The COVID-19 pandemic has been a deeply traumatic experience at so many levels, causing hurt and pain, destruction and anguish to so many; and I don't seek to downplay that fact. Yet, I can't help but recognise that it is into this painful situation that God is still clearly at work, doing many, many good things in our time. I am frequently reminded, in this season, of Genesis 50:20: "You meant it for evil, but God used it for good".
One of the great ‘goods’ to come out of this time has been the far greater awareness of, and developments in how, we do faith at home. A plethora of resources have come to the forecourt, equipping parents to take the lead in sharing Jesus within their own household. This is, without a doubt, something to be celebrated and will, I hope, have a legacy that outlasts Joe Wickes at 9am every morning.
We’ve also seen and celebrated the growing proportion of people engaging with church services online, including many who would never normally darken the door of their local church. There are many factors behind this; those who want to explore faith from the safety of their own living room, those who can now engage with a service without the glares of those sitting around them, because of their child’s involuntary squeals or ticks and those who just want to see what it’s all about, amongst other stories.
But I want to be bold and suggest that there is more for us to do than this; that there is more that we need to be engaging with, particularly at this time. Fundamentally, our question must now be: how do we share Jesus with others when we can’t share life with them? What are we doing to talk about Jesus? To be Salt and Light? To be bringers of hope in a dark and difficult world?
Don't let your world shrink
We need to open our eyes, perhaps in a new way. When we’re sat at home, in our living rooms, gardens or studies-come-TV-studios, there can be a temptation to shrink our worlds and lower our gaze. When our world becomes only about the things we can see within our own four walls, we can fill our times only with the things that interest us: have my children got enough ‘stuff’ to keep them busy? Could I decorate the living room right now? Renovate the garden? Start 14 new hobbies? None of which is wrong in itself, but we really must lift our eyes up to the horizon. We should open our eyes to the street outside our front door, our neighbourhood, as well as to those far further afield. The shepherd left the 99 to go looking for the one; he didn’t wait for the one to show up of his own accord.
Already, there are many wonderful examples of churches, ministries and individuals creatively responding to this strange new world and the opportunities that exist to share Jesus here. Alongside the online services that have been broadcast both to adult, and all-age congregations, toddler groups, youth and children’s clubs, and acts of collective worship (assemblies) have become available, with many of these seeing new children, young people and families participating as we all discover our inner CBBC presenter!
Some have gone further and found ways to safely deliver resources to families at home. There are stories emerging of families requesting ‘Messy Church at home’ bags, who have not previously been to Messy Church, and toddler group leaders offering packages of craft resources to families in need of creative activities to share with their children at home. Other people share stories of Bible story trails created in churchyards for families to explore on their local walk, secret stones hidden in local communities, sharing messages of hope, home window displays sharing Bible stories and chalk drawing messages shared on pathways. Creativity and innovation emerge when we are forced to discover new ways of working; there must be so much more for us to explore and discover!
Leave the 99 in search of the one
One of the most influential books in my own practice has been 'Meet them where they’re at' by Richard Passmore (2003). This may, perhaps, be even more surprising, given the fact that this is a guide to doing detached youth work, something which I have done very little of! And whilst the title may seem a little ironic given our current circumstances, it introduced me to the idea of ‘relational youth ministry’ which, for a while, became the most overused phrase in youth ministry. Right now, especially now, when we can’t physically meet anyone where they’re at, I believe we need to make people the focus, and not programmes.
I say this as someone who spends 90 per cent of my working time creating programmes for children’s and youth ministry. Programmes are a staple tool of our ministry, a useful resource and the number of ministries who have stepped up overnight to create and adapt resources which can be used online has been brilliant, enabling churches to continue to find ways to connect with the young people they serve. But they are just that; tools to help and not the sum total of our ministry.
Make your ministry relational
We need to keep our focus on the relationships. When we make our relationships the key, we notice the Mum down our street who is juggling working at the hospital with caring for her two young children, we think to ask how the family who come to our messy church are doing, we miss the toddlers who always fiddle with our shoelaces at coffee time, we want to reach out to the teenage lad who walks past our front door with two tatty shopping bags every afternoon. It is this heart for the people we know and serve that is demonstrated in the packing and delivering of meals to international students, that serves at the food bank or as a hospital chaplain.
When we make our relationships the key, our immediate focus changes as a God-given love of people goes looking for the lost; those who need to hear of the father’s love. Our relationships also have long-lasting implications; beyond the immediate situation. When relationships take president; those who anonymously watch our online services may find a family they can call home, we will change our groups to welcome in those who have not felt accepted in the past and we will celebrate physically being with those who we have begun to get to know virtually.
Maybe, just possibly, our prayer for this season needs to be that God would again open our eyes to see His world as He sees it; that we would love those He loves and created, that we would notice the sheep on our doorstep, and find new ways to be Salt and Light, sharing God’s love right where we are.
Becky May is a freelance writer and experienced children's and youth leader.