Churches take baby steps back into the post-COVID world

WA is experimenting for the rest of us

Some smaller churches have already begun meeting face to face after the easing of restrictions on public gatherings in Western Australia, which is several weeks ahead of the other states, while other churches plan to do so in the next few weeks.

However, many larger churches are content to wait for restrictions to ease further before stepping back into the tricky business of meeting together.

The PM Scott Morrison today described WA as effectively at stage three of the easing of the COVID-19 restrictions, which will happen on June 29 in South Australia, and in July in other states.

Meanwhile, in Queensland, some churches have negotiated a 100-person limit with the state government. And one multi-campus Queensland church has put a full-page ad in the Courier-Mail calling for churches to be an essential service.

In a patchwork of responses to the new limit of 100 people in one space in WA, some churches are committed to continuing online services alongside physical gatherings into the foreseeable future.

But it’s clear that coming out of lockdown is going to be a lot more complicated than it was going into it. Some churches that held physical services last Sunday reported that they found the experience “cold”, because of social distancing, lack of communion or fellowship over tea and coffee.

“We felt like our people were super keen to start gathering again and that was the main driver.” – Rod Thom

Kerry Pearce, pastor of HillSide Church in the Perth Hills, made that remark after speaking with a number of pastors in his network.

“They found it very sterile – and the people saw that as well. And with those restrictions still having to shut the doors and not allow people in was very hard. It’s very odd because that’s not what the church is about.”

Rod Thom, senior minister of Lifestreams Church, was one of the first to jump back into physical gatherings last Sunday, with people pre-registering for two morning services, with up to 100 adults at each and 100 children in a different space.

He was disappointed that some people who registered online did not turn up, taking potential seats from people.

“We felt like our people were super keen to start gathering again and that was the main driver. The main thing we were hearing was that people are craving worship and connection, something online is not great at providing,” Thom said.

“We see this as a bit of a practice run to make sure we are adhering to all of the restrictions and we can iron out a few issues over the coming weeks as the numbers increase.”

Thom said he was disappointed that some people who registered online did not turn up, taking potential seats from people.

“We were full in the first service and then about 60 per cent in the second, so that was interesting. I thought we’d fill up, but … in the church game, God is the master of surprises.

“There’s people who are still wary. They’re not sure whether this COVID thing is actually gone and we had a lot of people say, ‘we wanted to be there, but we thought maybe we should let our seats go to someone who really wants to be there.’ So it’ll take a couple of weeks just to see how it goes.”

Thom said the church was committed to continuing to produce an online service into the future for several reasons: to minister to people who don’t feel safe physically meeting, such as over 70s and people with low immunity; to reach people who don’t usually come to church; to connect with the church’s mission family and those in its global network; for those who miss the physical gathering and can watch online later; and for people in its aged care facility who can watch in their rooms.

Personally, though, Thom said he and his family struggled with online worship.

“My boys are 18, 16 and 13 and I would have thought the whole online thing would have worked. We’ve never had to drag them to physical church on a Sunday, where on a Sunday morning it was like World War III, just getting them to be in the room.

“I absolutely love worship, but we really struggled with that. My boys aren’t really the singing type – they’re really too cool for that kind of vulnerability. Personally, I just don’t think you go into ministry to do it online, you want face to face. And I really struggled preaching to a camera.”

“Personally, I just don’t think you don’t go into ministry to do it online.” – Rod Thom

Perth’s Providence Church, a multi-campus church of about 500, is also planning to continue with online services until the end of the year. Meanwhile, it is gearing up to return to physical services with common network sermons.

“Our key issue is that we wanted everyone to get together and the quickest way to get everyone together in a way that wouldn’t put pressure on a lot of people was to do songs and teaching on video and everything else together,” said Providence Midland pastor Steve McAlpine.

He said volunteers needed a lead time to get back involved while ensuring that all the different regulations were adhered to.

“We put out a survey and over 90 per cent are ready to start in the next four to six weeks,” he said, adding that Providence had a relatively young congregation, with 80 per cent under 55, about 66 per cent under the age of 45 and “a huge amount are in 18 to 35 age category.”

Meanwhile, Providence was concentrating hard on getting people back together in small groups to meet and discuss material.

