Coronavirus has provided a major challenge to churches. But every problem also represents an opportunity.
The lockdowns have led to considerable ingenuity by many churches through their online services and adapted forms of pastoral care.
But as we gradually emerge from the pandemic, a new challenge now confronts churches: how to re-connect with regular members who have not come to services over the last 18 months.
I am vicar of Christ Church, New Malden. We have tried to build our church around trying to make church accessible to newcomers. Our 9.30 Sunday service, in particular, is designated ‘Sssh Free Church’ because it aims to make it as easy as possible for children and their parents/carers to meet with God in an atmosphere of freedom and fun with no one (however noisy!) being ssshed or told off.
But after March 2020, all of this changed. Through the pandemic, we had to switch to a single Sunday service. We did some creative online provision for the children but we have hugely missed the irreplaceable sense of being together as a church family.
We knew that whilst many families have ‘got out of the habit’ of coming to church, there was also a strong desire among them to re-discover a sense of community. As a team, we sat down to consider how to meet this challenge.
Enthusiasm and energy
Our idea was to designate last Sunday as a ‘Return to Church Sunday’ and to try and create as much enthusiasm and energy as possible around people coming back to church.
A key of the plan was to write individual letters to all of our children and young people inviting them back Sunday on 5th September. It took two days but I wrote 140 letters to all our children and another for our teens.
The letter was typed but mail merging ensured that each child’s name was at the top of the letter and two or three handwritten comments were added just for them. The letter addressed each child/young person by name and tried to make their welcome back to church as personal as possible.
Even where there were two or three (and in two cases four) children at the one address, we sent them an individual letter and flyer. We wanted everyone to have the experience of ripping open their own envelope!
A colour flyer was included with their letter explaining how the groups for children and young people were going to work.
We also explained that every child would receive a Christian book as a ‘welcome back’ present:
- 2-3s: God knows all about me
- 4-6s: The Jesus Story Book Bible: Every Story whispers his name
- 7-11s: Everyone a child should know
Obviously there was a financial cost to this but we felt it was vital that we invested in making the welcome back as tangible as possible.
The letters were then posted eight days before the ‘Return to Church Sunday’ and we awaited the response…
Which turned out to be fantastic.
On the day, two of our most enthusiastic young girls with their mums stood outside the entrance welcoming people. We were delighted to see parents and children pour in. Over 70 children, plus their parents responded to our letter.
Our 9.30 service resumed with all of its old energy.
Two of our younger boys crashed cymbals together at the start of the service to signify the return of church followed by a big cheer from the congregation.
Many parents spoke of how much it meant to their children to receive a personal letter ‘from the vicar’ and how much they appreciated their present.
Covid19 was not forgotten. Face masks were worn by adults, a socially distanced area was available and prayers remembered those of our community who had died, been seriously ill or bereaved because of Coronavirus.
Of course, every church is different and each has distinct challenges and opportunities. But as we emerge from the pandemic, these are my reflections from our experiences:
- The huge post-pandemic opportunity for churches because everyone, and especially children, have been starved of community, freedom and fun
- The power and impact created by a personal invite being received by those not expecting this
- How a present made the welcome back to church really tangible
- The importance of money, time and energy spent at this time on welcoming people back
The heart of the church’s calling
At heart of the church’s calling is to share God’s love with those entrusted to our care. One way we do this is by creating powerful and effective symbols that convey this love.
The ‘problem’ of how to get people back to church after Covid19 is actually a wonderful opportunity to display God’s love in a way which is both personal and tangible.
Let’s go for it! Perhaps in the process we can discover some deeper truths about what it means to be church.
Stephen Kuhrt is vicar of Christ Church New Malden