This is not the first time in history that churches will be mandated to be closed down.
The only difference now is that it is being pinned on safety due to COVID-19. The church has been accused of many things in the past leading to a forced shutdown by governments. But the church survived and grew. Unlike today’s world, there was no internet that ministers could resort to. But they found ways to keep the church running.
Most churches think the internet to be the only option to survive during the lockdown. But the internet is just an enabler. It is not an option in itself. Due to the ignorance of this, many churches who are not internet savvy got on the pressure to go online. And because the members are not so used to the idea, memberships dropped significantly across the world. But this is not the biggest problem.
The biggest problem is in how people are already forming new habits with where to go. Just as a lot of people are now opting to work remotely even after the lockdowns were lifted, they are forming new habits concerning Sundays and other service days. A few weeks of not going to church on Sunday will make going to church on Sunday very hard when the restrictions are lifted. Some churches are feeling this already.
Some do not think that the lockdown restrictions were against the church. But it says a lot. First, we discover that the doomsday projection was not as deadly as people projected. Then, the very gathering that was banned was demonstrated in other forms and there were no repercussions. Churches can stay closed but people can go out in multitudes to protest. This means the government views churches as a place people should go only when it is safe and convenient. And the government only defines what they mean by safe and convenient. But the church of Jesus Christ is a place of help and healing. There was a time people were killed for having church. They still went ahead knowing the risks.
The scriptures tell us to respect government authority. But not when it comes in contrast to our faith. Imagine having to report to the King of kings that you had to shut his organization because some people told you it is the safe thing to do. Most ministers forget who they serve. And they also forget the history of the church. When things like this happened in the book of Acts, what did the ministers do? Sit down and let the whole matter die down? The only reason you would agree with closing down the church for safety reasons is if you believe that the church of Jesus Christ is not really a place for healing.
However, very few ministries can afford a direct confrontation with the government. Most are still not at that level of influence. And it often doesn’t give a church a good testimony in society when they directly confront the government. This is especially when those in government consider themselves to be Christian’s and are doing their best at the job.
There are several ways to keep the church running in times like this. Churches need to understand that taking the church entirely online all of a sudden isn’t a good decision. If a church already has that structure, it is good. But if a church doesn’t have that structure, the internet can enable but it can replace the system. Here are some ideas that can replace:
Option 1: Church in Homes
Most countries have a number restriction for every gathering. However small the number may be, the church can still run on that. Jesus said where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst. If the 2 or 3 makes up the smallest unit of a church, then 6 is a multitude. The congregation can be broken into groups of 6 and church services can continue in people’s homes.
Remember, the church grew out of people’s homes. In Jerusalem, they started by using the temple. But in other cities (especially outside Israel), the church was held in people’s homes. That is a strategy to fall back to.
This strategy is only effective when there is good membership data, so that such meetings can be tracked. Many could slack off and take it unseriously but where there is good data records, it will be effective.
Each group of 6 can have photos of their services sent to the church server, where it will be celebrated across all platforms. In most cases, a whole family forms a group. And it is easy for them not to take it seriously. But an accountability system can be in place to make it something that everybody is willing to participate in.
This system is where the minister sends the sermon outline to each group. And someone among those 6 does the preaching.
Option 2: Church in Homes But Livestream Services
This is the strategy many churches took. But it wasn’t so right for most of them because they were not prepared for it and had not prepared their members. And so, churches that had thousands coming in every Sunday now have a few hundred on the livestream. And it is simply because people are not used to it and they just don’t make a sudden transition like that.
Another point worth noting is that church gatherings are not merely to come and listen. People can watch video messages over the internet when they wish. People can listen to audio recordings as they wish. The primary purpose church gatherings offer is fellowship and participation. Hence, every livestream service must have an element of fellowship and participation.
This could be achieved with simple things like members having to send in photos of their households. And these photos will be shared with the whole community during the livestream. This is not to be a social media showoff but a show of participation. In fact, members can be encouraged to dress as they would to church on a regular Sunday and take photos of themselves tuned in to the livestream. Without fellowship and participation, a livestream is just another video message.
Option 3: A Q&A Church Service
One great way to bake fellowship and participation into livestream church services is to have a question and answer kind of preaching. Meaning that members actually do a video call in (which is moderated) and they ask questions about the subject to being discussed.
This way, participation is guaranteed. And it is something people look forward to every time. However, the internet access of members must be good to pull this off. Areas where there is weak or no internet connection cannot do this.
A monologue is good when people are physically present. But it is not good when people are not physically present. Myriads of things can distract people when they are watching a livestream. Hence, when they are not participating, you can assume that they are not really present. And you know participation triggers giving. It is hard to give money to something you are not participating in. If anyone does, it is either insignificant or done grudgingly. And both are not desirable.
Option 4: Ministering Privately to Members
There is no rule in the Bible that says you must have church service on Sunday. But it is already built into the modern societal structure and not necessarily connected to how it came to be in the first place. When times change, churches ought to respond to the change and not react to it. There is a difference.
Reacting to change is allowing circumstances to force the church into operating in a certain way. Responding is when the church comes up with a new way of operation that overwhelms the circumstance in itself. Circumstances can force the doors of church buildings to stay locked but it shouldn’t stop ministry.
In times of fear, especially when members are afraid of accepting other people into their homes, this method can be used. This is especially important for churches with a very large congregation and a good structure. Every ordained minister in the church is given a task to video call and pray with each family unit in the church.
Instead of having Sunday services, ministers from their houses call to encourage and strengthen the faith of the members. And the structure should be that a member receives a call at least once a week. The call may not be up to 15 minutes, but it is personalized and includes prayer. This is what really strengthens people in times where fear is in the air.
The ministers who give the calls will have other senior ministers who will call them and strengthen them also. This would translate into a ripple effect that will strengthen the church. With this, members continue to feel that they belong to a church family even if there is no physical meeting. And when physical meetings resume, people will be happy to see each other again.
If the church is nowhere to be found at the times of fear when people need them the most, what then is the essence of the church?
The restrictions may be over in some places but the challenge is not. Always remember that the real task is to create fellowship and participation.
The government can restrict church gatherings, but just as through history, they cannot stop ministry. Find a creative way to keep the ministry going. Don’t lose members. Remember that you will give account of your ministry to the King of kings. And never forget that he is always with you, every step of the way.