For some people, the impact of the COVID-19 virus can last weeks or even months after they have been infected. These ongoing symptoms are known as “long COVID”. Despite its title, this article is not about medical long COVID. Rather, I am using long COVID as a metaphor for the ongoing disruption to our churches caused by COVID-19.
We need to approach this year with the assumption that our gatherings at church are likely to be a variation on what we have at the moment. On the upside, we are probably not going to have a repeat of the months to June 2020, when we had long periods during which we were prevented from gathering together. On the downside, there are likely to be ongoing restrictions to limit physical contact and encourage social distancing. We are in (yet another) “new normal”. For the most part, the worst is behind us.
We should not let the ongoing impacts of a COVID-19 have a long-term debilitating impact on our life together.
As such, now is the time to take steps to avoid “long COVID” in our churches. By that, I mean that we should not let the ongoing impacts of a COVID-19 have a long-term debilitating impact on our life together.
I think there are two expressions of “long COVID” to guard against in particular. Firstly, the danger is that we will continue to substitute virtual gatherings for being together in person because living with months of tight restrictions on gatherings taught us that we could be together virtually when we could not be together physically. Secondly, we have become used to cancelling or deferring events, because of uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
What can we do to prevent “long COVID” in our churches?
1. “Do not give up meeting together”
One of the metaphors that the Bible uses for church is a human body. Just as the body is composed of different parts, all working together as an integrated whole, so too, the church is made up of diverse members with different roles that complement each other. The Latin word for “body” is corpus, from which we get the word “corporate”. Church is meant to be a corporate experience, when we gather together as a body.
COVID lockdowns and capacity restrictions disrupted – necessarily – the regular pattern of gathering together each week. However, there is a real danger that we have got out of the habit of meeting face to face. While online/livestream church is a wonderful blessing for those who cannot be present, anecdotal evidence suggests that some people are watching online because it is more convenient not to attend in person.
Without seeking to disenfranchise those who must watch online, we need to remind ourselves that online church is a poor substitute for gathering in person, and that we should not choose this option unless we have no alternative.
We need to gather for corporate worship, for corporate witness and for corporate fellowship. Our “one another” ministry is highlighted in dozens of verses in the New Testament, of which the following is but a small selection.
"Now is the time to make up for lost time and push ahead, making bold plans in prayerful dependency, learning again what it means to say with conviction, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”.
We gather to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11), to spur one another on towards love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), to confess our sins to each other, pray for each other (James 5:16) and to offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet 4:9).
We are mutually encouraged by one another’s faith (Rom 1:12). We are to be devoted to one another in love (Rom 12:10). We are to live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16), accepting one another just as Christ accepted us (Rom 15:7). We are to serve one another in love (Gal 5:13). We are to be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph 4:32) and bear one another’s burdens (Eph 4:2).
Our “one another” ministry can be compromised by online church – especially if we become passive recipients of ministry, rather than active participants in ministry. To avoid this, we need to take to heart the exhortation in Hebrews 10:25 to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”.
2. “The Lord’s purposes will prevail”
The disruptions of COVID-19 have reminded us of something that has always been true, but perhaps often overlooked – we do not know what tomorrow brings (James 4:14). We need to take Proverbs 19:21 to heart: “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails”.
In the past, we have been accustomed to developing strategies and detailed plans for our ministries and churches, and the unpredictability of last year threw many of these into disarray.
While for a time the only option we had was to cancel or defer our plans, we must not let this become the new normal. That is, we must not put ministry and mission on hold while we wait for things to return to pre-COVID conditions.
Instead, we should make bold plans in prayerful dependency, learning again what it means to say with conviction – “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15).
The experience of the past year has shown us that we are more nimble and able to adapt at short notice to changing circumstances than we perhaps might have thought, and that modified ministry is better than no ministry.
So, rather than prolonging the impact of COVID-19 on our churches by continuing to defer new initiatives and holding back out of an abundance of caution, now is the time to make up for lost time and push ahead, making bold plans in prayerful dependency, learning again what it means to say with conviction, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”.
Header Image from Village Church Sydney.