The Church and Christian Ministry after Covid19

After 34 years in Baptist ministry I finally felt I was getting a handle on what being a minister was all about. Then Covid19 came along and in just ten weeks so much has changed. First, ministers had to support our congregations through a form of grief as most of our everyday lives of working and shopping and leisure and even ordinary face-to-face relationships, as well  the usual activities and events of church life, were taken away from us. Then we had to invent new ways of being the church, worshipping and praying and learning together, which for many has meant wrestling with new and unfamiliar aspects of technology. Now we are at the stage of helping all of our folk with all their various kinds of needs in this strange new world. We are supporting some people through unemployment and family crises and anxiety and depression and fears and loneliness, as well as through illness and hospital and even bereavement, but still under great restrictions on actually meeting together. Our immediate next task will be to steer our churches through safely resuming some of our activities again, holding back those who would rush too quickly and gently encouraging those who will be fearful, while making sure that those who continue to be vulnerable or shielding are not left behind. And now is also the time where our churches must begin to prayerfully consider the future of the church once lockdown is lifted. The reality is that until a vaccine or an effective cure is found, just as in offices and factories and shops and public transport and the hospitality industries, church life will never be the same as it was before. What will worship and teaching and mission and outreach and evangelism and pastoral care look like in “the new normal”? And what will ministry look like? Recognising the dangers inherent in generalising, here are my best guesses on the some important impacts of Covid19 on churches and ministers in the years to come.

The worship and mission of the church

During the lockdown most churches have used platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Zoom to adapt their main worship, teaching and prayer occasions to be accessible to their members in their own homes. This has accelerated a process which was already happening anyway for some. Just as “home working” is likely to become part of “the new normal” for possibly millions of people, so enabling more meaningful engagement with church life from home should rightly be embraced by churches. Livestreaming of services will surely be the way forward expected in most churches to help meet the needs of the housebound and elderly and vulnerable people, with recordings for those who are at work at service times. Zoom video-conferencing prayer meetings and Bible Studies will similarly make attendance possible for those who are unable, or prefer not, to venture out of their homes especially in the evenings. These developments of “virtual church” will a good by-product of the Covid19 lockdown in themselves, but also a necessary preparation for possible future lockdowns due to a “second spike” of Covid19 or other future events.

However the sad reality is that some common elements of the way church used to be may not return for years, if ever. Until a vaccine is developed or a cure is found, Coronavirus is going to be with us for years and years. Some measure of social distancing is going to be in place and there are some things we aren’t going to be able to do any more. Constraints in the size of buildings and rooms will mean that fewer people will be able to gather for services and other events. Some churches may need more than one service if they want to accommodate the numbers that used to attend. Most activities involving food and drink will be much more difficult to keep safe – no more packed Anniversary Suppers or International Evenings. Many activities with young people, children and toddlers will have to look very different in order to remain safe. Activities with people heaped on top of each other won’t be happening any time soon. People aren’t going to be going in and out of each other’s houses so much and nobody is going to be going round to each other’s gardens when it is raining or snowing or dark. So many of the activities and events which have made up the life of most churches aren’t going to be practical and may not even be permitted. Most churches run “crossing places”, from Toddler Groups and Drop-Ins to Cafés and Lunch Clubs and specific gatherings for particular groups of people. These activities meet all kinds of needs and build relationships between Christians and not-yet Christians. But many of the usual crossing places which have been part of the mission of churches for decades just won’t be happening.

This will present a significant challenge to Christian mission. Historically churches have undertaken all kinds of compassionate service, from providing food for the poor to caring for the sick to bringing up orphans. Supporting those struggling with all kinds of problems, from alcohol and gambling and drug problems, to debts and relationship counselling, to helping with mental health. But over the years, charities have taken over more and more responsibility for helping the poor and the weak and the disadvantaged. Many charities which were started by Christians have now lost their Christian ethos. And in this Covid19 crisis, we are of course very grateful that the State has stepped in to offer financial and practical support to very many people. Even more people have got accustomed to turning to the Government, or to charities like Food banks. So what is there left for the churches to do?

