When a boat is travelling along on the water and the wind drops or the engines are cut, it still keeps on moving. That is due to momentum. A car running along the road will continue to move if you press the clutch and don’t use the brake. That is momentum. In the end water resistance will stop the boat and friction will stop the car. But in the absence of any forces slowing it down or turning it, any object will continue travelling in a straight line forever. That is Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion. And when an object has stopped or slowed down, it will take a new force to start it moving or speed it up again.
Many people use the idea of momentum as an analogy in areas such as business or fitness training. I want to apply it to our lives and then to our churches.
Sadly over the last year of Covid lockdowns and restrictions, most of us have lost momentum in our personal lives. Some aspects of life have slowed down and others have stopped altogether. Some people have lost their employment, or substantial income. Some have been bereaved or suffered from illnesses which may be ongoing. Some people have had to adjust to radically new ways of working or had to put their careers on hold. Covid may have impacted many of our relationships with family, friends and colleagues. Adapting to all these changes and others have left very many people lacking in confidence, confused, weary or exhausted or even in despair. While beforehand life may have been continuing at a steady speed in a straight line, now just doing the ordinary things of life has become more of a struggle. We have not lost our mojo – Covid has robbed us of it.
In the same way, most churches have lost momentum. Sunday services have gone online – and whatever anybody may say extolling the virtues of gathering for worship at home online, it really isn’t the same as worshipping together in person. Some Home Groups and Bible Studies and Prayer Meetings have continued virtually but the substantial majority have not. Occasional fellowship events like anniversary suppers and international evenings and quiz nights and even life events like baptisms and weddings have not happened. Many of our activities have closed altogether, from Toddler Groups and clubs for children and young people, to Drop Ins and Cafés. We may have lost regular members to other churches, and lost touch with some fringe contacts. However hard we have been trying, in many cases the precious networks of relationships built up over the years within our churches and even more with the communities we serve have been diminished. Additionally, the incomes of many churches have been hit very hard over the last year.
It is very important to recognise this loss of momentum in our own lives and in our church life together for several reasons. To begin with, it is a mistake to believe that the moment all forms of lockdown are lifted, life will spring back to what it was before overnight. In so many areas of life we have lost momentum and it will take weeks and months at least before we are back up to speed in whatever the new normal will look like. Many people will have to re-adjust to different work patterns and most of us will need to re-establish many of our relationships. But more than that, in physics, it takes more energy to accelerate than it does to keep going at the same speed. So it will take us more energy and effort to get back to where we were than it used to take to stay there while we were there. Getting “back to normal” is going to demand more effort than “being normal” did before. We will need to be realistic in our expectations, and not demand more from ourselves or from others than we should.
It will be similar in the life of the church. Attendance at Sunday worship will not return to pre-Covid “normal” for a while, and that is quite apart from the new challenges of offering “hybrid” services to address the needs of those participating virtually as well as those who are present in person. After an enforced sabbatical, some key leaders may not wish to return to activities, and others may be prevented on health grounds. Almost a whole generation of Toddler children will now have moved on to Pre-School or nursery. Children and young people whose lives have been turned upside-down may not choose to return to church activities. Income may not return to previous levels. It will take time and effort to build up momentum again.
Churches will need to be prayerful about restarting activities. Doing so will take more energy than keeping them going did when they had been up and running for years. We are out of routine. In many cases it will be more like starting from scratch. Most churches are not nearly as strong now as they were a year ago. If a church was running “at capacity” before lockdown, then it will take time to get back to running at that capacity again, and we may not get back to that point for a very long time. We will need to set priorities. A church which was running two toddler groups each week may do better to start by just trying to sustain one. A church running a café on two days a week may need to start by opening for only one day. Our activities for children and young people on Sundays and midweek are unlikely to return to full numbers straight away and may take months or even years to do so. There will also be grieving for activities which never resume. We should be preparing our churches for all these things.
However, all is not doom and gloom. When a car or a boat is travelling in a particular direction you have to apply a particular force to make it change direction. It takes less force to take the car or boat in a different direction if it is travelling more slowly. In this, loss of momentum will offer an opportunity for churches. In some places, momentum (which some would call inertia) has meant that it has not been possible to change established activities which have been running for years, or to start new ones. It may well be more possible to start new things, or to do things in new ways, after the enforced break of the last year. As we emerge from the shadow of Covid, the challenge facing churches and ministers in these times will be successfully to manage necessary change while avoiding the distractions of unnecessary change. But we must recognise the reality – it will take us a long time to regain our momentum.