“So I think that’s the way we’re going to go, watching people’s responses because there’s, like, 10 different responses to COVID. There were 10 different responses to lockdown and there’ll be 10 different responses to opening it up. And so we’re trying to corral as many people with us. And going at that pace, it will take as many with us at the same time.”

Luke Williams, leader of The Billabong Uniting Church, said he was trying something new when resuming its church gathering this Sunday.

Instead of sending out the children partway through the service, the parents, kids and kids’ leaders will view a video feed together in the kids’ ministry space.

“So they’ll join in worship by the video feed right from the beginning. And, we’re gonna try and make that a fun space and have a kids’ worship space, which we haven’t done before. So we’ll use that as an opportunity to do something positive.”

Williams believes a lot of people are still panicking about emerging from the home and he fears that some may have got out of the habit of attending church.

“I do wonder if people have just kind of gotten used to a week where on Sunday, getting up and going to church has been lost. And so I wonder if it’s going to take a little while to actually get back into that rhythm. We’ll see.”

For big churches such as Hillsong and Mount Pleasant Baptist, the new 100-person limit is not practicable.

Hillsong Perth has been connecting into the national online feed, which Hillsong Perth’s pastor Chrisham Jeyaratnam said had been working remarkably well.

“Being a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves has meant that we’ve been able to leverage some of the strengths that we have across the board, and I think the end result for people has been really fantastic in terms of the strength of community. I mean, certainly God has used this period for the benefit of many, to bless many people,” said Jeyaratnam.

Nick Scott, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist, said they would have to have half a dozen services across a Sunday to cope with the 1200 to 1300 people they attract each week.

“We’d have to wipe down every surface afterwards, we wouldn’t be able to serve tea and coffee. I mean, there’s just a whole lot of reasons why in our case, we’ve just decided, okay, it’s not just simpler and easier, but it’s probably wiser for us to go slowly in the plan of gathering together. So until they lift the restrictions to 500 and relax some of the social distancing, we probably won’t be able to start up again on our Sunday services.”

“Until they lift the restrictions to 500 and relax some of the social distancing, we probably won’t be able to start up again on our Sunday services.” – Nick Scott

Scott believes the whole online thing hasn’t been all bad in that people had have to take responsibility for their faith journey rather than just turning up on a Sunday and watching a service.

“They actually have to think how are we going to do this? How are we going to make this a priority? How do we involve our children?

“So there’s an intentionality of intergenerational engagement, which I think has been a really positive thing and an empowering thing. You’re not just sending your kids off to a great children’s program, which we have, and that’s great.

“But I think it’s a different thing when you stop in the video on the online thing and say, ‘now, parents, go to our website and look at these resources and actually take time to engage with the children in an age-appropriate way and talk to them about matters of faith.’ So you’re actually nurturing a discipleship model within families and within Connect groups.”

With so many people reflecting on the benefits of online church, Baptist pastor, author and blogger Rob Douglas has begun talking to pastors about what church will look like post-Covid.

Since putting a call out on Facebook to gauge the appetite for discussing what could be learned from this period of pause in the life of the church, he has chatted to half a dozen pastors from different denominations.

“How do we transform the church rather than just go back to doing what we were doing?” – Rob Douglas

He’s discovered that people see several opportunities and benefits to online church. But more than that, he sees this period of isolation as a time of preparation in thinking of where the church should go in the future.

“One of the things that is significant in my thinking in talking to people has been the idea of what is church all about? To actually take this opportunity to stop and think what can we do in the future. How do we transform the church rather than just go back to doing what we were doing?

“I’m hearing some people saying that life was very busy before and they’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to be, and they’re going to change in the future. And so from a church point of view, we have to think about that in terms of, ‘let’s not just throw people back into this busy world again.’

“What are the things that are really important to us? What are the things that are central to who we are as a church and how do we grow from what we’ve learned to actually come up with something that’s really significant into the future?

“I think there are some really creative ways of doing church that people are starting to think about. And my hope is that I can just help people to start to think more creatively, rather than just thinking in terms of let’s go back to what we were doing before.”

Douglas said churches need to turn around their thinking from “come and join us” to going out into the world with the good news of Jesus.

“So it’s about mission, not about us and what we want and what we like and what we prefer or how to look after ourselves. It’s about how we seek to reach out into the broader community.”