Wednesday, 24 July 2024

Being the Church in and after COVID

Challenges and Opportunities

In this article, I will use the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth's model to structure the content. This model states that when congregations face trauma, they go through five phases: Impact; Heroic; Disillusionment; Reconstruction; and Wiser Living. I write from a personal basis and do not reflect the views of the Provincial Board.

Before I address the journey of the Moravian Church in the British Province in, and after, COVID, it is important to acknowledge that the COVID pandemic is not the first time that the Church has faced an existential crisis - and it is still here, and will continue to be here, in some form or another, if not in its current form. If you know your biblical history, you will know that in the Old Testament the Jews faced existential challenges through oppression by the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Romans (among others) - and, each time, they have come through by following strong leadership, by journeying with circumstances, and by adapting - whilst never losing a sense of their identity and of their part in the purpose of God. Their journey has been described as a process of orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation. The same process happened for the early Christians, in that they were persecuted before being able to re-orientate once again, and even the early Czech-based Moravian Church was nearly wiped out in the 30 years' war, before being renewed in Herrnhut. So, this article is not intended to be pessimistic - but it is realistic. I believe that realism, rather than burying our head in the sand, is what we need to confront, in order to re-orientate wisely.

So, turning to the Church in COVID, and looking at the Impact phase: if we think that Church, first and foremost, is about relationship and community in which the worship of God is central to our purpose, the COVID pandemic caused us to rethink what it means to worship, and what it means to be community. At a time when we could no longer gather together because of lockdown, could God still be present when two are three are gathered together in His name, even if it is over Zoom? The pandemic threw up all kinds of theological questions, such as 'why has God allowed this to happen?', made many of us more aware of our mortality, and even made us question the theological precepts of Holy Communion. Some of us (myself included) lost folks who were close to us. So, whether we acknowledge it or not, COVID has impacted us as a Church.

In responding to the need for continued worship and pastoral support, we entered what might be considered to be a Heroic phase, in which various congregations and Ministers heroically tried to plug gaps in worship and community through the provision of Zoom services, Worship on the Web, regular weekly (and sometimes daily) telephone conversations which were pastorally designed to combat potential isolation, Zoom Bible Studies, Zoom prayer meetings, a Zoom Synod in which voting could be conducted electronically, and even a drive-in Christingle service. This involved learning new computer skills and adapting to worshipping and operating in a different context. That provision showed us that we, as a Church which can be described as 'traditional', could pragmatically adapt on a 'needs must' basis. It also enabled creative innovation and enabled the Church to expand beyond the frontiers of the British Province to include brothers and sisters from other provinces in worshipping and studying together. It gave us a better sense of other worship practices that go on within our unity.

Whilst there have been many advantages to these heroic responses, there has been a shadow-side for the Church too. This might be identified as the Disillusionment phase. Some Ministers (who are only human beings after all) have questioned their vocation and their ability to do the work effectively - perhaps bringing retirement closer to mind; many elderly and other members haven't wanted to embrace the technology, but have instead craved physical, human connection; there has been a financial impact on many congregations as regular giving has become unstable with not getting out regularly to Church; and our Moravian schools have faced financial crisis as international boarders haven't been able to travel, and parents have demanded concessions for the on-line provision of education. These issues have seriously impacted the British Province financially. It has been difficult to provide a ministry for young people in many of our congregations as interactive ministries are more difficult on Zoom, and many youth leaders haven't wanted to work physically with young people who are perhaps unfairly regarded as 'vectors of infection'. Community lunches and dementia cafes have had to be halted, as work with the vulnerable, although highly needed, was just too risky. And just as things started to return to some sense of greater normality, the virus mutated again, leading to further restrictions and greater pandemic fatigue. For many ministers and Church leaders, it has been difficult to preach a gospel of hope and not become disillusioned themselves by the sense of 'treading water' - whilst accompanying others who are disillusioned. How do we hold on to some sense of Christian resilience as we journey through a pandemic that seems to have no obvious end?

Now, turning to the Church after COVID - what we might see as the Reconstruction phase. Because we don't know how long the pandemic will continue for, and what will be left of our Church, it is difficult to know how to reconstruct it - and there is no blueprint for recovery. No one has dealt with these particular set of circumstances and opportunities before, that we can follow. The scientists say that pandemics usually last about five years, but that is not a guaranteed period of time - and with the remarkable vaccines and medicines that have become available to us, that timeline may be shortened - yet other variants may yet come along and prolong it - we just don't know. Life is uncertain.
Currently, the situation is that there are about 1,000 members in the British Province, within 32 congregations (some of whom are just about holding on from closure), served by 17 ministers (at least eight of whom will be eligible for retirement within the next ten years). There are generations missing in most congregations, and the future looks problematic. Whenever the pandemic ends, what will remain, however, is a continued lived experience of God's presence, and a need to worship Him in some form, as a response to spiritual need. People will seek different ways to relate to God as part of their recovery from the pandemic. There will still be societal need that is poorly met by political social provision. How might the Church play a part in meeting that need? There is a mental health pandemic among young people. How might the Church play a part in bringing young people to faith, where God is the touchstone of resilience in the lives of believers? There is much social isolation in our communities. How might the Church play a vital role in befriending the lonely? There is much homelessness and plenty of refugees. How might the Church play a part in providing for their needs through possibly providing language classes, housing and community building? How can we build up the Church through transforming ourselves, so that Christ lives more in us, and so that people want what we have, as His light shines from us? How can we enable a ministry that honours everyone's gifts, in which people feel called to work for Christ, and be used by the Church in such a way that they aren't squashed into a one-size-fits all approach to worship and ministry? There isn't a lack of spiritual need 'out there' - it's just that I'm not sure we know how to meet it anymore, or maybe we have lost confidence in ourselves - even as Ministers.

Reconstruction is certainly needed. However, reconstruction doesn't just mean entering another heroic phase, by trying to come up with loads of new initiatives - usually social and fellowship-based initiatives - without thinking about a Wiser Living phase. This, in my view, begins by first starting with where people are; by first acknowledging the loss and assessing the abilities, energy and gifts that are, or aren't, around us in our congregations. Entering a wiser living phase can mean beginning by asking difficult questions that we don't want to face. One of these might be 'is the Moravian Church in the British Province in need of end-of-life care (to put it bluntly)?' If it is, is it therefore lacking compassion to say that we have got to get better - to begin new initiatives for which there is little energy, and to renew? Might a more pastoral and sensitive winding down of the province be the wiser course of action?
Is there enough desire, and capacity for growth and survival among us, and if so, what does that look like? Are we too thinly spread in terms of resources, with each congregation putting its own self-interests first based on emotions, without looking at how their continued need to 'exist' with very small numbers and a seeming lack of purpose (other than keeping things the same), impacts on the bigger picture, and thus makes the province less able to offer effective ministry? How can we build ourselves up as the Body of Christ before we look at outreach? Is there the appetite for meeting social and spiritual need in our community, and for living our faith out beyond the Church walls, under the banner of the Moravian Church? Is there a vision - for 'where there is no vision, the people perish'.

There is no doubt that the Church needs to go where God is, to participate in God and to make God possible, and known, to others, if it is to survive. However, that may be in first facing the death of its usual self to enable its resurrection; or it may be in regrouping wisely and re-establishing a vision; and in the recognition that we who are alive, and remaining, must re-double our efforts to seek the renewal and growth of our church through having a vision for our Church.

If our present and future is the end-of-life care of our province because we have fulfilled our purpose for being, we must not see any closure, or integration of congregations - or of our province with another province, as failure. Instead, we must see it as a wise acknowledgment that maybe we have now lived the purpose for which God intended our Church, or congregation, and that it is time to end. 'For everything there is a season'. Or is God extending, and maybe re-establishing, our purpose in how we respond wisely beyond the pandemic? If so, what is our vision?

There are lots of questions here, whose answers we need to honestly face and discern. Yet, within all of this, ultimately, there is a recognition that we are here - not because we have chosen to be, but because God has chosen us to be - not because we decided it was good idea, but because God has called us, and drawn us, and guided us. And that is such a reassurance when our faith is tried and tested, and we worry if we can even hang on in here - to know that our faith journey is not our initiative but God's, and that we are held in the orbit of His divine grace.

We do not know what the coming year holds, let alone the more distant future. However, it is by the grace of God that we are here today, and it is by the grace of God we will be here next year too - if God wills it - and if we will it too. We may find ourselves mysteriously further drawn by the pull of divine grace - but we will have to play our part too. So, what will be your part? What will be our vision? To end, I want to leave you with a simple, yet profound and, I think, quite achievable vision - and it is this - it is to be a light in the darkness, transforming our communities, one person at a time. If our Church is to continue, this is what I believe we must work at - and the rest is in God's hands. And it need not be radical. If each member was to bring one person to Christ (and to become a member of our Church), then we would double in size! But I wonder if the apathy that pervades society towards faith, has also pervaded our souls?

Br Peter Gubi

Minister of Dukinfield Moravian Church
Professor of Counselling, University of Chester
Honorary Professor of Practical Theology, Teofilo Kisanji University

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