Covid blew up my church, but maybe not in the way you might expect.
Like every other church in Australia, Covid came out of nowhere. We hadn’t planned for it – we had very different ideas for ministry in 2020! The lockdowns and restrictions created disruptions and obstacles that continued to challenge us for the next two years. Leading a church through Covid was difficult, uncertain and sometimes just exhausting work.
And yet, there was a deep grace in there too. I remember a deacon’s meeting about three months into the first lockdown (on Zoom, of course) where we noted – almost hesitantly … the idea sounded so extraordinary – that God had used the last three months to move our church forward five years! Imagine the amount of time it would have taken to make all the changes we had just made in those three months. Imagine all the church meetings, discussions, sermons, vision forums and trial periods that would have been necessary to get those changes through. By the grace of God, Covid gave us a season where established habits, long-held expectations and accepted power structures in the congregation just fell apart. The Spirit of God moved in such a fresh way that the traditional pillars of resistance could not withstand it.
We began to call this our “wet concrete” season.
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As a diaconate, we began to call this our “wet concrete” season. It was like God was laying a new foundation under our feet, and, for a time, it would remain soft. We were being gifted a time when the foundation could be pushed out into new areas, covering spaces it had never covered before, and allowing the church to take a new shape for the new world we were entering. We also knew that wet concrete will one day harden; that this time of change and malleability will come to an end and whatever shape we found ourselves in at that time, would be the shape that would define our ministry in the post-Covid world. This “wet concrete” moment was a precious moment. But how could we best embrace this opportunity? And how could we bring the congregation into being a part of the discernment and decision-making?
With the help of Gayle Hill from the Baptist Union of Victoria, we began to guide the congregation through an “Appreciative Inquiry” process. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a method of engaging a community of people to help them discover ways they can change that come naturally from their strengths. The core idea is to help a community discover what it is that works for them, how it is they are naturally fruitful and effective, what strengths are already present among them, and then to design a future that builds on these positive characteristics.
From a theological perspective, AI expresses the vision that God is already giving us all we need for the future he has planned for us. When God calls a congregation to follow him in a particular way, it can feel daunting. The call of God is not easy and the path God calls us to walk is not often the obvious path. But as we step out, something remarkable happens. We discover that God has already been preparing us to take that step long before we ever knew we would be taking it. We discover that following the call of God leads us to discover strengths we may not have known we had. We discover that the people God has placed around us are just the right people, ready to lead, serve and support. And we discover that the resources needed are available just as we require them.
The vision we discerned together still guides our mission and worship life now, almost two years later.
So, if you want to get a clue as to what God might be preparing you for, then pay attention to the people, their gifts and the resources God is already bringing into your life now. God is already giving you all you need for the future he has planned for you. It was with this conviction that we gathered as a congregation to begin our Appreciative Inquiry journey.
In late 2020, over five fortnights, the congregation gathered in small groups via Zoom. This time was incredibly valuable and the vision we discerned together is still the vision that guides our mission and worship life now, almost two years later.
Our first AI discussion was centred on this question: “Think of a time in your experience of Canterbury Baptist when you felt most excited, most engaged and most alive?” This was a remarkable conversation that brought a lot of clarity to the kinds of ministries that have been the most life-giving for us over many decades.
“What are the gifts, resources and people God has already given to us as a church?
Our second discussion was: “What are the gifts, resources and people God has already given to us as a church?” This was us paying attention to how God is already preparing us for the call he has for us. In any discussion around vision and calling there can be some (very natural!) human enthusiasm that can sometimes cause people to lose focus on discerning God’s direction. Describing our people, their gifts and our resources, gave us clarity about who we are and how we are equipped, and so the kind of ministry God is preparing us for.
Our third discussion was about what we had learnt through the changes brought about by Covid and discerning how God was at work in those changes. The fourth and fifth discussions collected together topics that had come up in the first three to focus on our worship life together (fourth discussion) and our sense of mission in our local community (fifth discussion). These five fortnights gave direction to us in this “wet concrete” season and helped us to define how it is that we are being reshaped for future ministry.
So, yes, Covid blew my church up. We are not the same as we were before Covid. But that’s not a bad thing – that’s the grace of God at work.
This is part one of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part two, when Stephen reveals the outcomes of the inquiry and how that’s changed the shape of their church.
Rev. Stephen Field is Senior Pastor at Canterbury Baptist Church (Melbourne). Stephen is also host of The Workplace and Faith podcast and co-host (along with Kara Martin) of Worship on the Way to Work, a new podcast about connecting with God in our workplaces.