Feel like you’re suffering from innovation fatigue at church? You wouldn’t be the only one. It’s been one heck of a year – and it isn’t over yet.

That being the case, we need to think deeply about how we can encourage our members to get the most out of church. To help others in the pews (and help ourselves) run the race of faith better. 

It’s an issue the Rev Dr Tony Payne has reflected on for years. The ministry trainer and writer-in-residence at the University of NSW even wrote a book about it some years ago – How To Walk Into Church – and you might be surprised at the simplicity of what we can do, and don’t think about doing, when it comes to church and each other.

“It’s quite common for us to think of church as largely a thing between us and God, because that is so much an important part of what the gathering of church is,” he says. 

“But the ‘horizontal’ element is a really key aspect of how the New Testament talks about our gathering: that we need to build one another, to encourage and exhort one another, to strengthen and comfort one another. A lot of ‘one anothering’ happens when we get together!”

“There’s a reason that the word ‘church’ means ‘assembly’, because it means gathering together.”

Dr Payne adds that with the exception of those who need to remain at home because of pandemic safety concerns, this is “a hugely important reason” to get back to church in person.

“There’s a reason that the word ‘church’ means ‘assembly’, because it means gathering together. In COVID lockdown, [online] was the best we could do and in the circumstances that was all we could do, but we want to make the most of the three wonderful gifts God blesses us with in his church: his word, his Spirit and each other. To have his word in our minds and on our lips and, with prayer, to pray for one another before and during and after church together. That tends to make church go really well, I find!”

He says it’s very common for Christians not to truly understand the mutual edification and encouragement aspect of church, and the importance of coming with the mindset, confidence and ability to do that.

“The question is, how do you change that?” he asks. “It’s the way that you train people to do anything, which is with some patient personal teaching, some encouragement and examples, some practice and some perseverance. It’s okay to do a sermon or talk about it, but you really need to read, think, change over time and model, encourage and train people to do this week by week.”

Learn and practice how to serve

The Rev Joe Wiltshire does this at St Barnabas’, Ingleburn by pulling 10-12 people each year out of small groups to spend that time with him, working through a program called Prepared to Serve. 

He put the year-long program together to help church members think about how they approach church and service, making appropriate commitments and priorities, doctrine, spiritual gifts, prayer, evangelism and Christian growth. “In summary, life’s about serving God – with everything you’ve got,” he says.

“Jesus put himself out for us and we’ve got to put ourselves out for other people – especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Because of Ingleburn’s location at the heart of the Crossroads COVID cluster, the parish will be holding its first in-person service this weekend. Members have been asked to register for a specific service, with gentle reminders of “what we’re on about… what we’ve taught them in Prepared to Serve, reminding them of Bible principles and what church is for”. 

And reminders have been needed. Mr Wiltshire acknowledges that it’s much easier to watch church at home, or in small groups at a friend’s house, and says some have been a little reluctant to make the commitment to turn up.

“But it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “Jesus put himself out for us and we’ve got to put ourselves out for other people – especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re gathering to spur each other on towards love and good deeds [and] we’ve got to be deliberate and thoughtful about it.”

In addition, there are people who have come to faith through one of Ingleburn’s online services or daily devotions, and there are others who are now willing to discuss the things of faith. “They need to see church,” he says simply.

Adds Dr Payne: “A way of making this point is that when we walk into that building, we’re walking in ready to love and serve and minister to other people. It’s a really critical reason to get back there – you can’t do that [as effectively] unless you’re with others.

“Yes, there’s a little less scope for free mingling right now but that doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity for conversations and encouragement and presence.

“I understand the decision fatigue and the innovation fatigue that sets in from having to change things so regularly. I suspect the COVID experience has been a severe test… but it does bring to the surface how well we have trained and equipped our congregation members in these areas.”

Tony Payne writes and records a weekly journal called The Payneful Truth.