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Net impact of Coronavirus could be positive on Church Life

I am confident that most churches will find that the current crisis leads to strengthening church community, rather than weakening. Many churches are already seeing intense communications between church members, beyond anything ever seen before.

100 million tiny acts of human kindness expressed in church communities every day, and far beyond.  Phone calls, kind notes, practical offers for shopping etc, WhatsApp messages, Zoom homegroups, Periscope church addresses.

What to expect

Coronavirus / COVID-19 is like a mighty hurricane.  You may see it on the news, see the carnage in other nations, and be told your own region is directly in the hurricane’s path, but it may all feel unreal.

Take this really seriously.  The threat is absolutely real.  In most nations infections are doubling every 4-5 days in March 2020, and this will continue unless entire populations self-isolate in very strict and radical ways.

Look at the death toll in your own nation, and multiply by around 1000 to get a reasonable estimate of current infections, if death tolls are rising fast.  Take out a calculator and work it out for yourself with a diary. Ten doublings means 1000 times the numbers infected today.  That’s less than 7 weeks away.  I’m not saying this will happen, it is far from inevitable, but is the reason for huge steps being taken.  Take them seriously.  It’s why my wife and I are already effectively self-isolated for the next 12 weeks and beyond.

Be ready if you are a church leader to take funerals with no or very few mourners because closest family are in isolation or also sick. Think about video links etc – see below.  Supporting those who mourn will be a huge challenge which will need all the tools below.

Faith and Fellowship

Some very simple and free tools exist to help transform life for the congregation.  Here are a few:  I wrote a whole book about this – Cyberchurch – back in 1998, and all the things I described then are needed right now.

Main meetings / Sunday services

Use tools like Periscope – which you can run with one click on your smartphone.  Keep it public and you will be astonished as I have at who drop by from around the world, without any advertising!!

Keep things interactive.  Acknowledge people joining in, acknowledge comments, even if mid-preaching, so it feels real and not like a YouTube video.  Respond in real time!

Zoom takes things to a new level – again free to use.  Home groups around the world are using this.  Up to 100 people can take part, any person speaking becoming the person people see.  So you can have a structured meeting where – say – you ask Matilda to lead in a prayer, Tom to give a bible reading, Mary to lead in worship.  For a few dollars a month you can upgrade to link over 1000 people!!!  All on video!!!

If you can, think about broadcasting from your normal place of worship.  You can do that with several musicians, all keeping well apart, but fused together through the sound desk.

Photos and videos matter – upload loads and encourage the whole church to share church memories and special moments.  Even a 20 second clip of a church service can be extraordinarily evocative.  Forget about meetings with fixed beginning middle and end.  You can gather for several hours and let others drop by as they feel able.

Impromptu worship can be live streamed by any members of the congregation, promoted using WhatsApp.

Small groups are using virtual tools – Zoom is brilliant for this.  With a group of 6-10 you should be able to see everyone!!

WhatsApp is a superb tool for sharing – instant groups are easy to form, and multiple groups can be set up for things like “St Mary’s church food and pharmacy delivery requests”.

Expect new patterns such as Hybrid Church - where physical church services return alongside streaming of the same church services for virtual congregations or for those ill or immobile who would not otherwise be able to attend.

Faith Movements

Expect regional and global faith movements to spring up from nowhere almost overnight in extraordinary ways, as a digital equivalent of things like March for Jesus in the 1990s.  Things like Pope Francis’s global call to united prayer at 9pm on 19th March.

I would not be surprised to see a billion people in a single Christian event, all participating virtually.

Expect new social action movements, organised virtually – as many / most existing Christian social action initiatives are halted by the situation.

Things to watch out for

Mental health issues – a major issue.  Expect significant numbers of people to become fairly desperate for one reason or another, effectively imprisoned in their own homes.

Older people who are excluded from the digital world for various reasons

Practical suggestions:  cards and letters have enormous power and are often treasured for years.  Actually, in an increasingly virtual world, written words have greater value for all your congregation.

I was moved by the story recently of a son who visited his fathere very day in a care home, now blocked from doing this.  So he sat outside the window, and they chatted for ages on the phone.  This was more meaningful than phone alone or video (not possible).  Even if in strict quarantine, we can visit someone on the door, if we phone them first, and stand  - say – 3m away.  We cannot give someone a hug, but we can express love and care, and give a listening ear.

But do what you can to ensure that whatever digital access older people have is actually working.  So for eample, I set up my own mother with iPad which will answer a Facetime call more or less automatically.  Very important.  It means my mother can show me something she would like me to see – whether a remote control that does not seem to work, or a letter that arrived through the post yesterday.

The Hope that is within us

I am reminded of the words of Jesus in John 14v27.

“Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid.”  

And of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4v16-18 – in the midst of terrible stress, trouble, persecution and threats to his life.

“Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving us an eternal glory that outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

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