At the South Yarra Community Baptist Church (SYCBaps) in Melbourne, Australia, moving worship and congregational life online during our city’s four-month hard lockdown proved so successful that there is now a serious conversation about the possibility of continuing it and not returning to physically gathered worship. This is particularly surprising for us because our worship over the last two decades has been richly sensory and sacramental with a strong commitment to embodiment. We did not anticipate it adapting well to an online format.
What people say they value most about our worship is its radically participatory congregational style. Every regular participant has parts of the Sunday service that they lead, usually from where they are sitting. For most of a pre-COVID worship service, there was no one up front. Everything happened from within the circle, and everyone had a part to play. This meant that when we went online, the common practice of pre-recording or live-streaming footage of a few key leaders conducting a service from the church would have been a big turn-off for our people. It simply would not be “our” worship. We needed to find a way to “gather” the congregation online for a real-time, live, participatory event in which everyone could contribute to making the worship happen. We knew we would have to give up some things, but the congregational participation level was non-negotiable.
Gathering on the Zoom platform and screen-sharing slides with texts, music, and visual imagery enabled this for us. Using Zoom’s side-by-side mode allowed people to see both the slides and most of the congregation at the same time. The texts of the prayers and songs that people usually had in a booklet now appeared on the slides. Each person knew which numbered slides were theirs to lead and could unmute themselves to do so. To our amazement, this replicated our previous experience remarkably well.
Some things had to be adapted more than others, and some adaptations had surprising consequences. For example, it had been our practice to follow a general confession of sin with an individual absolution in which each person turned to the next, marking the sign of the cross on the neighbor’s forehead and telling them by name, “Your sins are forgiven. Be at peace.” Thus, the absolution was passed right around the room to each person in turn. How could we replicate anything like this online? Our solution was to use Zoom’s spotlight feature to highlight each attendee in turn, so that the rest of the congregation could, in unison, tell that person that their sins were forgiven. It lacks the dimension of touch, but people can mark themselves with the baptismal sign of the cross as they are told of their forgiveness, and those gathered in small household groups can still mark one another.
What we slowly realized was how important this component of our worship was for achieving a sense of being truly gathered in one another’s presence. One of the problems with online worship for many churches is that since most worshippers are only the receivers of streamed footage that they can watch at different times, it is difficult for them to avoid engaging simply as consumers or spectators. There is a legitimate question about whether going online hasn’t so much caused this as simply exacerbated and exposed something that was already happening in our church buildings. But certainly online, as a viewer, you know that the leaders are not aware of your individual presence, and your absence would make no difference to what happens. But for SYCBaps, in our online gatherings, even if you are a first-time visitor and do not have any parts to lead, when your image is spotlighted and you are addressed by name by the whole congregation, assuring you that you personally are forgiven by God, you are also receiving an unmistakable assurance that your presence is noticed and honored as important.
In the first few weeks when I was frantically busy trying to prepare all our worship materials for this new format, I freed myself from sermon preparation by inviting a few visiting preachers online. We quickly realized that this opened up the opportunity to have visiting preachers from all over the world without having to wait for them to visit our shores in the flesh. Not only has this enabled us to build stronger connections with other churches around the world, but we have been able to hear firsthand reports of how the pandemic was impacting other countries and how the churches in those places were adapting.
Zoom also gave us the means to gather people during the week for prayer and mutual support, something that was obviously going to be more important than ever during months of enforced physical isolation. With our congregation scattered across a large metropolitan area, we had not previously been able to gather people regularly for daily prayer. Lockdown intensified the need and Zoom provided the means. Within a few weeks, in addition to our main Sunday service, we had another 18 short prayer gatherings a week – morning, late afternoon, and nighttime, six days a week.
At the time of writing, we have been out of lockdown and mostly COVID-19 free here in Australia for three months, but attendance at these daily prayer gatherings has not waned. About half the congregation attends at least once a day, and about three quarters at least once a week. Not only is that a lot more gathered prayer than was going on before, but after each of these gatherings, most people stay and chat with one another. Much of the congregation is spending far more time in one another’s company than ever before, sharing both small-talk and deep concerns. Paradoxically, the physical isolation of lockdown actually brought us closer together! A number of people have said that these daily gatherings saved their sanity during the months of lockdown.
