Today, while walking my dog though a local park, I saw something I had not seen in a very long time. Through my fogged-up glasses (I have yet to work out how to stop this happening while wearing a mask) I saw a number of small children enjoying the playground, and I remembered that today was the first time playgrounds have been open in Melbourne for 10 weeks.
The fact that our playgrounds have been shut for so long gives a brief insight into what life has been like here during Level 4 lockdown. All students from K-12 are learning at home. You are not allowed to visit friends or family – although recently those who live alone have been allowed to meet with one other person (called a bubble buddy).
You may only leave home for four reasons and, if you are out, you must wear a mask at all times and cannot travel more than 5km from home. We also have a curfew – which makes evenings very quiet – and no public gatherings, such as church services, are permitted.
The only shops allowed to remain open are those providing essential services such as food and medical care – although you can still get a takeaway coffee. After all, this is Melbourne!
Ministry under lockdown
As you might imagine, being in lockdown for so long has made ministry extremely challenging. Last Sunday marked six months since we last met in person, as a church, at St Jude’s. It seems hard to believe we have spent 26 weeks in a row doing church online, and it is unlikely we will be able to meet in person until after Christmas or even later.
On a “normal” Sunday we would have five services across three sites, but now we run two livestreamed services. We also have a large number of Zoom Bible study groups and prayer meetings each week. All our staff meetings and the vast majority of our pastoral care is done online or over the phone as we are not allowed to visit anyone, especially those in hospital.
…we greatly miss serving together in person and we all feel deeply weary.
We have no real way of knowing who is attending our online services other than total numbers. Those who are struggling don’t always make themselves known.
There is a mental load that everyone carries just to cope day to day in lockdown. Many of our parishioners are health professionals or overseas students and they face additional stresses, and our youth and children are missing school.
The staff team is working extremely hard but we greatly miss serving together in person and we all feel deeply weary. Isolation is tough and the end seems distant.
Unexpected gospel opportunities
However, we are also greatly encouraged and thankful for unexpected and new gospel opportunities. Both the pandemic and the lockdown has led many people to rethink the bigger issues in life.
Health and prosperity create a veneer of self-confidence and control and we have mostly succeeded in banishing death to the margins of our society. Yet the pandemic has made it very clear we are not actually in control. This has led people to reflect on what is really valuable in life, and who can I truly rely on at such a time?
As people wrestle with these questions, it has provided us with a great opportunity to speak of the immense hope that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ brings.
… we estimate we are reaching about 50 per cent more people than we did when we were meeting in person.
St Jude’s has “grown” during lockdown and we estimate we are reaching about 50 per cent more people than we did when we were meeting in person. Interestingly, a number of people who join us online are not in Melbourne but from interstate (including Sydney) and overseas. We often do not know who they are, but a number have reflected that joining church online was a non-threatening way to begin investigating Christianity.
We have run Christianity Explored online three times, which has resulted in a number of people coming to follow Christ, and have run Discipleship Explored online as well.
Our church has also become more dependent on God in prayer and we now run a Zoom prayer meeting every weekday morning at 8am. During this time, we pray not only for an end to the suffering and isolation, but also for opportunities to share the gospel with friends and family.
Supporting churches in Melbourne
There are lots of ways you can support and care for those doing ministry in Melbourne at the moment. Can I encourage you to pray for us. Pray for endurance and faithfulness. Pray that we will keep trusting in our heavenly Father. Pray for energy, wisdom and strength and pray for continued gospel opportunities. Pray for those who are the only minister at their church as they carry a particularly heavy and lonely burden.
Can I also encourage you to connect and check in with colleagues, friends and family in Melbourne. We have received a number phone calls, cards and care packages from people in Sydney – all of which have lifted our spirits greatly.
The reality is that the pandemic and lockdown have not changed what we do as a church, just how we do it. Each week, the gospel is still proclaimed to a broken world, God’s life-giving word is still preached and God’s people gather to sing, pray, love and encourage each other.
The Rev John Forsyth is vicar of St Jude’s, Carlton.