Earlier this year, I was involved in a conversation with leaders across the Methodist Church in Great Britain, it was both exciting and encouraging, as we looked at ways in which our church could be relevant to those who have never known or experienced church, or the Christian faith. As the meeting was drawing to a close someone shared quite openly but almost in a throw away manner something along the following lines “but the reality is when this lockdown ends most people will just return to their churches which were locked down anyway” and this is where I got to thinking.
Prior to March last year the word lockdown didn’t really feature in our everyday conversation, now it seems to be the main subject of any and all conversations. What does a lockdown actually mean? Each version we have experienced in the UK has varied ever so slightly but three key principles have remained the same: only travel for essential trips, stay within your social bubble, and sanitise regularly. We could also add a fourth about the requirement to wear masks when out in public. When I think of these key principles and how many of our churches operated prior to March 2020 I can certainly see some comparisons.
Essential Travel only:
How many of our faithful church members travel to church buildings for only essential reasons, perhaps even only Sunday for worship? In fact many of our churches go further in the fact the buildings are only open for what some deem as essential reasons such as collective worship. The idea that we might travel, or go out into the world seems like a far off memory in recent times, but it’s been the case for even longer with some of our churches. Staying home rather than journeying out.
If we go back to that first lockdown and think about the announcement that only essential shops could stay open, it’s interesting what was defined as essential, and very quickly word spread of the DIY shops, garden centres, and others that were open, and many will have thought, ‘I’m not sure if they’re essential’. Again this imagery is helpful when we consider the many expressions of worship and faith, and that what God may deem essential may not fit with our traditional understanding.
Furthermore, as churches consider reopening their buildings, where is the emphasis being put? Many conversations focus on things that we have actually already found alternative ways to facilitate. We are hearing less conversations about the parts of church life that couldn’t move online or paper format, some of the most hard to reach parts of our community have become even more distant. But as we focus on reopening for Sunday worship, do we forget about the group for adults with learning disabilities, or other vulnerable groups? It will take time to discern and ultimately follow what God is calling us to. The challenge is to focus on what God sees as essential, rather than our own wants.
Social Bubbles, no mixing:
Now there’s increasing evidence of the importance of small groups for faith development, but we also know many of our churches have maintained social bubbles for many years. Not mixing outside of their distinct group, or potentially stretching to no more than two pews worth of distance for relationships. I joke somewhat, but the reality is stark when we consider it. We’ve been concerned about maintaining our churches social calendar, ensuring the rotas are filled, meetings and committees take place, often again focusing inwardly, seeing the same few faces. I wonder if our churches reactions would be similar to that which we have now in terms of the virus. I certainly actively avoid getting too close to people. I’m conscious of the time I spend with them and the risk of being infected. Have we got the same fear with the Gospel, are we worried people might get involved? Are we worried it might change the nature of our “social bubble”, might it push us to places of discomfort. If you can gather with friends in a park in the next couple of weeks, where is the invite for God to be at work in those conversations?
Now here’s one that we might struggle more to see the similarity, and I would argue in some respects, it’s symptomatic of something that has been going on for longer than most would acknowledge. One of the strengths of the Methodist tradition is its’ heart for social justice and ministry to those in need. From the earliest of days; particular key tenets have sought to help people grow to a place of love and acceptance, and a rejection of things that would draw us away from a life of faithfulness. To an extent we are victims of our own success, and in my own experience I have worked alongside many congregations that are comfortable in their faith, secure predominantly in their finances, and increasingly indifferent to the communities their chapels are in. As comfort levels rise our tolerance of discomfort decreases, and we adapt in order to minimise that.
Now in our churches, that has occasionally resulted in a sanitisation of our preaching, a limit to our worship and a boundary within our Bible study groups. We may talk very confidently about bold proclamations of faith that explore scripture creatively and wonderfully, yet always seem to exist on what I would call a “spiritual” or “theological” or abstract plane, (great words, or concepts but ripple application) never getting to the nitty gritty, the struggle, the challenge, the reality of our daily lives that seem so distant at times from what we talk about in church.
Our worship gives a nod to the events of the week (usually in our intercessions), but doesn’t always take our congregations to a place of action and response. I’m yet to hear a sermon on suicide prevention (yet it is the largest killer of men under the age of 50 in this country) but cannot remember how many times I’ve heard a sermon on love.
As we return to our church buildings, we need to create safer spaces to explore the challenging aspects of the scriptures and our faith, and to acknowledge the vulnerabilities that undoubtedly arise when we do so. May we never be guilty of having a sanitised view of what it means to follow Jesus – almost as if that alcohol gel at the door not only sanitises our hands but our lives resulting in a ghetto Christianity that is unaffected by the world around us.
Wearing a mask:
Although the necessity to wear fabric or other face coverings is new to our society, one thing some of our churches have often fostered is a culture of masking. Masking our true feelings and our heartfelt beliefs, alongside the most difficult or challenging parts of our lives in order to conform. Many are complacent with mask wearing whilst others have been more involved in creating a culture of metaphorical mask wearing. There are limits on what we do and don’t talk about, where and when we talk about them. As our churches reopen may we look deeper at those whom we encounter, to see the pain, the joy, the reality of their experiences, the depths of their life not just the surface level viewpoint. I long for a time when we don’t need to wear face coverings in church, but I long even more deeply that the other masks we wear can be stripped away. That our realities can be met with love, rather than judgment, that honesty and vulnerability evokes joy not fear. At the beginning of Luke 12 (the Message) we read this, ‘You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known’ For those of us who for too long have held a mask of religious entitlement, these words of scripture can challenge us at this time, perhaps we are being prompted by God to remove the mask completely and in willingness surrender ourselves once again to God’s calling and purpose in our lives.
Some will read this and be offended, some will argue, it was meant to be provocative, sometimes we can only see things when we hold up a mirror.
If you’re reading this and can see some of those things I’ve talked about in your own church community, that’s great, you have an insight and an opportunity now to do something about it. Be assured of people praying, the Holy Sprit being at work.
Others may read this and can’t quite see or be willing to acknowledge that it is their reality, and that’s ok, sometimes recognition takes a little while. It may be too painful right now, as you’ve seen something that challenges what you have done for so long, be assured in the discomfort, the struggle, the denial, people are praying, the Holy Spirit is at work, God will guide us through this time.
Others will read with thanksgiving that their Church resembles none of this and they have actively worked prior to, during and will continue after the pandemic to seek first the Kingdom of God. To walk humbly, act justly, and love mercy, may you take encouragement that there are no signs of lockdown in your church but also be mindful they can so easily creep in. Continue to fix your eyes on Jesus, be open to the Holy Spirit prompting and guiding and be willing to follow. Be assured there are people praying.