As the months went by, more unexpected benefits began to emerge from this new manner of gathering, and this is where our story begins to move from one about the church’s worship, fellowship, and spiritual formation to one about new possibilities in mission.
The first thing we noticed was that the numbers at worship were up. The long-term regulars became more regular. Some of this was just that during lockdown, people felt their need for connection more, and there were few competing activities and not much else to do. But it wasn’t only that. There were people whose increasing age and declining mobility had been making it more and more difficult to get themselves to church each week and who found the online worship far more accessible. Suddenly they were there every week again. Others who had moved away permanently or temporarily began rejoining us again because distance was no obstacle. In one amusing case, a young woman who had moved overseas for twelve months and was a bit anxious about missing her church for so long actually only missed one Sunday before we had to move online and she was able to rejoin us from the other side of the world!
Over time we have identified five distinct groups of people who have been significantly advantaged by our move online (in ways that are not specific to lockdown), all of whom have not previously found church working well for them:
- People whose mobility is diminished by age or disability. This includes many who are confined to long term care facilities.
- People with disabilities that limit their ability to connect in the physical environment. For example, one long-term member has impaired vision and hearing. In the church building, when everyone is leading prayers from different parts of the room without microphones, he cannot hear very much. Online, he can turn up the sound as much as he likes and can magnify parts of the screen when he needs to.
- People who live in remote localities that may not have access to a church.
- People whose lifestyle means that they are often in different places from week to week.
- People who are living interstate or overseas who want to worship with us.
There are, of course, people for whom the online worship is more difficult, and who hunger for a return to physically gathered worship. Most notable among those are people who spend too much time on Zoom for work, and those with young children who particularly miss the physical activity and physical interaction that cannot be replicated online.
But we are now facing a dilemma. Attendance from the five categories above has grown through the year so that now if we terminate the online gatherings, we will be casting adrift nearly half the congregation. And although our unique style of worship adapted surprising well to the online environment, it would be very difficult to make it work with a hybrid of the online and physically gathered. For both technical reasons (such as needing to make every person in the church building audible to those online) and liturgical reasons, there is a very real danger that trying to create a hybrid will significantly diminish both versions of the experience and simply create the worst of both worlds.
So the pressing question is: Is there a new call of God emerging in our recognition of these five people groups who are benefitting from our online worship and congregational life? Knowing that it is not possible for any congregation to be all things to all people, is God calling us to accept the cost and refocus our ministry and mission toward these identifiable groups of people who have not found church sufficiently accessible in the past? We’re not yet sure, and the conversation has a long way to go.
For Reflection and Discussion
- Taking worship online inevitably involves change, and some things have to be sacrificed. Given the longstanding Baptist commitment to the congregational nature of church life, how could we reshape our online worship service so that it encourages the active participation of the congregation?
- In some churches, people said their ongoing engagement in congregational life and worship was the thing that got them through the crisis of lockdown. Other churches are beginning to fear that many people will not return because when they most needed their church, it was not there for them. What could be some of the contributing factors for these two divergent phenomena, and what could your church learn from it?
- Has your church noticed there are some groups of people whose engagement with the life, prayer, and ministry of the church has increased or been enhanced by the new patterns that have emerged during the pandemic? Are they similar to the groups named in this article? Or could you name other such groups?
- SYCBaps Church featured in this article is actively trying to discern God’s calling to them regarding which people group they should focus their future ministry on. Has your church engaged in an active discernment process before? Or during the pandemic?
For those of us in the Baptist way of being church, three keywords of ecclesiology are covenant, fellowship, and body. I want to explore the form that these are taking virtually in our experience today of lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation as well as our use of such networking programs as Zoom.
This is a special word for Baptists, and it has been since our earliest days. Churches, we have believed, are gathered by covenant, whether written down or not. Covenant is an agreement in two dimensions: a vertical commitment to God in Christ in the power of the Spirit and a horizontal commitment to each other. In our gathering together, we make actual in time and space the eternal covenant of God for the redeeming of all creation. The one who makes and mediates this covenant is the risen Christ. So in covenant we do not just choose to gather together as one option among others; we believe that we are being gathered by Christ. Gathering is not merely a voluntary matter but a question of obedience and discipleship.
