Churches everywhere have scrambled to respond to the crises of coronavirus. Jodie McNeill in Jamberoo, NSW had the bushfires to contend with before that. He reflects on the ministry opportunities we have now and may take into the future. Jodie is Senior Minister at Jamberoo Anglican Church on the south coast of New South Wales.
If we expected that the defining event of 2020 would be the Australian bushfires, then we were wrong. As green shoots begin to emerge from the blackened landscape, a new crisis has confronted our communities, and the impact is global. In drought, bushfire, flood, and now pandemic, our everyday life has been profoundly disrupted, and through this momentous occasion we will have fresh opportunities to glorify God as we minister his word.
Over summer we used the word ‘unprecedented’ on many occasions to describe the ferocity and widespread impact of the bushfire disaster that ravaged our country. Yet, as COVID-19 grinds our world to a halt, it has already demonstrated the potential to unlock new ways of doing church ministry. Whilst they are unrelated, the two disasters have built upon each other as our church has grown to become more connected with our community through crisis.
Initially, during the bushfires I was able to strengthen connections with my local community through my involvement as a volunteer firefighter with the NSW Rural Fire Service.
This gave me many opportunities to speak about my faith with my compatriots on the fireground who knew me as the local ‘Rev’. It’s also helped grow my friendships and connections more widely with the greater community. This inspired me to call a village prayer meeting in our church, which welcomed people from the brigade and beyond to ask God to bring rain to extinguish the fire, and to bring protection and comfort to all who were affected.
The bushfire crisis brought together our community, and our church was there to offer leadership and light in a time of uncertainty and grief.
What’s more, God clearly answered our prayers as he brought rain which overflowed the dry rivers and extinguished the unstoppable fires. It felt like this bushfire crisis brought a degree of engagement and trust from the community to talk more about spiritual things, and my own conversations about Christ served to further energise parishioners to speak more freely about their faith with friends and neighbours.
And then when we thought things might settle down, the coronavirus has shaken our world, and changed the way we do life. Though we are grieving the loss of propinquity, (as one of my theological lecturers once described face-to-face engagement), we are finding new opportunities to connect with each other and the wider population. As soon as the doors to our church building were closed, I chose to replicate our normal services using live streaming. I hastily moved around the furniture in church to enable me to stand taller and closer to the screen that displays our lyrics and liturgy, and I scrambled some tech to try and beam us into the homes of churchgoers and the wider, community audience. Even though a ‘live’ broadcast had many rough edges, I was keen to help our parishioners to keep the routine and experience of church, especially given the tectonic changes to interaction and scheduling. Plus, it meant that viewers were more likely to engage real time through comments and reactions, and it helped prevent people skipping forward through pre-recorded videos.
Yet, the greatest boon has been the opportunity to welcome many newcomers to our services, largely through their connections through social media with existing congregational members.
People I’ve been praying for have now tuned in to watch my church, and fellow RFS brigade buddies have even commented on my guitar playing! Also, I’ve heard that non-Christian spouses have been watching our livestream with their churchgoing husband or wife.
What’s more, I’ve been sharing the link to the livestream on our Jamberoo community Facebook page, and complete strangers have been telling me that they’re connecting themselves or their family members with our church services. We’ve even had some banter on my posts, which has led to an opportunity for me to engage in some full-on apologetics in the public Facebook group, which has brought about other ‘offline’ conversations between parishioners and neighbours. Even though our church building is closed, we’re welcoming many more people through our virtual doors from around the world, and we’re praying that they will join us physically when we’re able to open our doors soon, God willing.
What’s still more, we’ve now been able to welcome some of our older and technologically challenged members to simply phone into church and listen via Zoom to the whole service. This is something we didn’t use before, but now should be a new part of life after this virus. In addition to streaming church through Facebook Live, we’ve also run a virtual dinners and morning teas after church, encouraging members to join a Zoom video meeting to chat, together, about life. I’ve ‘chaired’ the gathering of around a dozen or so screens, asking people to share about their experiences of the week and to answer a sharing question based on the sermon.
Yet, there have been other significant changes that we have begun to enjoy over this period of isolation. Inspired by the daily rhythm of the sixteenth century, I encouraged members of my church to join me on Zoom for morning prayer each day at 7:30am.
To my surprise, up to a dozen people have gathered with me to start the day with prayer and readings from the scriptures.
Now we’ve got control over our diaries, maybe the people might revolt against the nine-to-five and reclaim time to enjoy precious fellowship with others on a daily basis? As our routines have vanished before our eyes, I have sought to put things into our life that might end up remaining with us in the postcoronavirus world.
It may be that the ease of videoconferencing means that we can grab half an hour of peoples’ time during their day, without any need of travel. Maybe this can be a new way of connecting that will supplement our normal face-to-face ministries, and
redeem some of the small blocks of time that are frequently wasted in our lives? Similarly, I invited one of our overseas missionaries to join an ad-hoc ‘missionary hour’ one Tuesday night at 7pm, and even though I gave the congregation only a few days’ notice, we were able to pull together a dozen or so people to meet in Zoom and to pray. This is the kind of thing that otherwise would have required more logistics and careful scheduling. But with the simplicity of videoconferencing, we can enjoy these kinds of events without too much effort.
I’m thinking of launching a similar thing for regular training events for our parishioners and key leaders. Perhaps now that videoconferencing is becoming as ubiquitous as SMS, we might be able to supplement or transform our current programming with short, half-hour sessions on screens? No longer will it require people to have a ‘night out’ to do a church event, because now we can grab 30 minutes of time, without taking up an entire evening?
There is no doubt that after the virus there will be a new ‘normal’ in our schedules and life. As we have been forced to adapt to using technology to beam out church to the world, we can also use this as an outreach strategy to encourage newcomers to ‘watch us online and then decide if you wish to join us’.
Maybe this is the way we can ease the transition of people into our gospel communities.
Maybe this dramatic change to life is giving us the special opportunity to harness the widespread use of social media as a tool for engaging the non-Christian world with the powerful message of the gospel. But we’re also praying that there will be one, significant change after we come through this virus.
We’re praying that many people would look back on 2020 and say that through this crisis they came to know Christ. For these unprecedented times offer our world a wake-up call that might make them alive in Christ. That’s our prayer.