Flourishing Or Struggling: What Has Made Churches’ Pandemic Experience So Different?

I’ve found, as I head towards another milestone birthday (not saying which one!), that the misuse of English grammar has moved from irritation to annoyance. Maybe highest on this list is the overuse of the adverb “literally” – of course, I know, this is just the adaptation of language. This change was really evident during the pandemic; in our Sunday game of preacher bingo (don’t ask) we couldn’t wait for the latest in-phrases of  “new normal” or “paradigm shift” (a particular favourite) to turn up. 

But as I waited I began to consider whether there really had been a “paradigm shift” in the church in the UK? It is a question that is all the more relevant with the easing of restrictions in the aftermath of “freedom day” this week. Has the pandemic brought genuine change?

For many, the answer is yes. Hundreds of churches across the country have stepped up and reached out in the face of the pandemic. Being involved with the food bank in Coventry and the expansion of the emergency food network over the last year, the large scale holiday programmes and additional support provided to so many people, especially older people through Hope Coventry – I think the church across this city did an amazing job in responding to the overwhelming need. churches have flourished and seen extraordinary growth with increasing numbers of people looking to explore the Christian faith. 

But this is not the picture for every church. Many have seen their numbers dwindle. The fatigue with the online church set in; people dropped off and where online was the only option, many became less and less engaged. 

So what is it that has created such different experiences of the pandemic within churches? What is it that has seen some flourish whilst others have struggled? 

Over the last few months, prior to the lifting of restrictions on Monday, I saw an increasing number of articles and news pieces on the frustration of the church as lockdown eased – the frustration of seemingly being at the bottom of Boris’ list for restrictions easing, still unable to sing, still unable to have the fellowship we crave, still unable to do so many of the things that used to be part of everyday church life. This has also been reflected in my personal conversations with a number of church leaders across the city of Coventry. Their two priorities: the “road map” back to full congregational gatherings” – and the level of pastoral support now required by church members impacted by life changes over the last 15 months.

This year has been tough and it is important churches care for their flock. But there is also a danger. A danger that our focus turns inwards. That making disciples is put on the back burner and we try to sort out everything within the church before we begin looking outward. Now that restrictions have eased and many of the churches’ concerns have been addressed, where does that leave the churches that have focused inward during this time?

The reality is that the health of the church and how outward-looking it is are interlinked. The biblical picture of the church is one of strong internal community, yes, but it is a community drawn together by a common purpose, a common mission; to connect people to Jesus. To connect them by showing his love and sharing his gospel. The New Testament is littered with examples of Jesus sending out those that follow him as his ambassadors in the world. Perhaps most famously in the ‘great commission’, where he commands us to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28 v 19). Jesus spent his ministry going out to people, meeting them where they were. And it isn’t just the new testament where faith and action have always gone hand in hand. In Micah 6 v8 it says, “He has shown you O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is substantial evidence that it is the churches that have stepped out at this time and engaged with their communities that have been the ones who have flourished.

St Laurence’s Church, Foleshill (since 2017) were faced with the closure of their two nearest food banks overnight as a result of government advice on shielding volunteers over 70. Their nursery had closed and, with an empty building and conscious of the need, they prayed and asked God ‘what do you want us to do?’  

Within just a few weeks, they had £3,500 of grants, donations of food, a team of volunteers, and partnerships with Coventry Foodbank & Coventry City Council . They subsequently set up “Hope Hub” to meet the practical needs, but also provide emotional support and bring the community together to serve. And it has done exactly that. They have been supported through giving and prayer, as well as volunteers from across the community, not from the church. They have flourished. The church engaged with the community and both have grown and been strengthened.  

This was not a work they undertook on their own – they did it through partnerships, others came alongside them to resource and equip them to go out into the community. That is the heart of our vision at Feed The Hungry and the Halo Centre. By running training and making connections between churches, the council, and local charities and business it is our goal to see churches empowered to be an effective force for good in their communities.

God’s design for the church was to be a missional community. These two elements are not just essential, they are interdependent. This did not change in the face of the pandemic and it will not change as we emerge from it. Whatever happens next, whether we continue to move away from lockdowns and restrictions, or we are set for more twists and turns to come, the church must be committed to showing and sharing Jesus’ love with our communities; only then will it flourish.

Gavin Kibble MBE, is Regional Operations Director at humanitarian charity Feed The Hungry. After founding Coventry Foodbank in 2011, which is now one of the largest foodbanks in the country, Gavin has spent the last ten years aiding charitable work in the city of Coventry, pioneering a Winter Night Shelter, and befriending service that provided friendship to over 500 isolated older people.

Gavin was recently awarded an MBE for his work during the pandemic, spearheading summer holiday food programmes for over 2,000 of Coventry’s most vulnerable children. Gavin is on the Leadership team at Mosaic Church with his wife Vivienne.

If you would like to chat about building transformational communities in your village, town, or city feel free to contact him at gavin@feedthehungry.org.uk

Written by: Gavin Kibble

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