It is now just over three weeks since the UK moved into the time of lockdown. The government had already been urging some groups of people to practice self-isolation and all of us to maintain social distancing outside the home, but from 23rd March the restrictions became much sharper and later that week, some of them gained legal status. Churches rushed to understand the new rules and their impact on life and ministry. The Church of England issued its own guidance which at times has gone beyond the legal requirements. Many clergy quickly had to get to grips with new technologies, and find creative ways to continue to pastor their congregations.
As it becomes clear that this situation is likely to continue in the medium term, and as we begin to think about a new term starting next week, it seems like a good time to take a step back and consider what is working well, what is sustainable, and what changes might we need to be ready for in the coming weeks and months. I’ve asked four ministers in different kinds of parish around the country to share some insights into what they’ve been doing so far, what challenges they’ve faced, and what changes they anticipate.
The ministry of the local church is more important than ever as all the normal structures of society are in flux, and the opportunity to serve our communities is wide open. But none of us have faced this situation before and we are all making it up as we go along. I hope that hearing these difference case studies will help you to think more clearly and creatively about how your own church can be more effective in ministry at the moment.
Case study 1: St Thomas’s Kidsgrove, Iain Baker
What is your church doing at the moment?
Kidsgrove is a mixed working-class/middle class suburban commuter town in the midlands. The congregation of about 80 adults and 20 children reflects that mix. The usual Sunday service has been replaced by a Facebook service each week, including songs, a sermon, and prayers [see below for Iain's notes on how he does this]. After this there is an all-age talk, and virtual coffee time. Midweek, there is a Zoom prayer meeting each morning, and during term time, a livestreamed school assembly for those who want.
What would you like to be able to do more of?
I'd love to be able to offer the community more practically. We're keeping the Foodbank running (Jane is coordinating for the whole of Newcastle), but our soup kitchen has stopped. It frustrates me that its pagans offering food parcels and practical help more than we are. But practically, people are either over 70 or working or looking after kids, so we're limited what we can do.
I'd like to phone more people and plan for the future. But keeping things going is OK for me for now.
What are you praying will come out of this?
I pray we won't lose anyone - and that they will miss meeting together so much that fringe people will become more regular. We have people watching on line who I don't know, so hopefully we'll pick up people too. I'd like the church family to be investing the spare time some of them have in getting to know God better. Who knows if they are?!
Case study 2: Warbleton, Dallington and Bodle Street Green, Marc Lloyd
What have you been doing so far?
I serve three churches in rural Sussex. On a good day, we may have 50, 20 and 20 at a Sunday service, allowing for Pastor inflation! It is relatively middle-class and older, not prime commuter country.
I have been doing Common Worship Morning Prayer on a Sunday from my study with my wife playing a relevant hymn before and after the service and singing one during it. I have done everything myself (readings, prayers, sermon etc.) providing notes and links beforehand with the order of service and suggested hymns with links to YouTube videos. We have done this on Facebook Live then copied to YouTube with a little light editing and put the audio sermon on our website as usual.
Midweek, I am doing Common Worship Morning and Evening Prayer on Facebook. We are also having a midweek meeting each Wednesday via Zoom for fellowship, Bible study and prayer (looking at successive Psalms each week).
I have been phoning those who are not online. A church member has helpfully been through the church prayer diary to make a list of who might be vulnerable or isolated and who is keeping in touch with whom.
Numbers of those watching or joining at least something have been excellent. Many people, including those who are not regulars, have commented or expressed their appreciation. Some people have been brilliant about getting online and using Zoom for the first time but as far as I know some people are not engaging online at all.
Our parish magazine has gone online only and that in fact gives us much more freedom e.g. over number of pages and we are increasing the range of writers and gospel content. One church member has submitted a very honest and helpful testimony, for example.
What challenges have you faced?
Some people are fearful of Facebook/don’t want to sign up in case it takes over their lives or steals their data. I understand YouTube has been a bit fussy re copyright/tricky technically. One of our services didn’t make it there till 6pm one Sunday, though it happened at 9:30am. In general, the technology has been a sharp learning curve for us, not least for me. I had never live streamed anything before this.
I have done two graveside burials since the lockdown and I really missed seeing the families face to face, although I was able to do something over the phone before and after the service. I also plan to write to them with the gospel, tract and parish magazine I would normally give them.
We had one or two evangelistic things planned and we haven’t really thought about if or how we could do those online. We have not really done anything specifically for children, but there are lots of great resources out there we have been using as a family (like Michael Tinker’s daily songs and story) and which we have offered to point others to.
What do you pray will come out of this situation?
It is very early to say but I hope we will have grown in our love for God and his word and one another. Our online fellowship and support have been precious. We have already begun to think about what really matters. And I hope it will be a great joy to get back together physically and share Communion together.
Case study 3: Christ Church Cockfosters: Jon Tuckwell
What is Christ Church doing at the moment?