In theology there is a phrase, “God of the gaps”. The idea goes back to Henry Drummond in the 19th-century, who criticised Christians who point to the things that science cannot yet explain as “gaps which they will fill up with God”. In the 1880s, Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, said “… into every gap they put their delusion, their stopgap, which they called God.” Of course we reject the idea that Christians only resort to God as the explanation when we cannot explain what we see of the universe. But I suggest that for decades at least, the church has been becoming “the church of the gaps”. The church does still care for the poor and the weak, but at least in the prosperous West the church has just been filling the gaps which the State and secular charities have overlooked. We have hospitals and the welfare state and food banks. We have charities addressing all kinds of physical and mental and spiritual needs. And churches have been struggling to find people to help who are not already being helped by other agencies. We have become “the church of the gaps” and the Covid19 lockdown has cemented that position. Who is there left for the church to show God’s love to? And in what ways will we be able to do that when the lockdown is lifted as long as social distancing is in place. Especially in the reality that when churches do try to help people, political correctness and safeguarding tell us that it is inappropriate and even immoral to talk to those people about Jesus when we are helping them. So what is mission going to look like in “the new normal?” I have two thoughts.

Firstly, in the past many churches have tended to care for the poor by organised activities and events and projects. Christians have given generously for worthy causes so that particularly needs can be met in one sense anonymously by a few individual church members, or by church workers, or by external agencies. Food banks and homeless shelters would be obvious examples. The “church of the gaps” has made an enormous difference to countless lives, but those gaps are closing as secular charities and the State are meeting very many kinds of needs. Post-Covid19 there will be even fewer opportunities for such Christian projects. Many of the kinds of activities mentioned above which the church have spearheaded may not be able to happen. The days of church projects may be passing. In the future the mission of the church may fall back much more on to the shoulders of individual Christians loving their own neighbours. More than ever evangelism will be about ordinary Christians “gossiping the gospel” and simply talking about Jesus. These changes will not by any means all be bad.

Secondly, I think the church will need to focus more on its core mission, which surely includes worshipping God and praying for people in and outside the church community. The church (and perhaps particularly ministers and church leaders) will devote less time and resources on running events and projects and more on making disciples and on equipping Christians to be salt and light by loving their neighbours and talking about Jesus. There may be important lessons we can learn from the persecuted churches and even the underground churches for Christian mission in Post-Covid19 Britain.

The Impact of Covid19 on Church Finances

Most churches will have experienced a drop in income during the lockdown. Some members may be giving less because they have been furloughed, or lost their jobs, and a few may sadly have died. There may be a loss of rental income, or of trading income from running a Café or operating a Pre-School or holding Table-Top Sales. Fund raising events may have been cancelled. Some churches draw significant income from non-church weddings or funerals. It is possible that some churches might lose fringe folk and even some members to other churches which are delivering a better “virtual church” experience. On the other hand, some Christians may find deeper community in some smaller churches. Although expenses may have reduced a little for some churches, this will not usually offset the drop in income, especially if the church has been meeting needs out of their Fellowship Fund or Communion Fund, or has had to spend much on technology.

This lockdown will have reduced the reserves of very many churches significantly. Charity law requires a church to consider cutting its costs when its reserves drop below the level of their charity Reserves Policy. Some churches will now have hit their Reserves Policy buffers, and they will inevitably end up in difficult discussions about the possibility of declaring their minister unaffordable. Some ministers might feel able to accept a lower stipend, but none should ever be pushed into the position of doing so.

In ordinary times many churches are only just balancing their books or operating on a deficit budget and surviving off reserves anyway. It could be Christmas before the income of many churches returns to the level it was before lockdown. Even if churches can resume most of their usual activities at some point, there is no certainty that all of their non-giving income will return. Consequently, many will not return to pre-Covid levels of income in the medium term, and inevitably more churches will be operating on deficit budgets going into 2021 and beyond. Even if some churches do not hit their Reserves Policy limit this year, they may forecast doing so next year.

