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Lessons From and For the Church in Covid Times: Looking Back and Forwards

In the first semester of 2021, I had the privilege of five months of research leave: time set aside to ask, listen, read, analyse, explore, and write.

My focus for that time was on how churches in New Zealand responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.[1] When we returned to Alert Level 4 in mid-August 2021, I immediately thought of church leaders across New Zealand who were facing another upheaval in their ministry, mission, and pastoral care. Therefore, I took the opportunity to consider what I had learnt from my research leave that I could offer back to all ministers and churches experiencing another lockdown. I wrote a series of ten blog posts over ten days, that I unimaginatively titled: “Ten things to say to ministers in another lockdown.”[2]

While these reflections were based on the research I had undertaken, the blog posts were stripped of footnotes and quotations. Here, I revisit them with two main adaptations (as well as general edits). First, I add in some of the footnotes and the quotes, as is appropriate in an academic piece of writing. Secondly, I look beyond the lockdown context and offer these reflections for churches in the new normal that, as I write in early October 2021, much of Aotearoa is experiencing. There is a thread throughout of personal wellbeing – shalom. A sense that despite everything, God is good and that life to the full is a worthy goal. The shalom or wellbeing that I long for is for congregation members certainly, but it is also for ministers, and for our wider community.

Research

The article draws on research from an online questionnaire completed by over seventy ministers, and case studies of three churches in neighbouring suburbs in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. The questionnaire explored the actions that NZ and Australian churches took during 2020 in response to Covid, and the motivations that lay behind those actions. The case studies involved site visits, interviews and focus groups with leaders and congregational members, content analysis of worship services, and participant observation. These three churches were of different denominations (Anglican and Baptist) and different sizes (small, medium, and large). While being located in the same geographic location brought the strength of making them more readily more comparable (attentive to theological and ecclesiological difference), the corresponding weakness means there is an opportunity for additional research on different socio-cultural contexts. In this article, I outline ten findings from my research that can be offered back to resource the church in Aotearoa NZ today. The blog posts were written in the midst of NZ’s second national lockdown, beginning August 2021, and this article was refined in October 2021.

Look back (Draw on past strength)

While the length of time that the pandemic has been unfolding undoubtedly adds to the difficulty that we face, there is also at least one significant advantage that we have over our situation in March 2020. Having survived thus far, we have developed some coping strategies (and perhaps identified other potential strategies that were less helpful or sustainable). When faced with new (or ongoing) challenges, it is helpful to look back and recall what has sustained us in the past. Of course, we also have the simple fact of having survived thus far to encourage us.

There was a sense of déjà vu for me as we ate our lunch and listened to the 1pm Daily Update (also known as The Jacinda and Ashley Show) on the 18 August 2021: the first day back at Alert Level 4.[3] We started another jigsaw puzzle because I remember that doing so provided an opportunity to do something restful, and non-demanding. As I journaled that morning, I had tried to recall what had helped me get through last time. Remembering the increasing birdsong, and the joy I found in listening to that, I listened a little closer to the birds.

In every current situation considering and reinstating the things that helped in the past can provide strength for the future. While this applies to each person, it also applies to churches. So much was learned as churches pivoted to online that never needs to be relearned. The church is considerably more equipped and ready to thrive in an online space than it was in March 2020. Recalling this and looking back at all that has been learned can encourage and strengthen us, as can reinstating habits and actions that were helpful in the past.

Look back (Live into, and out of, your values)

A second aspect of looking back relates to values. With Covid came a seemingly infinite array of resourcing and possibilities that ministers and churches could adopt. Creative ideas for online worship were shared. Pastoral care initiatives were described. Ways that churches might engage with the wider community came across our newsfeeds. One minister told me, “I found myself comparing [myself to them] … thinking ‘oh, they’re doing that, should I be doing this?’ or ‘maybe I should be …’ ‘Oh hang on, they’re doing so much more’ and everyone seems to be doing so much better or more.”[4] It was easy to feel uncertain and buffeted.

Analysing data from another church, I realised that I was hearing echoes of their espoused values in the actions that they took and the words that they spoke: they were living into and out of their shared values.[5] Such consistency between online expression and offline identity is important, speaking of trustworthiness and authenticity.[6] However, as well as reflecting who churches are, values can also provide a framework by which to discern future actions. As one minister commented, “It encouraged us to dig deeper into some of our values of shared practices and [to] respond in worship in more creative ways.”[7]

Churches that prioritise connection or community might make interpersonal engagement a priority online as well as offline, by opening up spaces to share with one another through chat, breakout rooms, or social media. In this way, they build on their strengths.

