Melbourne's long road back to church, US survey says 1 in 5 churches won't make it

Melbourne’s Christians face a journey back to church with the release of the Victorian Government’s COVID road map. Meanwhile, a US survey shows that up to 20 per cent of churches may close permanently in that country due to the pandemic.

According to the road map announced by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday, Melbourne churches’ roadmap for re-opening stretches into 2021.

Step one: Melbourne’s road map begins with churches closed. Presumably, live streams in homes happen.

Step two: If Metro Melbourne reaches  an average daily case rate of 30-50 cases over 14 days, places of worship remain closed but outdoor gatherings (not ceremonies) of up to five people, plus one  faith leader can start, near a place of worship. Earliest date for step two is September 28.

Step three: Outdoor religious gatherings for up to 10 people plus a faith leader, facilities open for private worship for households or social bubbles, plus a faith leader. The tough target that will have to be reached is an average of less than five new cases in Victoria over 14 days, plus no more than five cases with unknown source over the 14 days.  Earliest date is October 26.

Last step: If there’s no new cases in Victoria for 14 days, then public worship can resume in outdoor and indoor settings subject to “density quotient”. This will be something like the 4 square metre rule. Earliest date is November 23.

Covid normal: This means that limits are lifted, but attendance records must be kept. Covid normal will be declared when no new cases happen in Victoria for 28 days, and nothing alarming happens interstate.

The severity of impact for business from the Victorian roadmap has resulted in a joint statement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt today, saying it is vitally important to “reopen our economy and reasonably restore the liberties of all Australians”.

The Prime Minister described the situation as “hard and crushing news for the people of Victoria”.

“A lot of churches are re-opening but they are re-opening with a lot less people coming,” David Kinnaman, President, Barna Group

On the other side of the world, United States church analysts are looking at what happens next, when buildings are open and services resume.

“A lot of churches are re-opening but they are re-opening with a lot less people coming,” David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group, a respected Research company told National Public Radio. “They are recognising the relationships they had with people are not as deep as they had expected.”

Barna has firmed up its prediction from earlier in 2020 that one in five churches may not survive.

“We surveyed Pastors and only 58% said they were confident their church would survive,” Kinnaman said. “Simply re-opening a church does not fix the underlying economic challenges that you might have as a congregation.”

“Digital church is here to stay, and people’s financial relationship with churches will change,” Kinnaman says, predicting that the pandemic may mean permanent changes in the way Americans see churches.

Church consultant Thom Rainer makes a similar prediction about US Churches on his churchanswers.com site.

“At least 20 percent of those who attended before the pandemic will not return to church. Of course, this number will vary from church to church, but early indicators point to this level of losses. Some of the former in-person attendees will become digital-only attendees. Most of this group, however, will not attend at all.”

He see a possible upside, with churches focussing harder on “conversion growth”, that is working harder to win people to Christ, and that lots of new churches, especially campuses or branches of existing churches will begin.

Melbourne Pastor, Murray Campbell who heads up Mentone Baptist, posted on his blog that he was grateful for the prayers of interstate pastors who take care to see how Melbournians are faring. But he also described the major impact of a prolonged lockdown, echoing the US commentators quoted above. His church has not met for six months.

“Some Victorians are pleased with the proposed roadmap. Some Victorians are angry. Many if not the majority of Victorians are frustrated (whether agreeing or disagreeing with the Premier’s roadmap). There are Victorians who are enjoying the opportunities arising from lockdown (ie more time with children, working from home), while many others are struggling to cope with loneliness, anxiety, and economic devastation. 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses will close down, and dozens of churches, if not 100s, churches will not survive.”

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Some prayer points to help

Pray for the Churches of Melbourne, for pastors as they navigate a difficult time. For those in lockdown, especually the vulnerable.

For the energy to keep doing new things, and for the energy to re-open when the time is right.

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