Along with many other churches across the world, we found ourselves very suddenly thrust into a new way of thinking and working in March 2020. We have progressed through these months with the inevitable highs and lows of church life. In this article, I would like to focus on some of our more creative initiatives that have been a real blessing, and in so doing want to emphasise that this is very much the work of others in the congregation rather than me. Ultimately, we give glory to God for the blessings which have been known. After an introduction to set the scene, I will describe a few specific projects, offer a brief theological reflection, include some questions for discussion and a prayer. A short video included below will help to illustrate two of the projects described.
Shirley Baptist Church is a congregation of around 200 members, 100 adults who would consider this to be their church and 100 children and young people who are connected with us in various ways. Our ministry team includes myself, Martin and Jacquie Knott (working with Children, Families, and Youth) and Amanda Crocker (Pastoral Worker). Martin and I are full-time, and Jacquie and Amanda are part-time. We also have two people working a job-share for the church office, and a team of three (manager and two assistant managers) working in our coffee shop. We are located in the borough of Solihull on the edge of Birmingham in the United Kingdom (UK).
CHILDREN AND YOUTH
From the very beginning, we decided that there were very different needs and opportunities among the varied age groups of our church community, and so Martin and Jacquie focussed on providing a weekly online presentation for the children called SBCKids. You can access our YouTube Channel or view a sample of a recent drama in the video below. The children love the drama, the activities, the singing and all the elements of this program. It has served to strengthen faith and encourage families throughout the pandemic. In addition, from time to time, activity boxes have been delivered to the homes of each family with crafts for Easter, ideas for a light party at home, and other seasonal and special events.
The young people meet together on a different media platform where the program is more interactive and works at two levels – a lighter activity-focused program and a deeper discussion-based program. This has also been a vital element of sustaining community and developing faith in such a difficult time when many regular activities have been curtailed.
The transition to online worship has been a challenge across the globe, and especially the preparation of home-grown music. We have found that our congregation appreciates seeing and hearing those they know leading the worship songs, and therefore we have tried to use our musicians in preparing worship material in various forms. In addition to using well-known songs already published, two of our congregation members wrote a wonderful song entitled “Outrageously Blessed,” with the first part of the song featured in the video compilation below. The full song is available to view on our YouTube Channel. This song presents a positive note and has been a great blessing to help the congregation look beyond their individual challenges to the bigger picture, always remembering there are genuine reasons to be thankful.
On the technology side, we look back to our first efforts of recorded services, and whilst they were a great achievement at the time, we have been blessed with those who have steered the church forward to what is now a very effective livestream. We have the capacity to present everything live or a mix of live and recorded material, incorporating responses from the scattered congregation with the use of live chat. Those who are not able to link up with this technology are offered a CD or DVD that is delivered to them as soon as possible after the services.
One of our families felt very early in lockdown that they needed to bring together those they knew in the UK and across the world who spoke their mother tongue from India and establish an online prayer and Bible study group. This group expanded very quickly and met every evening for one hour of prayer and Bible teaching. Soon a parallel activity for children and young people began to take shape, and now there is a very strong and well-established online community with its own regular pattern of activities. This group has been an immense blessing and encouragement to so many people, and portions of the story have been shared through the websites of several denominations. Click to learn more about the project.
Our appointment of Amanda as our Pastoral Worker happened during the lockdown. It was clear that many of our congregation were finding life especially challenging with the pain of losing family members, the loss of jobs, and the pressures of home schooling. For others, it was loneliness and struggles with their mental health. Early in lockdown, we established a network of support through homegroups and in other ways, but it was clear that we needed to coordinate this in a more strategic manner and help to bring greater depth to the care which was being offered, both within and beyond the congregation. The appointment of a pastoral worker has been a wonderful provision of God in response to this need.
Many questions have arisen around the theology of worship, fellowship, and of church in a time of lockdown, but I will focus especially here on worship. Along with so many other congregations, we have offered a weekly service online, with creative elements, using our own congregation, sometimes recorded and sometimes livestream, and have responded to prayer requests in the chat and interacted with the dispersed congregation in every possible way. Nevertheless, we constantly hear the comment, “It is not the same.”
What is diminished and what remains undiminished? Surely God himself is not limited because the act of worship takes place on Zoom or through a livestream on YouTube? In some ways, I sense that the Spirit of God has worked more powerfully in lockdown services as people have listened to the Word of God, but in another way it does feel like a dimension is missing. The gathering together of one body of people in one place, together offering praise to God and together hearing and responding to the Word of God is undoubtedly lacking. A sensitive worship band will respond to the way that the congregation is singing and lead them to a deeper awareness of the presence of God, and an experienced preacher will speak in a way which interacts with the congregation even when the dialogue is unspoken. These elements are lacking when the music is pre-recorded and the preacher delivers a message to a tiny lens in a camera, imagining as they do the hundreds of devices receiving the signal in their homes.
Our attempts at creativity and inclusion within our worship events have shown that the Spirit of God is not hindered by the circumstances we face, and people have been wonderfully blessed and encouraged. But the experience is not the same as a physical congregation gathered together and led with spiritual sensitivity and insight. This inevitably leads to a number of key questions.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. What are the similarities and differences between ‘physical’ and ‘digital’ worship?
2. How can we best facilitate a true encounter with God in worship when using a digital platform?
3. How can in-depth pastoral care be offered when social distancing and mask wearing are essential for any person-to-person conversation?
4. When history is written, how will the Christian community reflect on the spiritual impact of this time?
Father God, thank you so much that you are the Alpha and Omega, the one who sees the beginning and the ending of all time. Help us to see this present season of life within the bigger picture of the world you have created and come to redeem. We acknowledge that it has been a time of hugely mixed emotions and experiences across the world, and that the Christian church has journeyed through a time of rapid and enforced change. Nevertheless, we thank you for the immense blessings of this time, the creativity which has emerged, the signs of your Spirit at work, and the people who have come to faith. May we continue to learn and grow in our walk with You, and find that our worship, our mission, our community action, and our pastoral care are all enriched because of the experiences we have known. We bring our prayers to you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.