Another church I researched valued using creative and responsive elements in their off-line worship and continued to do so online: a candle lit at the beginning of the service, and invitations to hold and use tangible objects responsively during the online gathering, for example. These actions built continuity and enhanced familiarity between the off-line and the online worship spaces: important at a time when so much was changing.

In these ways (and others) churches drew on the things that are important them and used those values to guide their actions. [8] Their values provided continuity, guidance, and grounding.

Look further back (Lean into God)

As well as recalling how we have coped in the past, and drawing on the church’s existing values, my research also demonstrated the importance of looking further back, to God: to what we know about who God is and how God has acted in the past. Each of the three case study churches did this on the first Sunday of the first 2020 lockdown, as they pointed to God’s love, attentive presence and faithfulness, and activity and power in the sermons that they preached. The churches all clearly located God as the source of strength and hope. Their sermons were what Neil Pembroke calls “theocentric.”[9]

Each church affirmed God’s love for the church and the world. They pointed to God’s love, revealed throughout the Scriptures and history, noting that it invited a response on the part of the hearer. These sermons reminded the hearer that we have something more than our own experiences to draw on during difficult times. The Bible contains a wealth of human expression of pain, uncertainty, and grief that can be read as part of the wider story of God’s goodness and grace: God who seeks relationship with humanity; loving, acting, and being present. Churches can draw on these scriptural resources to both comfort and encourage, and to point to God as the source of hope and wellbeing.

How might a minister encourage others in their church to also remember God’s never-ending faithfulness? This can be achieved with stories shared that remind the congregation of times when prayers have been answered, or there was an experience of God’s goodness. It can be proclaimed through songs played or sung, and the scriptures that are read or preached on. Perhaps it can be accompanied with an invitation for the congregation to recall a time that was difficult for them, yet when they knew or trusted God to be present. God is the source of our life and our hope. Christians are invited to look way back, and lean into God, whose presence has been declared since the beginning.

Name the challenge

While it is important to remind ourselves and others of God’s love, it is equally important to be honest about the challenges. Pandemics are hard! There’s uncertainty and the attendant lack of control. People are sick. People are at risk. When we’re stuck at home, many of us are trying to do our usual work: often with children to care for. Whether at home or out and about, we’re aware of the threat of the virus. We’re not sure when this will end. Will this end? How long will we need to live like this? How long?

Just as we’re invited to look back and draw on past strength - to live into and out of our values and to lean into God - we’re also invited to name the challenge that people are facing. Doing so enables preaching to connect “with the hearer in their times of disruption and disorientation.”[10] The three churches studied did this both by naming the (contemporary) lockdown circumstances, and drawing parallels with (ancient) scriptural accounts of disorientation, dryness and struggle. There is therapeutic benefit in simply bearing witness to pain, because those who suffer need time to acknowledge the reality of their suffering.[11]

The Scriptures, including Psalms of lament and the Book of Lamentations, offer a means of expressing the “rawness of human reality.”[12] As Cathy Ross notes, “the public practice of lament is essentially having the courage to name what is happening, [and] to insist on engaging with God in the midst of the tragedy and the ruins.”[13]

Sitting with the pain is important. As Robert Beamish reminds us, lament doesn’t prematurely move to explanations or solutions that fail to touch the heart.[14] This is not because there is no hope. Rather, humans need space to acknowledge their big feelings including, perhaps, to name them before God and each other.

Prioritise connection and invite participation

There are many things that motivate churches to get involved in the online space. Tim Hutchings helpfully categorised key motivations in terms of amplification, connection, and experimentation.[15] While experimentation in new approaches to online ministry is important, and during lockdowns the online space is readily available to broadcast a message, the internet is more than this. It can be a place of connection: a social network.[16] The online space provides opportunities for “genuine community to be formed, including between people who are otherwise separated by distance, disability, … ideology,” or – now – pandemic.[17]

As humans, made in the image of the relational God, it’s natural that we seek connection.[18] During Covid, it takes more intentionality to stay connected: a particular effort to reach out to one another as we’re less likely to encounter friends and acquaintances in the supermarket or on the street.

During Sunday worship, genuine connection requires more than passive online viewing and can be enhanced by inviting participation, pre- and post-production. Post-production, it could be as simple as inviting participants to respond to questions by commenting or posting in the chat. Or there could be a way of reporting back after an offline activity is undertaken in bubble groups.