In days of lockdown, we are still being gathered by Christ. It is a matter of covenant responsibility to each other to gather in whatever way we can. A Zoom ecclesiology based on covenant relationship means that we don’t just choose to use social media, if we have it, to gather – whether by laptop, tablet, or phone. We are being called by Christ to be faithful to each other. And if we have members who have no means of digital communication or who cannot use it, we are under the compulsion of covenant to find an alternative.
We will shortly be in a period of mixed format for doing church when some members of the congregation will feel it safe to gather in a building, but others will still prefer to gather at home using the internet. This makes it all the more important for members of a congregation to be faithful to each other in meeting for worship by whatever media it can use. This means, I suggest, a commitment regardless of the efficiency or the professionalism of the product. I mean that once we are into the media game, choice often takes over. We look for the most attractive product, perhaps the most entertaining material. We may ask who’s offering the best YouTube worship service or televised service? Who’s got the best music, the best videos, the best preachers? The local church product may inevitably look less attractive than other offerings freely available to us into which large costs and huge resources have been poured. But I believe that whatever the form of presentation of a local church, we are committed to be involved, committed to be there with the fellow believers with whom we have been drawn into covenant. I believe it’s not a matter of choice. It’s not a voluntary principle – it’s covenant commitment to God and others.
If we now turn our minds to the second term, “fellowship,” it is easy to shrink the idea into meeting together in one place (church or chapel) for worship or more socially for tea, coffee, and conversation – all of which is valuable in itself while difficult to achieve now. But I want to say that our fellowship is more than either local or even human.
In prayer and worship, we are being drawn more deeply into the eternal fellowship, the koinonia of the triune God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a communion of inexhaustible life and love. In that fellowship, embraced in the flowing currents of love and justice in God, is a vast community.
God is making room for all within God’s own self. I mean people of all ages, in all places, present and past. There are people there who are inside and outside the visible church. The Trinity, we might say, is God’s own Zoom program. It is the largest social network there can be – a web far greater than the internet.
Now, this is of course an encouragement to us. We are actually never alone, however self-isolated we are, but held in God’s social media. When we pray for others, we are adding our love to God’s own love for them. As we pray for others, God is communicating our care and concern to them because they are held in God’s network of relations. God is making our love for them a part of God’s own love. So our prayers under lockdown should be more than local as they tend to become. We should have the confidence to have the widest vision.
This fellowship also calls us to make an effort to open up the circle of our fellowship to other people’s social circles. This period, when many more people are using the internet, offers an opportunity to share links to our particular fellowship and to invite others to connect. In this connection, we must be open to hearing the stories of others, and then we will learn a great deal more about what our own faith means. We shall learn more about what God is doing in the world, and we shall learn more about our Christ who is out there in the world. You could call this widening of fellowship “mission,” but it is of course God’s mission, missio dei, not ours.
3. THE BODY
In the New Testament, the phrase “the body of Christ” is not just a figure of speech or a metaphor. Today we might say of medical staff that they are “a fine body of women and men,” and that’s a helpful image. But “body of Christ” means even more than this. It means that Christ is using human bodies and even materials of the natural world to become visible in our world and to offer himself to be met and touched as people could do during his earthly life on the dusty roads of Galilee or in the streets of its towns.
This is why “body of Christ” in the New Testament has three meanings: it is the glorious risen body of Christ, the communion bread, and the Church. These are not three different meanings. They fuse together. The risen body of Christ becomes present through the breaking of bread in the community of believers. So as we look around a congregation in a church building, the face of Christ takes form and shape as we look at the many faces of those gathered there. Like an identikit picture, the features of Christ come together through the many faces, and the face of Christ stands out and can be seen, not in one person alone but in fellowship together.
Yet we often can’t see each other’s faces when we are gathered in a building like a chapel. Here our gathering online through technology like Zoom gives a special opportunity for ‘re-membering’ (putting together) the body of Christ. The screen offers a new possibility for the face of Christ to be ‘re-membered’ in the faces on display there, combined with the voices of those who are engaging with us by phone. There are, of course, those members who cannot use social media. We need to put photographs of them on the screen to join the montage of faces, to see the face of Christ properly.
