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Benefits of virtual gatherings should not be forgotten

Rev Steve Stockman


Keeping the faith in a pandemic

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Father Tim Bartlett installs Covid-19 social distancing measures at Belfast’s oldest Catholic church, St Mary’s in Chapel Lane (Niall Carson/PA)

Father Tim Bartlett installs Covid-19 social distancing measures at Belfast’s oldest Catholic church, St Mary’s in Chapel Lane (Niall Carson/PA)

PA

Father Tim Bartlett installs Covid-19 social distancing measures at Belfast’s oldest Catholic church, St Mary’s in Chapel Lane (Niall Carson/PA)

Last Monday, churches were given the green light to reopen. Should we rush right back, or leave it until more of us are allowed into the building? Will getting back into the building be a spiritual tonic, or might we lose some of the lessons learned in these strange days? There is a lot of debate and discussion among Church leaders.

The truth is that churches reopening is easier rhetorically than in reality. There are many health and safety issues, from physical distancing to ways in and out of buildings, to the human resources and financial cost of the meticulous cleaning that will be necessary to allow us to attend week after week.

Then, there is the service itself. We will have to curtail fellowship. There will be no communal singing. Apparently, the preacher can't even raise his or her voice. With Celtic evangelicals like me, that is a big ask.

The limited numbers will mean either booking your seat or rotating your congregation by groups. In Fitzroy, more people would be excluded from a service than would be allowed in. What would we do with visitors who turn up not knowing the booking system?

It all leads me to ask what Church actually is? I fear that we might have people gathering in a church building, but that the gathering might not be anything like what church is supposed to be. Fellowship without tea and coffee? Worship without singing? The body with members barred?

Into that discussion it might be helpful to ask what we have learned about Church in lockdown. We discovered that the church buildings might be closed, but Churches were very much open. We learned that the Church was not about bricks, but about people.

We learned that we could pastor one another from the kitchen table with phone calls, that we could gather for prayer and committee meetings, as well as continuing youth and children's work and even baby and toddler groups by Zoom and that we could all feel very much part of a worship service by being creative on YouTube. In Fitzroy, we found that we have never had such a handle on our pastoral needs. We found more at the Zoom prayer meeting than when we met in church.

We were astounded that our online services reached maybe five times what we might have had on Sundays before lockdown and that now we have weekly members from British Columbia to Ohio, from Greece to Bangladesh and Australia.

As we ponder when to return, I am not prioritising so much the urgency to get people back into a building as what is best for the spiritual formation, pastoral care and missional reach of our ministry.

Even when we get back to physically gathering, we would be wrong to leave behind the benefits we have found in the virtual possibilities of these recent months.

Finally, as we try to avoid just a quick reflex action back to how it was, I hope that our returning to the building doesn't make us spiritually complacent.

It is sometimes too easy to think that going to church on a Sunday morning is enough. In lockdown, many of us having been praying more, reading the Bible more and pondering spiritual things more. Please God that continues.

Do not get me wrong: I cannot wait to see Fitzroy filled once more. I love the live connection of preaching and prayer and the deep fellowship in our welcome area afterwards.

However, the same Fitzroy Sunday that we last enjoyed in March is still a long way off.

We need to think of the right time to start returning and, when we do, it needs to be spiritually even more enriching than it was.

Rev Steve Stockman is minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast

Apt Bible readings

Some Scripture readings for the week ahead:

Monday: Psalm 95:1-7

Tuesday: Acts 2:42-47

Wednesday: Romans 12:3-8

Thursday: Ephesians 4:7-16

Friday: 1 Peter 2:9-10

Belfast Telegraph