over the ideal, we are likely to find that there are multiple options rather ‘one right way.‘

So we will have to must make choices; choices about:

  • the regularity of our gatherings;
  • the size and location of our gatherings;
  • whether to gather in one place or to create smaller gatherings in multiple places;
  • how to deal with restrictions on corporate singing—will we listen to live music or recorded music etc.
  • whether to make all elements of our service live, or to utilise some forms of digital service within our physical gathering.

None of these choices will achieve it all. None of these choices will be without deficiency. But all of these choices offer something. Let’s choose what we will do, seek to do it well, and remember Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 18:20:where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’

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