When we cannot embrace each other or link hands, it is more difficult to experience “touching” the body of Christ. But sharing the Lord’s Supper online can be an important way of putting together the features of Christ and of touching his body. Breaking the bread does not have to be done at a distance. Members who are part of the covenanted fellowship can have bread and wine or juice with them and can join with the ordained minister in co-consecration, using the “words of institution,” or as I would prefer to say, the words of consecration. All members can say with the minister and –above all – with Christ, “This is my body. This is my blood.” So word and action can come together in each place. The presence of Christ can be known more deeply through the broken bread and through the great cloud of witnesses who surround us on the screen, through the phone, or through their pictures.
If, and as, we move into a time of mixtures of meetings, some of the congregation in a church building, some still self-isolating, others having been house-bound long before COVID-19, we should seek to actualize a Zoom ecclesiology in this situation. For example, we can have the video, voices, or pictures of those who are at home up on a screen in front of those who are gathered in the building as fellow participants in worship. It may be that having had a period of lockdown will give us the vision and the skills to worship in a way that makes even more real our covenant and fellowship in the body of Christ.
For Reflection and Discussion:
- Christians have been forced to redefine what it means to “gather” in these days of COVID-19 restrictions. What alternatives to traditional, in-person gatherings have you developed to help your community connect?
- How has the internet allowed global Christians to widen their fellowship? Share specific stories.
- Sharing the Lord’s Supper is typically very hands-on and personal. What alternative methods have you tried for Communion and what were the results?
Neste breve ensaio queremos apresentar a experiência da Igreja Batista de Água Branca (Ibab), na capital de São Paulo, Brasil, que, durante a pandemia, adotou o lema: “ser igreja fora do templo”. A Ibab possui uma congregação que ultrapassa 5.000 membros arrolados, mas é impossível mensurar o alcance global das ações desta comunidade. Seu canal no YouTube possui cerca de 210 mil assinantes e registra mais de 25 mil acessos para acompanhamento das celebrações transmitidas aos domingos.
Desde o início dos anos 1990, quando a liderança redirecionou sua ênfase para o evangelho puro e simples dos discípulos de Jesus Cristo, a comunidade passou a dedicar-se mais à Missão e à organicidade do Corpo de Cristo, enquanto progressivamente se desapegava do institucionalismo religioso. Com isso, tornou-se uma referência e tem abençoado centenas de milhares de pessoas em todo o globo.
A equipe ministerial, liderada pelo pastor Ed René Kivitz, é composta pelos pastores e pastoras: Eduardo Fetterman (Adolescentes), Filipe dos Anjos (Adulto e Cidade), Claudio Manhães (Pastoral), André Saldiba (Famílias e Juventude), Robinson Jacintho (Pequenos Grupos e Educação), Paulo César Baruk (Celebração), Sílvia Kivitz (Missão e Rede Ibab Solidária) e Fernanda Kivitz (Crianças). Diferentes vozes nesta equipe contribuíram neste relato.
Quando a pandemia começou, a Ibab foi uma das primeiras comunidades a anunciar publicamente a suspensão de seus cultos presenciais, enquanto muitas lideranças, incrédulas sobre o potencial devastador da pandemia, demoraram tempo demais para tomar a mesma decisão. Para a liderança da Ibab, o fator decisivo era proteger a vida das pessoas, considerando o alto potencial de contaminação na interação entre as crianças (transmissoras inevitáveis) e os idosos (grupo de risco), avós destas mesmas crianças. A congregação de crianças que se reunia dominicalmente na Ibab passava de mil integrantes.
A Ibab já era uma comunidade muito representativa nas redes sociais. A pandemia acentuou esta representatividade, mas a adoração comunitária foi sensivelmente transformada. Eduardo Fetterman, que também atua na equipe de adoração, disse que a Ibab investiu em mais equipamentos para que as transmissões tivessem a maior qualidade possível e ressaltou o sofrimento que muitas comunidades experimentam justamente por não possuírem tais recursos para investir numa estrutura semelhante em tempos de distanciamento social. A adoração teve sua equipe presencial reduzida, gravando os cânticos previamente enquanto a pregação é transmitida em tempo real.