As I watched and analysed online services, I noticed that over time the level of participation generally decreased. One church partially dealt with this by having an online host who posted in the chat/comments in order to facilitate engagement. While that was helpful, it was engagement that built engagement, and there was only so much that one person could do. Assigning more than one person to the task would be helpful particularly in larger contexts where it isn’t possible to have everyone sharing aloud.[19]

It takes more effort but inviting pre-production participation in services was also appreciated. As people become increasingly familiar and comfortable with video technology, more are able to be involved in this way. In one focus group, participants laughed as they told me that they appreciated hearing testimonies and stories from people who weren’t on the church’s payroll.[20]

Covid has invited us to take the opportunity to prioritise connection and invite participation. Doing so might help us to both reclaim the social aspects of the internet and live into our God-given relationality.

Lean into the “from my home to your home” intimacy and the intersacred

During lockdowns and gathering restrictions, people miss the person to person interaction that occurs when they get together in the same physical space, seeing each other in three dimensions, able to share food and drink together. While that is certainly a loss, what lockdowns and gathering restrictions offer in exchange is a different sort of intimacy – one that is “from my home to your home.”[21] People value such interaction. At one focus group, I heard of daily speculation about which room of their house the minister would speak to them from. At another focus group, held at a different minister’s home, participants looked around, delighting in recognising the spots where the Sunday recordings had been made.

During lockdown, church leaders had an opportunity to be present in the homes of several people at once, and to invite them into their homes. As this occurred, they opened themselves to others in new ways. At one level, this was simply pragmatic. On another level, a unique space was being created.

Writing from the UK context, Bryson, Andres, and Davies described this home-worship environment as an “intersacred space” in which “temporary sacred spaces are created in domestic settings through a linkage process … [that] temporarily transform[s] both spaces.”[22] Sacred space, set apart for ritual and for worship, was brought into the homes of congregation members, through the digital medium. Usual boundaries between sacred and secular were blurred and a new liminal space was created where one might worship in one’s slippers. There is much to explore here, theologically, missiologically and pastorally.

One of the churches I studied continues to offer an online option, irrespective of gathering restrictions. The form of the online service remained the same, and they worked hard to create a sense of person-to-person communication. However, outside of lockdowns, they recorded their services in a staged setting, rather than from the speaker’s home. While this was no doubt easier, the sense of intimacy that had been present and valued during lockdowns was diminished. Nor was the intimacy replaced by religious symbols that might have recaptured a sense of the sacred. There is much that is good in both opening up one’s homes to one another and in intentionally creating intersacred spaces where God might be encountered.

Keep an eye out for God!

As I interviewed church leaders and attendees, I heard wonderful stories of how God had been at work, and I heard delight in the telling of those stories. For instance, there was a sense of wonder at the appropriateness of the texts pre-selected for the first Sunday service in lockdown 2020. The Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament text, used by many churches, was from Ezekiel 37 and about God breathing life into dry bones. This was a message of hope that even in the midst of their worst moment, God was at work, bringing the transformation of new life. Another church (that had selected their service theme and texts late in 2019) focused their first lockdown service on Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes offered by one boy. They noted the relevance of this text for a time when they desperately needed God to multiply what God had given them. For this church, they saw and celebrated God’s hand at work in preparing them to be able to support others during Covid. For each church, this naming and celebrating helped strengthen faith, expectancy, and hope.

One woman recounted how a newcomer to church just before lockdown had provided their email address, but she wasn’t able to read it and so couldn’t contact the person. She was delighted to encounter the newcomer on a walk and was able to get their contact details and stay in touch.

These stories and others were told to me with a sense of wonder and celebration. God is at work in our world. God’s activity can be recognised, named, and celebrated, building faith and courage among people who find themselves in uncertain and difficult circumstances. So keep an eye out for God! And don’t be afraid to name and celebrate what might just be the work of God in our midst.

Get people involved, helping reach out to others

There are many things that are crucial to our wellbeing as humans. In addition to our more obvious physical needs, self-determination theorists talk in terms of three inherent needs: autonomy, belonging, and competency.[23] Needless to say, pandemics can impact negatively on all three! Competency relates to a sense of purpose and mastery – having something important to do and knowing that you do it well. Belonging relates to a sense of connection and attachment to others: more difficult to achieve when physical distancing is mandated, and travel restricted or prohibited. Autonomy relates to a sense of being in control, which is obviously diminished by uncertainty around lockdowns and the wider ongoing pandemic context.

One way that all three can be enhanced in Covid times is through the simple act of reaching out to others. In the context of the church, this can be approached informally as everyone is encouraged to care for their friends and whānau.[24] It can be approached formally through creating pastoral care structures that ensure each person is linked to others in the church; each caring and being cared for. Or there might be an approach somewhere in the middle, where informal care is encouraged, and those with particular needs are matched with someone who can check in on them. However it happens, it’s good to celebrate its significance.

