I still remember what a friend of mine said when the COVID-19 pandemic started to impact our churches. Channelling Warren Buffet this is what he said – ‘when the tide goes out we’ll see who’s been swimming with their pants on’.
One of the things I’ve discovered over the last 14 months is that many of our churches have been well-clothed and well-dressed. That they’ve adapted well and not only survived but thrived, making the most of the opportunities that the pandemic provided.
Now in no way am I saying that the pandemic was a good thing or welcomed, the cost to many, even now, is something to grieve. Yet this major disruptor, to our lives and the world, has opened our eyes to some things that are worth taking note of.
Firstly, people love their church.
One of the concerns that some had when we weren’t able to meet was that people would flock to the church with the best online offering. But rather than seeing that people remained loyal to their own churches with a deep concern for each other’s welfares.
Many churches developed pastoral networks to care for each other. People helped each other with technology, isolation and meals.
Many gave time and resources to make the transition online. Many churches saw an increase in giving.
All that I’ve seen, despite our buildings being closed, is a deep love of God’s people for each other at this time.
Secondly, change is possible.
COVID-19 has brought massive changes to our ministries - our Sunday gatherings, our growth groups, youth group and children’s ministries, evangelistic courses, conferences, parish council and wardens’ meetings.
Going online, physical distancing, cleaning, QR codes the list goes on.
Yet despite all this, churches and people have adapted. Ministry has continued. The world hasn’t ended.
In fact, some long-delayed changes have been made possible by the pandemic. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to do things differently, such as change the time of services or move to electronic giving.
Thirdly, face to face is preferable.
It’s hard to imagine life at church during the pandemic without the existence of the internet, even though access to the internet has been problematic for some.
The provision of online conferencing, live-streaming, email and messaging has allowed connection and continuity despite physical separation.
Yet, despite all this, what many have experienced is that our online alternatives are no substitute for physically gathering.
I saw this most clearly when our churches not only came back but were able to sing the praises of God, un-masked and together.
Fourthly, we need to keep on working at making our churches accessible.
Even though the doors of our churches were physically closed for a season, in some ways moving the ministry of our parishes online made them more accessible than ever.
People from the community or even further afield were able to engage in a way they hadn’t been able to before.
Not only those who were wary of stepping through the doors of a church but also those who weren’t able to because of personal circumstances.
For example, in the first week of the lockdown, I remember a woman contacting the church at Rouse Hill saying that this was the first time in months that she’d been able to engage with her church.
Another man at my church because of a physical illness was now able to engage with what was happening for the first time in over a decade.
Finally, God is in control.
I started my new role in 2020 with many plans. Like many, those plans all changed when we got to March. The pandemic has been a time of great humbling and reflection, showing us the foolishness of thinking that we’re in control.
This loss of control led many of us to contemplate catastrophic scenarios. I was asked by one man whether we as a diocese were ready to bury 100,000 people. In addition, severe unemployment, economic collapse, and the closure of many of our parishes were distinct possibilities at the beginning of the pandemic.
The fact that this hasn’t happened is a miracle of God, and even though we might continue to ponder why God has treated us so kindly, the right response to this kindness is to be thankful to God. Realising our human limitation, trusting in God, understanding that our life and our future lay only in his hands.
The fact that from what we can observe there has been a greater engagement with the gospel, online and in person, in the midst of a pandemic, can only be attributed to God’s sovereign control. God has done things we didn’t think possible.
Which brings me back to my friend’s observation – when the tide goes out we’ll see who’s swimming with their pants on.
Our churches are well-clothed, but they’ve been clothed by God, who has continued to work powerfully through his people in the midst of the pandemic.