Nos pequenos grupos a dinâmica foi de fortalecimento da comunhão, ainda que virtualmente. A maioria dos voluntários nos diversos ministérios continua sem oportunidade de serviço presencial. Embora os encontros virtuais estejam preservando as conexões, como os adolescentes são muito relacionais, às vezes desanimam pela falta de convivência com sua turma. Por isso os encontros semanais foram adaptados para rodas de conversa possibilitando maior interação.
Ainda na dinâmica da adoração comunitária, Fernanda Kivitz reporta que “a pandemia nos colocou diante do desafio de viver, de fato, a experiência de ser igreja para além de frequentar a igreja/instituição”. No ministério infantil focamos na “possibilidade de ser igreja em família”. Enquanto as famílias iam à igreja, cada pessoa vivia uma experiência singular que não era, necessariamente, compartilhada com os demais. Compreendendo que os pais são os principais mediadores das experiências espirituais das crianças, a vivência de ser igreja em família foi estimulada. Um ponto positivo foi este “resgate da experiência familiar ao redor da Bíblia, propondo conversas significativas em casa”.
A Ibab é reconhecida como uma igreja muito comprometida com a Missão e com sua inserção social. A igreja apoia 52 organizações e projetos sócio-missionários de cuidado humano por meio da Rede Ibab Solidária. Neste ano pandêmico a liderança apelou à generosidade da comunidade, pois neste momento de crise o sofrimento humano e as necessidades aumentaram, além das incertezas no cenário econômico. Durante a pandemia, a comunidade não apenas amadureceu, como mobilizou-se ainda mais em ações de misericórdia, compaixão e justiça, respondendo à crise global de maneira positiva e inspiradora.
A maior prova desta resposta aconteceu em dezembro de 2020, quando a comunidade vivenciou algo inédito na sua história de generosidade. As campanhas de natal, que acontecem há 19 anos sempre foram muito desafiadoras. O alvo de 2020 era maior que os anteriores. A comunidade ultrapassou em 120% a meta estabelecida marcando a vida de cada membro de modo singular.
A atenção da comunidade também se dirige às necessidades de seus membros. Além da assistência social prestada às famílias mais carentes, a Rede Ibab Solidária promoveu mentoria e seminários para os pequenos empreendedores. Grandes empreendedores consolidados no mundo corporativo vieram auxiliar os pequenos empreendedores que precisaram reinventar suas atividades profissionais devido ao colapso na economia e no mundo do trabalho. O olhar de equidade sobre as necessidades humanas dentro e fora da comunidade é parte da identidade da Ibab.
Na visão de Eduardo Fetterman, a comunidade se fez mais presente no Brasil como um todo, não apenas oferecendo conteúdos de qualidade, como alcançando mais pessoas com o evangelho. Em parcerias com organizações como a UNICEF e a Visão Mundial, liderou ações de misericórdia em muitos níveis, inclusive comprando e enviando 1000 cilindros de oxigênio para Manaus, socorrendo a cidade na maior crise da segunda onda do COVID-19, em Janeiro de 2021. Algumas ações de misericórdia foram interrompidas, como o apoio educacional presencial que os adolescentes prestavam às pessoas com limitações cognitivas e aos imigrantes bolivianos, mas outras oportunidades surgiram.
Fernanda Kivitz acrescenta: “vejo uma comunidade pronta para servir, para doar e se doar, pronta para o trabalho. Temos sede de gente, de encontro, de conexão, e pessoas precisam de pessoas. A pandemia e o distanciamento social escancararam as desigualdades que vivemos e isso gera dor, angústia e revolta, mas as pessoas estão com vontade de fazer algo relevante, útil e transformador”. Uma das mudanças mais significativas no evangelismo e discipulado foi a consciência de que que a igreja é parceira das famílias no discipulado das crianças, mas que os pais e cuidadores das crianças compõem o núcleo central das experiências espirituais dos pequeninos. Com isso, as crianças passaram a ter experiências com Jesus na vivência de suas famílias e não mais sob a tutoria dos professores do ministério infantil. A igreja não é responsável pela jornada espiritual de uma criança, mas sim uma facilitadora deste processo junto à família.
