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Where Do We Sit? A Practical Reflection for Returning Churches

This is not an article about how to live your best COVID-era ministry life. There are lots of those out there, and many are helpful and some make me want to lay my head on my desk and weep. One of the difficulties of writing what you know in the time of Coronavirus, is that all of us have had such different experiences of the pandemic. In Darwin (mercifully spared from the worst of the virus’ effects) it was mostly our routines which suffered. Some spent near-lockdown at home wrangling kids and some were busier than ever overhauling their work practice. Others mastered the art of sourdough or revelled in having some time to take stock.

Personally, I woke up one morning and almost everything about my job had changed. Overnight there were no more kids and no more programs, and life became about phone-calls and website updates and resource gathering and learning how to livestream and meetings. So many (physically distant) meetings!

I woke up one morning and almost everything about my job had changed … Then, just as we got used to livestream life, everything changed again.

Then, just as we got used to livestream life, everything changed again. One minute we were talking about having Christmas services online, and the next we were given permission to open in June, subject to a couple of hundred guidelines.

This happened in Darwin before the rest of the country (maybe the only time I’ll ever write those words!), but other states and territories are catching up. One of the biggest conundrums seems to be seating, and I’ve lost count of how many questions we’ve had about something we’re trying: pods. So let me explain.

Pods to the Rescue!

At St Peter’s Nightcliff, we talk a lot about being family. We are thankful to be made up of people of different ages and stages from diverse cultural backgrounds. It’s important to us that church is for everyone—not just for adults or kids or nuclear families or single people.  We are convinced that as these groups rattle around together, they best reflect the mixed and motley gathering Paul envisaged when he wrote about God’s household in Ephesians 2, and the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12.

This principle shaped our thinking as we contemplated a return to church. If there’s something to be preferred about physically meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), and if church is for everyone, we didn’t want to ask anyone to stay home. For us, this meant re-launching with a third service, in order to meet COVID requirements for group size.

Secondly, if church is for everyone, we wanted everyone to feel welcome. The idea of further isolating people who live or attend church alone did not sit well with us. We felt uneasy at the notion of a church building filled with single chairs for the single and groups of chairs for families or households. For those who attend alone, the act of coming to church can be confronting in itself. On an ordinary week you might wonder who to sit with or talk to—never mind after weeks of isolation. And so the idea that a longed-for return to church might mean spending the whole service marked out and separate to everyone else, wouldn’t do.

Spending the whole service marked out and separate to everyone else, wouldn’t do.

One of our church members suggested ‘pods’ and it’s been simple and effective. We worked out how many people could fit in the room pursuant to COVID guidelines, and we set out individual chairs, 1.5m from each other.  We then put masking tape around the edges of groups of 4 chairs, so the whole church floor became a patchwork of squares. The idea was that anyone could sit anywhere, and if they stayed in the corners, they’d be 1.5m away from others in their pod.

Your People

To some of the pods, we then added extra chairs (up to our total number of people allowed in the room), so that household groups or those who felt comfortable to do so could sit 6 in a pod. On Sundays we encourage people to move chairs around within their pods, if they want to. Emphasising personal responsibility within a low-risk framework is key for us. The pods level the playing field, and provide a discrete and visual way to lower the amount of people one comes into close contact with at church. We also actively encourage chatting in pods at a couple of key points throughout the service. The idea is that others in your pod become ‘your people’ for that service, whether or not you’ve met them before.

With a bit of masking tape and other-person-centredness, we hope anyone who feels at sea will be anchored into a group. And it has been a delight to see our church family deliberately joining half-full pods, splitting households between pods, and inviting others into empty seats in their pod. This isn’t the only or even the best solution for every church’s seating needs, but it’s a solution that’s working for us.

It has been a delight to see our church family deliberately joining half-full pods, splitting households between pods, and inviting others into empty seats

As you might expect, this has taken a lot of explaining and a bit of exhorting, as we try to better understand each other and give up some of our comfort to help others feel more comfortable. But surely this is part of what Paul means in Romans 12, as he urges believers: “Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honour”.

Welcoming 100%

As you make decisions about returning to church, ultimately the why is more important than the what. At the risk of making you want to lay your head on the desk and weep, can I encourage you? Instead of doing what is easy for 80% of people, will you work out a way to thoughtfully welcome 100%? Seating is only one aspect of the return, but the big question remains: will your services care for the diverse array of ages and stages in Christ’s family? Whatever your unique challenges, be it immovable pews or views, I pray you will soon delight in being back together as a church family, and that each member of your church family will continue to grow in Jesus.

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