It seems remarkable that it was only six months ago that four representatives of our small Baptist Church in Kirkby Stephen attended the first session of ‘Re:Imagine’ which had been organised by the Northern Baptist Association. Alongside leaders from two other Baptist Churches in the North East we were encouraged to consider the culture within our church as well as the culture of the world in which we live today. We resolved to focus on two areas of work which would help us connect better with our community; firstly looking to develop better links with the local primary school that is immediately adjacent to our church building and secondly to engage in a scheme to befriend lonely and isolated people in the area.
I try to imagine what sort of response I would have received from our church if I had suggested that we should stop meeting each Sunday in our church building and start to meet using Zoom. Most would have never heard of Zoom and the concept of leaving the building where Baptists have been meeting for worship for many decades would have seemed preposterous. But then Covid-19 arrived and on 23rd March the Prime Minister announced that we should all stay at home and that public gatherings, including in places of worship, must cease.
From the first week of Lockdown our church decided to use Zoom as a means of meeting together for worship and for fellowship. There were inevitably some technical issues but within a few weeks all our regular attenders were able to connect to the service including members who were in their 80s and 90s. We were delighted to find that many of the speakers who were scheduled to speak still agreed to join us on Zoom. We encouraged speakers to keep their talks to about 15 minutes and we included a variety of new, creative on-line resources which provided us with fresh opportunities to reflect, learn and pray. We quickly discovered that trying to sing together was almost impossible with our voices all being slightly out of sync, but we did find that we were able to enjoy listening to or singing alongside well produced worship songs with the option of being muted or unmuted.
Our usual Sunday service attendance was around 20 people but within a few weeks we found that we were being joined by new people. We had advertised the service on our Facebook page and used the notice board and local paper to promote the fact that ‘The building is closed but the church is open’. It was though mainly through word of mouth and existing church connections that new people were joining us with numbers rising to around 30 by June. We encouraged other people to take part in the service including sharing a brief talk, reading scripture and leading in prayer. What was most obvious was the real sense of fellowship we were enjoying. Most of those attending would log in 10-15 minutes before the service and start sharing news and asking after one another. Everyone would stick around afterwards for at least 30 minutes as, one by one or bubble by bubble, we went around the fellowship asking how people were and how their week had been.
On 4th July it was announced that places of worship could open again, albeit that they would need to observe social distancing, strict hygiene requirements, wear masks and refrain from singing. We felt that the benefits of continuing to meet using Zoom far outweighed those of meeting in our building whilst also recognising the risks of asking members in vulnerable groups to attend a worship service. Over the months we had continued our Bible Studies each Wednesday using Zoom which included the LICC series Life on the Frontline but in keeping with our tradition we arranged a break over the summer months. We are though opening up the church for an hour or so each Wednesday evening to allow a small number of us to meet for prayer, praying for our country our community and our church whilst also allowing us to start the preparations to make the premises safe for public use, whenever that might be.
So, what have we learnt as we have met week by week?
Perhaps most obviously, we have been reminded that the church is about people and not a building. This is something we all know in theory, but in reality the distinction between church and chapel can become somewhat hazy and the idea that the premises are in fact simply a resource for us to use for the work of God is easily forgotten. Before Covid-19 we used the building 2-3 times each week for a few hours. Now it is used for 1 hour each week. We are blessed by having simple and very functional premises, but we are being challenged with the question. How should we be a steward of this resource in the service of God?
We have really enjoyed having new people in our fellowship each week. We have got to know them well and this has brought a new dimension to the fellowship. I have always appreciated the reputation our church has had for being welcoming but these are not just visitors. These are people who we are really getting to know and are now being embraced within our church family. The Zoom format certainly prevents any huddles or ‘in-groups’ forming. We are also recognising that some people are relatively new to church or where English is not their first language so avoiding too much jargon and simplifying the service has been important. And do you know, I think as a result of this we are enjoying it all the more too.
We have recognised that our church has differed from others in the area that have either emailed an order of service, posted a recorded service onto YouTube, put a brief message on their website or, as far as we can see, been invisible. Zoom has allowed us to meet together. It is personal and very real. People have shared their stories and opened up in very personal ways to each other. There have been tears as we have shared with one another the joy and sometimes deep sadness in our lives. I am very aware that this is something that is possible mainly because of the relatively small size of our church. How would we organise this if we had 200 people attending each week? I am sure it would be possible, but I am clear that if I was given a choice between a slick, semi-professionally produced worship service and our simple but intimate gathering, I know which I would choose.
One of our neighbouring churches has described returning to their premises as coming out of exile. I cannot imagine anything being further from the truth for our church as we continue to meet on Zoom. We are gathering together in our homes, scattered across the communities in which we live, finding that God is causing us to Reimagine church life in ways could never have imagined. We will be approaching the primary school again as we suspect they be struggling for space as they accommodate their socially distanced pupils. We are aware that the problems of loneliness and isolation have massively increased during Lockdown. This has been a challenging time for us all, but it is a time where we as a small church in Cumbria have sensed that God is leading us to a new place and our prayer is that we will be obedient to his call and allow Him to work through us to achieve his kingdom work.
Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?