Autonomy is enhanced as the caregiver makes the effort to offer care: as they decide for themselves to act in a way that is caring towards another. This can give them some sense of having control over their actions. Belonging is enhanced as relationships deepen, and the caregiver sees what they are doing as making an important contribution to the church community. Competency is enhanced as the carer regains a sense of purpose: they are doing something that is important and is valued.

We often see such actions in terms of the benefits for the recipients of that care, but in reality, they also benefit the one doing the caring. There’s reciprocity here – the benefits go both ways.

Ministers can be encouraged to name and celebrate the importance and significance of caring beyond one’s own bubble. Of taking the time and making the effort to reach out to others.[25]

Be “good enough”

Pandemics are tiring for all sorts of reasons. While some people thrived, even during lockdowns, many others suffered negative mental health effects.[26] For ministers, Covid “fundamentally unsettled routine ways of doing ministry.”[27] As one respondent noted, Covid “challenged everything.”[28] Although the learning curve was steepest at the beginning, the cumulative effects of learning new digital skills, teaching such skills to others, and attempting to continually adapt practices to fit changing restrictions and congregational needs continues to be tiring.

One of the pastors I interviewed was guided by the question: “How much is enough?”[29] There are echoes in this question of the work of Donald Winnicott, who coined the phrase, the “good enough mother.”[30] Just as parenting does not have to be perfect, neither does pastoral ministry.[31]

Perfection is unattainable. Ministers are invited to do something, to offer some care, to make available imperfect online services, to learn and change and adapt.

Dream of what could be

Finally, I remember the sense of hope that perhaps the world and the church might be different in the future, because of the pandemic. Maybe we’ll discover ways to live without trashing the planet. Maybe we’ll find new ways of being the church in our local communities. Maybe we’ll live into new ways of caring for one another. Maybe there are things that we learn and do that might become part of our future, rather than just being stopgap measures. One person I interviewed described it like this: “What might be normal going forward might be different, but we get to build that. We get to decide what that is.”[32] There was a sense of determined anticipation that the future could be different, and we could be involved in shaping that.

At the same time, there was some resignation by then (March 2021) that much had returned to an old normal. Many church members had simply wanted a return to past forms of church and ministry, rather than a turn to what could be. That’s not surprising: a return to familiarity can be comfortable and comforting.

The reality is, however, that in Aotearoa New Zealand, Christian religious affiliation is declining and most denominations report declining church attendance.[33] The things that have been done over past generations are not all that will be required into the future. Covid invites us to dream a little dream, or perhaps, even a big dream – to imagine what could be. One way to do so would be to look back and consider what new and fresh things that emerged during Covid sparked a sense of joy and anticipation. What old or ancient practices were reinstated? What new things grew or flourished?

Iterative change is good and necessary, but it is not all that is required. Writing pre-Covid of the missional potential of the online space, Jonny Baker called for “a deep immersion in the gospel … [and] a letting-go [of familiar] forms of language and culture” in order for there to be genuine engagement with the missional possibilities that are offered by digital technologies.[34] Most of what has been done thus far “does not yet represent Baker’s ‘translation’ or ‘letting go’ of the familiar forms of church.”[35] There is room for more.

Conclusion

In this article, I have drawn on insights gleaned from research into how NZ churches responded to Covid. Drawing on content analysis of worship services and interviews with pastoral leaders and congregation members, I named ten things that might help and encourage the church in Aotearoa New Zealand to look forward with hope and courage.

These things encourage churches: to look back and draw on past strength; and live into and out of your values. Those things will help sustain you. Lean into God, in whom our hope and strength are found. Name the challenge: it’s hard, right? Prioritise connection and invite participation. Invite people (online) into your place, even if it’s a bit messy or muddly. Keep an eye out for God at work. Get people involved, reaching out to others. Be “good enough”: perfection not required; perfection not possible. And, strengthened and empowered by all that, dream a little dream of what might be.

Lynne Taylor is originally from Christchurch and now lives in Dunedin with her husband, Steve, and one of their two young-adult daughters. As the Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology (University of Otago), Lynne is attentive to the contemporary mission and ministry context, and researches and teaches in these areas. In her 2021 Research Leave, she investigated how churches responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, exploring their mission, ministry and pastoral care practices. Prior to (and in conjunction with) her academic role, she has worked and volunteered in pastoral ministry, and engaged in congregational and denominational research. Her PhD explored why previously unchurched Australians are becoming Christians today. She longs to see people flourish.