Outros ministérios também ligados ao discipulado fizeram sensíveis adaptações na sua atuação. No ministério pastoral, sob a liderança do pastor Claudio Manhães, houve a criação de uma capelania para apoio psicológico durante a quarentena. Uma equipe de psicólogos e psicólogas da igreja passou a ofertar seu tempo para atendimentos virtuais voluntários às pessoas necessitadas deste tipo de suporte, atendendo também aos profissionais da saúde que, estando no front do combate ao COVID-19, se encontravam em burnout. Também atrelado ao ministério pastoral, a Ibab sedia a coordenação do Celebrando a Recuperação no Brasil. O programa, essencialmente presencial, adaptou-se ao funcionamento virtual nos encontros pequenos e grandes grupos.
“#tododiameiodia” tornou-se o ponto de encontro da comunidade para a oração, preservando sua identidade, suas tradições e sua fé nos caminhos da sua dispersão à semelhança dos hebreus e dos primeiros cristãos, iniciativa liderada pelo pastor André Saldiba.
Antes mesmo da pandemia o ministério Ibab Educação já se estruturava para oferecer uma educação cristã de alta qualidade em plataformas de Ensino a Distância, alcançando, principalmente, a multidão de pessoas que se sentem participantes da Ibab, mas estão geograficamente distantes. A pandemia acelerou este processo e atualmente o ministério oferta uma rede de cursos de curta duração para o período de férias e o curso mais extenso sobre Espiritualidade Cristã.
A Ibab é uma das raras igrejas no Brasil que há vários anos dedica-se à discussões raciais e de gênero. Contrastando com o quadro de aumento da violência doméstica durante a pandemia, o Ministério dos Homens promoveu simpósios e estudos nos pequenos grupos de combate à violência de gênero. Particularmente atuei como conferencista no capítulo sobre Jesus e a Masculinidade Não-Violenta, sendo este apenas um das várias iniciativas.
O Fórum de Consciência Negra da Ibab é uma iniciativa permanente criada a partir da necessidade de dialogar sobre o racismo estrutural e sistêmico bem como combate-lo. Durante a pandemia este fórum intensificou suas ações concretas na busca de equidade, acolhimento, reconciliação, resgate da dignidade e promoção da justiça, especialmente após o assassinato de George Floyd.
Muitas comunidades experimentaram uma grande desconexão entre seus membros durante a pandemia. Testemunhamos vários líderes amedrontados com a dispersão dos membros e com o colapso financeiro. “Ser Igreja fora do templo” nos apresentou mais profundamente este Deus que é dono de todos os recursos. Do meio do deserto, floresceu a criatividade e os recursos surgiram quando as necessidades humanas foram priorizadas. Mesmo quando a liderança orientava: “cuide financeiramente primeiro dos seus familiares” os membros continuavam contribuindo financeiramente. Quem podia, contribuía mais para auxiliar os que necessitavam. Na data mais importante da vida da comunidade a generosidade sobrepujou de modo exuberante.
Nas palavras do pastor sênior, Ed René Kivitz, “a experiência da Ibab na pandemia tem sido a de aprofundar e estender a práxis de sua visão, missão e filosofia de ministério. Em sua Visão a Ibab declara que deseja “ser um sinal histórico do reino de Deus”, protagonizando em sua vivência comunitária os mesmos frutos do ministério de Jesus: libertação, salvação, reconciliação, restauração da pessoa humana em todas as suas relações. Inspirada no movimento de Lausanne e da Teologia da Missão Integral, sua declaração de Missão diz que é uma igreja comprometida a “levar o evangelho todo para o homem todo”, e atua orientada por sua filosofia de ministério definida como “priorizar relacionamentos, envolvendo todos os seus frequentadores além dos limites culto-clero-domingo-templo”, isto é, uma igreja que acontece privilegiadamente numa grande rede de relacionamentos, diaconia e testemunho integral do Evangelho. Os tempos pandêmicos não provocaram muitas mudanças na dinâmica cotidiana da Ibab, mas exigiram um compromisso de fidelidade ainda mais sacrificial com tudo quanto tem vivido em sua história recente, à luz do discernimento que tem recebido do Evangelho, especialmente conforme a reflexão teológica própria da América Latina”.
Que este exemplo nos inspire a observarmos o crescimento das oportunidades de serviço que a pandemia nos trouxe, elas cresceram na proporção que cresceram as necessidades humanas. Que a pandemia ensine a toda a família batista ao redor do mundo que é tempo de servir com criatividade.
Igreja Batista de Água Branca na web:
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.