THE coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption and is rapidly changing the world in which the Church seeks to worship and witness. How should church leaders respond to this rapidly changing landscape? All change offers opportunities and challenges, but there are three key areas in which changes brought about by the pandemic might bear fruit.
The first is the shift to digital, which offers opportunities for creative new approaches to mission and evangelism, besides having the potential to reduce pressure on overstretched budgets by the use of smaller teams working flexibly and efficiently.
More meetings will be online. Indeed, rather than ask whether there is a good reason for a meeting to take place online, many of us will ask whether there is a good reason to use time and resources travelling to face-to-face meetings.
The shift to digital offers the Church the opportunity to exercise creativity and to introduce a variety of forms of online worship, witness, outreach, and education.
Budget pressures are likely to necessitate a reduction in paid staff at diocesan and parish levels. The reduction has the potential, however, to serve the Church, as we create smaller and theologically and technically literate teams who will discover new demand for online ministry from an increasing number of people for whom traditional service and house-group times and formats simply do not work because of health, mobility, work, or childcare.
ONE of the challenges of the shift to digital is that an increasing class divide has become more apparent in the lack of access to broadband, computer equipment, and space among those on low incomes. A Church committed to bring good news to the poor will find ways of ministering to the individuals, families, and communities whom the shift to digital could leave behind.
Smaller church and diocesan staff teams will need a bigger vision for outreach and inclusion. This will ensure that a commitment to both pastoral care in person and physically gathered worship remains at the heart of the Church’s mission. This will be possible as the Church continues to release and support the ministry of the whole People of God.
While we embrace the shift to digital for growing sections of society, it is important to remember that being physically present to one another offers a quality and depth of experience which are not possible online. Physical presence also offers an important challenge to a growing fear of others, as habits of distancing and avoidance which started during lockdown become ingrained and unquestioned. A blended model of online worship complementing physically gathered services is an option that many parish churches are likely to continue to pursue, even as the immediate impact of the virus eventually wanes.
The potential of partnerships is a second area in which discerning opportunities and challenges will bear fruit. In places where different agencies have worked closely together, setting aside personal gains for the common good, we have seen far more effectiveness in efforts to fight the virus and to reduce the negative impact on people’s lives.
Our work at Ridley Hall and in the Cambridge Theological Federation has been fruitful partly because of a commitment to forging and maintaining good partnerships with others who share similar values and goals. In seeking to engage and serve communities, Christian leaders should forge and nurture effective partnerships, while addressing the challenge of maintaining clarity about the Church’s central task of communicating the good news of Jesus.
THE third area of change in which to discern opportunities and challenges is ministering in an anxious culture. Fear of being out of work and the resulting financial insecurity and lack of an optimistic vision of the future have the potential to lead to despair. Ingrained fear of other people as possible sources of contamination is a further disturbing possibility.
There are obvious challenges here, not least because members of the Church face the same pressures and are subject to the same fears as others. Christian leaders should lead with a narrative of confident expectation: faith in God can set us free from fear.
Debunking the myth of scarcity is a good place to start. The God in whom we put our trust is a God of abundance and provision. What we see when churches continue to share their resources with migrants and refugees in the current crisis is a counter-cultural act of faith. This is radical leadership in the public sphere, and it has the potential to resonate outward and result in far wider Kingdom-shaped activity.
There is an opportunity for the Church to receive the gift of fresh energy for a distinctively Christian way of being in the world: refusing fear of the future and of other people, offering financial and human resource to support those in need, and telling an alternative story of hope, because we trust that God is with us.
The Revd Dr Michael Volland is the Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge.