In 2005, I raised at a leaders’ meeting the question of whether we should have a “pandemic strategy.” At that point the fear was avian flu. We decided against trying to make a plan.
Oddly, when COVID-19 hit the UK, I felt no sense that any advance plan would’ve made much difference.
Our church of 250 members was founded in the 1820s and now meets in our own modern building on the east side of the historic center of Cambridge. During term time, around 80 undergraduates form part of the congregation. When COVID hit, just about everything in church life was affected in unprecedented and unanticipated ways—almost all of them negative. But the Lord drew out of us a kind of “Blitz spirit” of coping and adapting.
The worst losses were probably corporate worship and personal fellowship. We did adapt to meeting online; the tech teams were heroic and the congregation was deeply appreciative. I even developed a weekly online compline service with liturgy and (recorded) choral music, which allowed us to slow down and seek the Lord’s peace on Sunday evenings.
Groups and discipleship transferred online or outdoors (depending on the restrictions at the time). The level of adaptivity was astounding and could never have been planned in advance. I think we realized the Lord could ambush us and then give us all we needed to cope with the unexpected. Not a bad lesson to learn and one we had to keep learning.
We realized the Lord could ambush us and then give us all we needed to cope with the unexpected.
For all our successful pivots, we grieved over the loss of community worship and in-person connections, both in small groups and informally. I always found preaching to a camera to feel attenuated and unnatural. And the loss of the Lord’s Supper was deeply felt and impossible to compensate for. To see our lively student, youth, and children’s work move largely on-screen was a testimony to the hard work of the leaders but still a significant diminishment from what they were able to do in person.
There have been some benefits—for instance, replacing auditorium chairs (which were cumbersome to move) with lighter and more comfortable ones has given us a whole new space for different groups. It’s almost like having a vast new hall for a mere £20,000. Encouraging congregational emails—at first daily, then two to three times weekly—from church pastoral staff and others seemed to help folk. New people have continued to join the church and many outside of Cambridge have appreciated the broadcast of the services on YouTube.
Unity of the Spirit
We’ve prayed the Lord would enable us to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3)—and we’ve needed to because there were real relational difficulties at times. Unsurprisingly, not seeing each other so much (combined with the stress of continually needing to make decisions about how and when to change things) put strains on the relationships among leaders and staff.
We had to keep reminding ourselves that none of us was actually quite ourselves and to make allowances, but this wasn’t easy. I found myself having to apologize for times when I’d been peremptory, overbearing, or insensitive to colleagues.
Church members had markedly different opinions about the British government’s handling of the pandemic. Some folk agreed to cease conversations about face masks or immunizations to preserve relationships. Others found themselves at odds with how the church leadership chose to implement the guidance and legislation. That has been very hard for some.
Some folk agreed to cease conversations about face masks or immunizations to preserve relationships.
As we return closer and closer to “normal,” I can see the Lord’s hand in the life of the congregation in many ways. There has been a renewed appreciation of ordinary weekly aspects of church life—singing together, chatting about our lives after the service, meeting in homes for our small groups, eating bread and drinking wine at communion, preaching with eye contact, talking in the building without masks, holding in-person kids holiday clubs and youth camps, church socials of various kinds, leaders’ meetings back in the church building.
And with all that I detect there’s has been a growth in maturity, even through a time of diminished experience of the normal means of grace. Discovering that the Lord can take away and then help you cope with the loss gives a priceless memory to draw on in the uncertainties of the future. A deeper appreciation of relationships is a great strengthening agent for the future life of the church. And for some, a jolt of that magnitude to their normal life has made them more open to the Lord doing new things, such as leading them into cross-cultural overseas mission.
None of us would’ve wished for the pandemic, but I have a strong feeling that Christ has become more central, more sweet, and more significant for just about all of us. And in the end, that’s what the Christian life is all about.