The position of any church which is already receiving or applying for Grant to support their ministry from Baptist Home Mission is particularly precarious. To satisfy the rules for grants, churches on HM Grants are already only balancing their books. They are also living on the bare minimum of Reserves Policy reserves. Any church receiving a HM Grant which also previously relied on rental income, or relied on trading income, or relied on substantial donations from individuals who can no longer give as generously, will definitely have hit their Reserves Policy limit as a result of this lockdown.

The comments above make two assumptions (1) that the current Covid lockdown continues to be eased as the Government has indicated on the expected timescale and (2) there is no “second spike” of Covid19 and a subsequent second lockdown. My guess is that by this year end across the country the current lockdown could tip a dozen Baptist churches over the point where they can no longer afford a minister even with Home Mission support. However I also consider a “second spike” second lockdown sometime in the next 12 months to be quite likely. If that transpires then I think we will be facing rather more churches no longer able to afford ministers by this time next year.

My guess is that as every church revises its own budget and their projections for 2021 many of the churches who have already applied for Home Mission Grants for next year will say that they need grants considerably higher than they have requested so far. I also guess that a number of other churches might think they will need Home Mission Grants for 2021 who have not applied so far. However, every indication is that there will be significantly less money available for Grants from the national Home Mission Appeal in 2021 than there was this year. Many churches will be facing financial crises in the next year, and that number will be multiplied if there is a “second spike” of Covid19 with a resulting second lockdown. It is regrettable but inevitable that the resources of Home Mission will not be sufficient to rescue every church.

Pioneering ventures may be particularly vulnerable in the coming years, not least when the Pioneers are bivocational and their non-church income streams are impacted.

Beyond the local church, the financial impact of Covid19 will of course also be felt by denominational structures such as the Baptist Union and the Associations. Missionary organisations such as Baptist World Mission and local para-church organisations will probably face a reduction in giving, as well as missionaries and mission organisations supported by individual churches.

The role of the minister Post-Covid19

If the expectations I have outlined above turn out to be even partially fulfilled, then Christian ministry is going to change significantly in a number of ways. Ministers will need to spend less time and energy creating and delivering events and activities and projects. And there will be fewer “meetings” (do I hear a Yippee!) More time will be spent on the phone and video chats. Pastoral care will certainly be more challenging, since home visits may be constrained by social distancing, hospital visiting limited to video chats and virtual funerals may become commonplace. Fluency with communication technology will become even more a core competence for ministers. But ministers will spend less time presenting to large groups of people and more time working with individuals and small groups. We will focus on prayer and pastoral care and making disciples who make disciples.

Probably depending on personality type but also on age, some ministers will relish inventing new expressions of church and new ways of ministry. Others are no doubt already grieving the loss of patterns of ministry which they have lived for years or decades. Some ministers may find that the support and mutual encouragement they have enjoyed through social media and video chatting during this lockdown period will continue as part of “the new normal” of ministry. Others could well already be feeling completely exhausted by all the new things they have had to do in the last few months and dreading the prospect of all the challenging and draining work it will take to lead our churches into the Post-Covid19 era. We also recognise that there will be some ministers who will be struggling to find ways for it even to be possible to guard their own health in the usual activities of ministry because of  factors such as underlying health conditions or age or disability.

For all ministers (not least myself) I offer a few closing suggestions. We should draw on the support and encouragement of other ministers in these challenging times. Find a network of ministry friends to sustain you. Although our church circumstances are all different, none of us is alone in this work of ministry. We don’t have to come up with all the answers by ourselves. Whatever the issues, don’t be afraid of talking to your friends. Then we are all human. We need rest and refreshment. If, like me, you have not missed a Sunday since Christmas because your church have needed you, make plans to take some holiday before too long. Help your church to be able to get along without you for at least a couple of Sundays. Take a break. Finally, of course, we must put our trust in God. Our human ideas will not sustain the church now. Nor will they be able to lead the church forward into the future. We can rely on God to help us to cope and to help us to help others. We have the Holy Spirit, the power of God which raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, at work in our lives. Thanks be to God!

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  (Ephesians 3:20-21)

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