Christ Church typically has around 350 adults and kids across 3 Sunday services including lots of families and lots of seniors. We have been livestreaming Sunday services with a mixture of live and pre-recorded content. Music includes some pre-recorded band pieces, some solo pieces from the Music Minister, and some pieces where lots of musicians have recorded themselves against a backing track and the piece has then been compiled.
We’re putting out daily video devotionals with short reflective thoughts alongside a passage of scripture. Midweek events are continuing via Zoom and some new events (a kids midweek teaching group, new weekly prayer meeting) are starting up. We also sent free copies of Explore notes or family devotional material to anyone who wanted it.
The most pleasing development is our new sermon catch-up line. Dial 020 313 797 11 and you get a menu option to listen to the previous Sunday’s morning or evening sermon. This has been well received by the elderly in the congregation who aren’t online. This is set up using our VOIP phone system with the sermons effectively the ‘on-hold’ music on the phone lines. [See here for a way of setting up a similar phone service.]
We already had a Pastoral Care Team in place with two Pastoral Care Coordinators but we have fortified this team to ensure every vulnerable member of our church family (we identified 75) has
someone else in the church family directly looking out for them.
Two of our services have had nearly 2,000 unique views (live and catch up combined) That’s clearly many more than we’d normally have in the building on a Sunday – particularly as each view can represent more than one viewer – although not all of them watch the whole thing! Church family have been sharing the services on their media feeds and people are commenting on the daily devotionals. Using the YouTube live chat feature during the live stream has been a great way to build up community and catch up with each other before and after (and during) the services.
Perhaps most encouraging of all has been the church school publicising the services so that many unchurched families are tuning in each week to the live stream.
What challenges have you faced?
Despite the encouraging online engagement, we recognise that this is also one of the biggest challenges. If church is the gathering of believers, we are neither gathered, nor all believers.
We’ve also had to navigate our way through differing views on the staff team about what was right and appropriate in the circumstances. It was important to communicate that people were welcome to follow their conscience but we were going to be guided by government and Church of England restrictions.
One key challenge is not being able to access the church building for livestreaming (where all our kit is). The vicarage has become the livestreaming hub which has meant a lot of the work has fallen to me and the Music Minister (who is living in the Vicarage). We are working out ways to distribute the workload with other staff during the week and we have trained staff in making, uploading and editing videos (using the free and excellent Hitfilm Express).
Trying to ensure that everything we do is sustainable and holding to the mantra ‘less done well is more’ has been key for us. We know that staff numbers will fluctuate (we had five people off a few weeks ago) so there needs to be some slack in the system.
What do you pray will come out of this situation?
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if in 6 months’ time we have a church family who:
have grown in spiritual maturity through the regular feeding on God’s word;
have grown in spiritual humility and faith through developing the discipline of prayer;
have grown closer together in fellowship through demonstrating sacrificial love;
have grown in number as others have come to share in our hope?
Case study 4: Fownhope Benefice, Hereford, Chris Moore
What does church ministry look like at the moment?
We are a benefice of four parishes in rural Herefordshire, with a total population of 2,200 and a combined congregations of around 120. The average age in the county is higher than in the rest of the country.
We have just started putting videos up of the service we have in our house on a Sunday (there are eight on our household). I have also written and sent out a daily devotional via email to around 95 people, which I print out once a week and post to another 22 households who don’t have email. I also phone around the more vulnerable and isolated people.
I have been very encouraged by the positive response to the emails, and by people being more willing to talk about their faith. We’ve had people who are more on the periphery of the church asking to be added to the list, which is good.
I’ve had a run of seven funerals since the lockdown - none Covid related - and these have been more difficult to do with the constraints we have. People are very understanding, though.
What do you pray will come out of this situation?
As people are stuck in, I am praying that they will gain a daily devotional routine in the home This is why I’m sending out the emails. My churches are not evangelical, and the daily devotional is not really part of the culture. I’m praying that this lockdown will be a means that God will use to change that.
Iain’s guide to setting up Facebook church services:
1. Facebook not Zoom. Facebook is an open door, and we've had 5 to 15 times our usual congregation tuning in. Zoom is a closed door to all these people who need to hear the good news. So I vote for Facebook. We upload it to Youtube afterwards too. We have church family zoom coffee afterwards.
2. We're live rather than pre-recorded as psychologically I think people really feel we're talking to them. Even though it looks the same, recorded feels 'colder' to me.
3. We start 15 mins in advance of church with a countdown video so people can find the live stream before anything happens!
4 I'm using OBS software. Its free, and I've found it pretty easy to set up, with plenty of YouTube videos when I'm stuck.
5. We prerecorded the music and readings as a video file which OBS plays. Likewise prayers and liturgy are created on PowerPoint and the 'Save as' jpegs which OBS plays as images.
6. I use two Web cams - one on me speaking and one for visual aids, either pointing down on my desk, or across at playmobil!
7. I've got a separate mic which I make sure is muted when there's singing or the countdown!
Despite working all week the first week to do something good, everything failed at the last minute, so I gaffer taped a phone to a tripod and did the best I could!