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Two sentences have been repeated over and over these last few weeks: “We are exercising an abundance of caution” and “This is an unprecedented situation.” Indeed, schools have been closed, international travel restricted, and entire cities have been quarantined. “Social distancing” has become part of our vocabulary, handwashing has almost become ritualized and the children who will inevitably be born 9 months from now have already been dubbed “coronials.” I pray that this global pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us!

Our health authorities have also mandated one measure that makes good sense but was not anticipated by most of us: the restriction of public gatherings of over 50 people1 which, of course, has massive implications on how churches “do” church. This edition of the Network News is dedicated to providing practical help to pastors who need to pivot FAST by providing online experiences, electronic giving and even virtual pastoral care to their congregations; but I want to explore what “church” is without a building and, now, without a gathering.

We have said for a long time that the church is not defined by a building but almost every church gathers in a place, whether a home, a theatre, a school gymnasium or a dedicated church building. And where you gather says something about your gathering.

But now that we can’t even congregate, what does that say about “the church”? And more important, what defines your church? If it’s just your Sunday gathering, then it’s time to rethink what you’re all about! 

Koinonia

When I was pastoring a local church, I knew that people valued good preaching and vibrant worship but that the thing that kept them truly engaged was koinonia the unique, Spirit-filled sense of love and community that exists in vibrant churches. Koinonia was what they loved most about their church, and it was the glue that held people together in relationship, even when they were absent due to holidays, sickness or work (or the preaching wasn’t great, the worship was awkward, or the politics were active).

Koinonia is a work of the Spirit, but it is nurtured by personal connection not corporate gathering. In these uncertain days where we are avoiding physical contact you can still encourage people to foster deep personal connections by arranging electronic meetups, by creating a system whereby your care team is actively checking in with seniors over the phone and by ramping up your direct contacts via FaceTime, text and email. In a season where social isolation is a real concern, the church has an opportunity to be more connected, not less.

Prayer

I hope our first response as followers of Jesus is to go to the Father in prayer when we face trials of any kind. I have no doubt the people in our churches are praying, but we have always been a movement that has encouraged corporate prayer.

While we can’t meet in large numbers, why not host a prayer meeting on Facebook Live and have your spouse, a volunteer or a staff member moderate the comments during the prayer meeting? Sharing prayer requests through your email list, social media or on the phone keeps people personally connected. Facebook and Google offer free video conferencing solutions, or you can use a platform like Zoom to pray with people when you can’t be with them personally.

This just might be the catalyst for reigniting corporate prayer in our churches!

Mission

I think this is a brilliant time for the church to BE the church. Now is the time for your church to counter all the negative and fear-based messaging with the Gospel message of hope, the promise of enduring peace and the powerful reminder that our eternal safety is found in relationship with Jesus.

Instead of sharing the latest conspiracy theory circulating on Facebook, encourage the people in your church to embark on a campaign of encouragement through social media.
Use online platforms to share helpful resources and link to community information pages. Encourage the church to send messages of thanks to politicians, medical professionals,
first responders and community leaders always reminding them that the they have the ongoing prayers of your #church behind them.

Above all, find ways to stay on mission and be missional as a church community it may just become your new normal!

Community Engagement

The church has always shone brightest in the darkest times of history: Christians started hospitals as a response to plagues and pandemics; schools were founded in response to the suffering of illiterate populations; orphanages are still created to care for abandoned children; and to this day, the church leads the way in battling human trafficking and modern slavery. Historically, the church has cared for those society cast away, ignored, or marginalized in the most challenging times.

This pandemic is a great time for the church to respond to the practical needs of those who are forced to (or choose to) socially isolate themselves. I know of individuals who are offering to grocery shop for house-bound people who can’t or won’t go out. You can contact your municipal, provincial or federal governments and offer your empty building to be used if hospitals are overwhelmed. You could set up a group online whereby people can share resources (i.e. toilet paper!) instead of hoarding supplies.

Look around you: there are needs your church can meet without having to gather on Sunday.

I’ve already said it, but this is the time for the church to shine! And this is the time for you to reconsider what “church” is all about. Perhaps the benefit of this crisis will be that the church will learn to love its community and love our God with similar fervour. The next time we can gather in person will be all the sweeter for our forced absence, but I pray that our going will become even more intentional.