[1] This research was reviewed and approved by the School of Arts Ethics Officer, University of Otago. (Approval numbers D20/354 and D20/442.)

[2] These were originally published on my personal website www.lynnetaylor.nz/blog and are adapted here.

[3] During Covid, NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern held regular press conferences that updated the Government’s response. She was generally joined by Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield who outlined details re case numbers and health-related measures. During national lockdowns, these occurred daily at 1pm and were avidly viewed by New Zealanders. An IMDb page was set up in their honour: www.imdb.com/title/tt12511606/.

[4] Church 1, Leader Interview.

[5] Lynne Maree Taylor, "Reaching Out Online: Learning from One Church’s Embrace of Digital Worship, Ministry and Witness," Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education 35 (2021): 12. https://tinyurl.com/lynne202102.

[6] Heidi A. Campbell et al., "Technological and Mediated Identity in American Multisite Churches," Ecclesial Practices 7, no. 1 (2020): 14; Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 4,11.

[7] Questionnaire response.

[8] I suggest other ways that online worship can draw on the values of the church in my original blog post on this topic: http://lynnetaylor.nz/10-t4ml-2-look-back-live-into-and-out-of-your-values/

[9] Neil Pembroke, Divine Therapeia and the Sermon: Theocentric Therapeutic Preaching (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013).

[10] Robert Beamish, "Preaching in the Time of COVID: Finding the Words to Speak of God," Practical Theology 14, no. 1–2 (2021): 49.

[11] Sasha Bates, "Finding New Languages for Loss," Therapy Today 31, no. 6 (2020): 45.

[12] David Nixon, "Despatches from the Frontline: Parish Responses to COVID-19 and Some Initial Analysis," Practical Theology 14, no. 1–2 (2021): 42.

[13] Cathy Ross, "Hope Is Tough: Reflections in a Time of COVID-19," Practical Theology 14, no. 1–2 (2021): 92.

[14] Beamish, "Preaching in the Time of COVID," 47.

[15] Tim Hutchings, "What Can History of Digital Religion Teach the Newly-Online Churches of Today?," in The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online, ed. Heidi Campbell (Digital Religion Publications: Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies, 2020), 61. https://jliflc.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Distanced-Church-PDF-landscape-FINAL-version.pdf Elsewhere, I explore the necessary primacy of connection, insufficiency of amplification, and ongoing opportunity and need for experimentation; as well as the interrelationships between all three. Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 3–4,11–12.

[16] Heidi Campbell, Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 25.

[17] Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 3.

[18] Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 4.

[19] Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 10.

[20] Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 10.

[21] Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 11.

[22] John R Bryson, Lauren Andres, and Andrew Davies, "COVID‐19, Virtual Church Services and a New Temporary Geography of Home," Tijdschrift Voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 111, no. 3 (2020): 368.

[23] Elizabeth Hathaway, "Assisting Faith-Based Organizations Increase Sense of Belonging During the Covid-19 Pandemic," Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 74, no. 4 (2020): 226.

[24] Whānau is a term in te reo Māori (NZ’s indigenous language), which can be defined as an extended family, or a group that extends beyond biolegal kinship. https://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?&keywords=whanau

[25] Of course, we need to ensure that there are clear ways that people can escalate any concerns that they may have about those they are reaching out to. In this way, appropriate pastoral, spiritual and practical care can be offered to those who need it.

[26] Hathaway, "Sense of Belonging," 226–27; Andrew T Gloster et al., "Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health: An International Study," PloS one 15, no. 12 (2020).

[27] Erin F. Johnston et al., "Pastoral Ministry in Unsettled Times: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of Clergy During the COVID-19 Pandemic," Review of Religious Research (2021): 1.

[28] Questionnaire response.

[29] Church 2, Leader Interview.

[30] D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (London: Hogarth, 1965).

[31] Storm Swain explores this in relation to trauma in Trauma and Transformation at Ground Zero: A Pastoral Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 29–32.

[32] Church 1, Leader Interview.

[33] Taylor, Lynne. "2018 Census Data: What Do We Need to Hear?" NZ Baptist 136, no. 1 (2020): 22-23. https://baptistmag.org.nz/2018-census-data/.

[34] Jonny Baker, "Mission: An Adventure in (Digital) Imagination," in Missio Dei in a Digital Age, ed. Jonas Kurlberg and Peter M. Phillips (London: SCM Press, 2020), 37; Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 4.

[35] Taylor, "Reaching Out Online," 11.