Why the Australian church might emerge from this pandemic stronger than before

A few months ago, many of our churches were on autopilot. It was business as usual. The calendar was set. Annual events were scheduled and finances forecasted. Preaching topics had been allocated and preachers rostered. Some of the sermons had even already been written.

We’d found our rhythm; we were on a roll. And as the old adage instructs, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Then COVID-19 threw a spanner in the unbroken wheel of the Church.

For a good minute or so, most churches wobbled. Some managed to steady themselves enough to keep moving. Others slammed on the brakes to come to a grinding halt. Others lost control, crashed and found themselves in a ditch, furious with the spanner and needing to pick themselves up.

Now, with most churches back on the bike and travelling along at a reasonable pace, there seems to be more space for reflection. What has changed? Is it good or bad? And is there anything good that’s come from the Australian Church being forced to fix what wasn’t broke?

Location change

It goes without saying that the biggest change for most Australian churches has been changing the location of their meetings from church buildings to individuals’ homes. But perhaps there’s also been a non-geographic shift of location, too.

In the past, church buildings were constructed in the heart of a local community. They had high steeples and magnificent architecture designed to draw eyes and thoughts upward and beyond the realities of the physical realm. Artisans were commissioned to tell the story of God’s glory and his covenant-keeping love on the building’s walls, windows and ceilings. And more often than not, its doors were open.

People who, by their own admission, would “never set foot inside a church” were invited to peek inside – and they did.

These days, of course, many of our church buildings aren’t located in the heart of a local community and the story they tell is one of function more than it is of divine glory. Perhaps they do still draw the eye of some. Admittedly, they never successfully captured the hearts of all.

Yet, with church communities relocated online, something of the old church in the centre of town was regained. What churches were doing become quite visible – and it was happening where everything else was happening, on Facebook, YouTube and Zoom.

The church doors were flung open as online services, Bible study screenshots and Zoom prayer meeting links were shared. People who, by their own admission, would “never set foot inside a church” were invited to peek inside – and they did.

Cue the Christian artists

Just as they had in the past, Christian artists were commissioned to bring their best artistic abilities to telling the story of God’s goodness and glory.

Those who had developed the art of storytelling – preachers and teachers – faced a new obstacle: preaching to a camera lens rather than a responsive congregation. Their ability to read a crowd while preaching had to be redirected to imagining the individual watching on a laptop. And, with sermon-hearers now free to leave mid-sermon without the embarrassment of clambering over other congregants, the preacher’s task was brought into sharp relief. Sermons needed to connect with their congregants if their congregants were going to stay and listen to them.

The church’s musicians were also commissioned to contribute their gifts and given the awkward task of leading individual families to worship a God who is worthy of worship, regardless of the setting.

But without a visible congregation to lead, worship leaders faced a heart-check of their motivations: could they worship God in a way that would lead others when there were no visible others to lead?

And the artists? They made digital designs that drew passers-by into services. They crafted videos that took distanced band members and placed them alongside one another. And so much more.

A bit weird – but good, ‘normal human’ weird

It’s a rosy picture I’ve painted, of course. Some readers are no doubt snort-laughing at the idea that various elements of their church’s online design and services being anything like the artistic elements that created a medieval cathedral.

I get it. The thing is, I reckon churches – even the stunning, medieval cathedrals that still thrill tourists today – probably always had weird bits. Storytelling that didn’t connect. Singing that missed the note. Art that didn’t quite hit the mark. (If you don’t believe me, just look at the freakish “humanoid” face on the famous Lamb of God painting recently restored on the altarpiece of the Ghent Cathedral.)

And located in the heart of where it’s all happening, I sincerely hope that our churches have indeed been revealed to be, well, just a bunch of normal humans having a go.

Those of us who make less glamorous contributions to our churches can not possibly express our gratitude to how the ‘artists’ have served us in these strange days. And we’ve had to overcome our own challenges as the church moved online. How much do we really want to attend a Zoom prayer meeting when the TV remote is so close by? Can we be bothered to negotiate new online systems to give financially now that the opportunity is just served up on an (offering) plate.

Many churches learned that, with local residents housed in, our assumption that people would turn up on our doorstep if they needed help was a bit silly. So, we’ve letter-box dropped offers to help, partnered with organisations that have existing relationships with the vulnerable, and set up our family dinners on the driveway.

Forced to fix what ain’t broke

And, with so much church stuff happening in plain view of anyone who cares to notice, I’m hopeful that the Church in Australia has revealed itself to be resilient, diverse, alive and local. Concerned with the what the Bible teaches, convinced that prayer works and determined to care for the vulnerable.

Perhaps even non-Christians might have had the opportunity to view the church less as a political force or self-protecting institution, and more as instead a community of people – some of whom they already know!

I’m hopeful that the Church in Australia has revealed itself to be resilient, diverse, alive and local.

The result of the changes to the Church in Australia obviously remain to be seen. Perhaps they will all be discarded when life returns to “normal”.

Perhaps preachers will forget the insights they’ve learned about sermon craft and delivery. Perhaps worship leaders will draw back from the deep, spiritual wells they’ve dug when there’s a crowd in front of them again. Perhaps the disciplines of gathering, prayer, worship and Bible study won’t hold up to the rigours of “normal” life. Maybe we will return to waiting for our local communities to come to us before we serve them.

Maybe. But I’m hoping not. I’m praying that the pandemic – that forced us to fix what wasn’t broken – might not only leave the Australian Church changed, but better.