Life After Lockdown

As coronavirus restrictions are eased, what might life look like beyond lockdown: for churches and society as a whole?

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In the light of Government announcements, across the UK, that Covid restrictions are set to be eased in the coming months, now is a good time to think about what life beyond lockdown might look like for churches.

The big picture

Before we get to our more local situations, there is value in stepping back and seeing some of the global effects of the pandemic. An article, published by Barnabas Fund last year, highlighted a number of these features.

The rise of authoritarianism

This trend was happening pre-lockdown in places like China, Russia, and Turkey, but the pandemic has also given dramatic new powers to Western governments. It can be argued, of course, that these were essential, but nonetheless, this pandemic has normalised very high levels of government control over citizens across the world in the past year.

While we all expect to see the restrictions on our liberties being rolled back in the coming months – precedents have been set.

Growing nationalism

Nationalism is not a new phenomenon but Covid has accelerated many aspects of it.

Some of its hallmarks have been the competition and rivalry over vaccines, the closing of borders, accusations about new variants, and an increasing sense of economic vulnerability. These trends could result in longer-term travel restrictions and international tensions.

Advance of individual surveillance

Now, we’re not Uighurs in China with its massive State surveillance, but Covid has undoubtedly strengthened trends towards monitoring apps, medical passports, and citizen tracking.

Rise in religious extremism

Again this not new, but 2020 saw large spikes in attacks on Christians in a number of countries.

Sometimes these have been exacerbated by security forces being diverted to ‘Covid duties’ leaving minorities unprotected. Elsewhere there has been an increase in scapegoating and conspiracy theories against religious minorities.

Conspiracy theories

Fear, disruption, and insecurity are always breeding grounds for weird and wonderful views. Historically, plagues have a track record of creating apocalyptic fervour; something that Christians have not been immune to.

Along with this, however, has been a greater government - and ‘Big Tech’ - inclination to silence such views, which may be fine in many instances but runs the risk of legitimising the suppression of views that are just unpopular.

Increased economic disparities

The developing world has been especially hard hit by Covid, having little of our Western economic cushioning to fall back on.

Indeed, global poverty rates are now expected to rise for the first time in 20 years – something very likely to have impacts on mission needs and future population movements.

Lessons for churches

Thinking more locally, what are some of the big lessons churches can learn from the past year?

God is sovereign

Covid is a huge dent to human hubris, or it should have been.

It’s amazing to think that every Covid-19 virus particle in the world could be contained in a Coke can! That’s all it took to stop the world and close our churches.

Rightly did Isaiah say ‘He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing’ (Isaiah 40:23).

The Gospel is needed more than ever

The fragility of life has been laid bare once again – and our world has nothing to offer beyond a few more years of the same trouble and sorrow (Psalm 90:10).

The current mental health crisis is exposing so much of our culture’s hollowness. UK society is tragically becoming increasingly pagan, harsh, and without grace in its values.

Church community is vital

Organic relationships have been key in holding church families together. Those best plugged-in and connected with others have generally fared the best spiritually (something that has been seen especially among our youth).

Necessity of home and family discipleship

When church is closed your children’s spiritual welfare can’t be contracted out. Like home-schooling, if the parents don’t step up the children will flounder.

Personal faith and family spiritual care really are my responsibility!

Technology has been a great friend

Thank the Lord for Zoom and online banking.

We’ve all discovered fabulous new ministry resources - technology that has been a lifeline for many (especially for those more isolated and vulnerable). So, let’s think not just about retaining it, but developing it in smarter ways so we can maximise and create new ministry opportunities going forward.

Pastors need to be generalists

If your ministry was just about preparing sermons (or you have your job simply because you’re a great preacher) then you won’t have ‘cut-it’ during Covid.

We’ve needed weekday pastors, leaders who can use tech, and who can resource people away from traditional church programmes and facilities.

Ministries need to be flexible

Churches have had to make and incorporate lots of changes over the past year, stopping old things and starting new things. We’ve needed to reorganise service structures and ministry programmes, some of which might have been decades old.

So, let’s keep some of that entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to change going forward. We made adjustments for a ‘Covid world’, but what about adjustments for other changes happening in the world?

The value of good works

We are a people called to do “good works” (Titus 2:11-14). But if our church didn’t have good works (ie. practical ways in which we serve and bless our communities) then in March, when the padlock went on the door, our church may have just disappeared off our community’s radar.

It’s been good works that have enabled many churches to continue to have a presence and pathway into their communities despite all the other restrictions.

Unknown effects

Looking forward, what might we expect to see in the coming months?

Let’s be honest there are lots of unknowns, including who’ll come back to church, how long it will take them to come back, and what they’ll be prepared to do when they do return?

The effects will linger

This pandemic’s impact will be with us for some time to come.

Old habits have been replaced by new ones, both good and bad. There will be new anxieties, for example, some counsellors are reporting an increase of people anxious about going back to workplaces.

There will be ongoing mental health issues and new economic shocks ahead.

Erratic church attendances

People will have family visits, holidays, recreational past-times, and even paused work developments to catch up on once restrictions on travel and social interactions are lifted.

So don’t expect that getting to church will be the only thing people will be eager to do with their rediscovered freedoms.

Expect highs followed by anti-climax

There will likely be a big initial spike in enthusiasm and even church attendances with the lifting of restrictions. But like returning from a long trip abroad, the initial buzz and excitement of returning will quickly be overtaken by real-life and old routines kicking back in.

So, be prepared for people’s mood to dip beyond lockdown, for there to be disillusionment and even negativity towards church down the line.

Sadly, we will likely see people falling away even after they’ve come back.

Your church will be different

Quietly and imperceptibly, your church has been reconfiguring itself during lockdown. Your post-Covid congregation will be different: there will be new people, absent people, exhausted people, energised people, and changed people (both positively & negatively).

People may use ‘the break’ as the moment to change their ministry commitments, all of which will have a knock-on effect on your ministries.

You’ll need to review and reflect

This is the opportunity to review and take stock. What has the Lord pruned (perhaps previous growth but which was potentially hindering better growth) that needs to be left behind?

So, take time to reflect and pray: you’ll likely not get such an opportune ‘window’ for change in a long time.

The future

Despite the uncertainties, we know enough about human nature to suggest a few things.

People like getting together

Covid has shown us just how much we value being with others. So, build in lots of community-building activities and relational opportunities as you recommence church life.

Many people may need time to get to know each other again and we’ll need to allow for that. People also value variety (a real challenge of lockdown has been the lack of stimulation and sameness) so be creative in your programmes going forward.

People need encouragement

After the long haul of isolation and tired routines, this is a time to build people up, to strengthen them, reassure them, and let them know how loved they are.

Yes, there will have been many failings and shortcomings exposed by Covid. Indeed people may be anxious and even feel guilty about a ministry-fallow year, and there may be problems to be tackled ahead. But remember that Paul never missed an opportunity to highlight and praise the positives in people.

People forget quickly

Forgetting can be bad, like Israel who quickly forgot the Lord’s promises, past helps, and blessings.

More neutrally, however, I expect we’ll get back into old rhythms before too long (it’s human nature!). So this is a genuine moment when change is possible (don’t waste it), but it’s also a time to resolve to remember God’s faithfulness and blessings during the pandemic.

My final suggestion is to consider scheduling a special service later in the year (a planned gospel opportunity) that will remember the lost, thank God for his sustaining goodness, and point us to the ultimate hope we have in Christ whatever happens in life.

Further resources

This presentation was first given during the ‘Unlocking Scotland’ Leadership in Lockdown webinar.

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