Imagining a New Normal

Stories to help us carry forward what we have learnt during the Covid-19 Pandemic Lockdown

Within each Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand there are Mission Catalysts.  They might go by different names:  Enabler, Advisor or Catalyst.  They might be employed, or they might be a volunteer with a passion for God’s mission.   PressGo has brought together Mission Catalysts within the PCANZ  face-to-face on two occasions. Over the past few months we have been gathering on Zoom.  Each time we have a question or a conundrum to address and tease loose.  The group is becoming a learning community, providing support, encouragement and sharing resources and ideas.  Our purpose has been sharpened by what has been called the “unprecedented times” and we have discovered that there is appetite in our churches for change.  As long-held assumptions about church services have been confronted and challenged, there are opportunities to talk about the possibilities of igniting a missional imagination, asking “what if?” questions and taking some risks.

As Mission Catalysts, we know the power of the story.  Stories can ignite imagination, evoke curiosity and help people to think differently.

We are in a time of change, where many wish for what was.  They want normal.  Like other public commentators, we as Mission Catalysts wonder about a “new normal”.  For many churches the old “normal” wasn’t working.  Over the pandemic lockdown many churches have coped with more change than they ever thought possible.  Some have tried new things and some of the new things have had surprising results.  They have learnt a lot about how agile, adaptive and permission-giving they are.  We expect new leaders have emerged, who have hitherto not put their hands up to volunteer.

Generally, the future unfolds in small steps. Change involves experiments, from which learnings are gleaned. This enables discernment toward the future. 

It would be great for PCANZ to gather stories of small steps and tentative experiments and share them for encouragement, motivation and challenge.  BUT … some of the stories need a little more time and reflection before they can be shared in powerful ways …

SO … we set ourselves the task of telling “what if” stories.  We started from “what is” and then told forward where that might lead.  In my story I shared a passive parish and a small group that grabbed the opportunity to become more than a pastoral support for members.  It is well on its way to become a faith community with a missional heart.  My story is an amalgam of stories I have heard of, observed or participated in.  It shows that with permission (or maybe it was disinterest) from the parish, new forms of church can emerge outside of the traditional models of church and church planting.  I believe this is part of the new normal – a mosaic of faith communities, all co-existing and living faith and mission in different contexts and communities of interest.

These are the changes we have talked about for years, but for most parishes there was no urgency.  We have a window where there is receptivity to dream and think and pray about new things.  From Alpine Presbytery we heard that there was energy for change immediately after the Christchurch earthquakes, but as time went on congregations that hadn’t started a new journey reverted to the “normal” way of doing church and continued previous trends of declining numbers, ageing congregations, decreasing offerings and low spiritual vitality.  This is the normal that I think it our role to challenge, regionally and nationally. Here then are our stories.  They were written mid-May 2020, just as New Zealand was considering leaving Alert Level 3 and looking at the possibility of physical gatherings in Level 2.

What would happen if small group membership fostered deep authentic Christian fellowship?

“We long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions and to tell the truth even when it is uncomfortable.” (Rachel Held Evans)

Everyone remembers where they were when lockdown was announced.  Frances was at home getting ready to meet a friend for afternoon tea in town.  Frances lived on her own since her husband had died three years earlier and now, in her late seventies, she was settled in a new community, closer to her children and the healthcare they insisted she would most likely need.

She had recently started going to church again.  It had been an irregular habit when they lived in a rural area as there were always tasks to do in a large house, knitting and sewing for grandchildren and volunteering at the local school.  After her husband died, she had felt no need to attend church.  The funeral was not “religious” as he had no time for that, and Frances felt vaguely annoyed at God for taking her husband before his time.  So, it was unusual that she had started to look forward to her Sunday afternoon outing.  The service was only 45 minutes, so the minister didn’t drone on and some of the music seemed familiar, in fact she was thinking of joining the choir.  Afternoon tea was lovely, and she had met quite a few new people that way.

Joy was an extrovert, she loved meeting new people and as soon as she met Frances, she “took her under her wing” as she described it.  She made sure Frances met more people and they shared stories of grandchildren and successful children.  One day Joy invited Frances to her home group.  With some hesitation Frances agreed.  She may not know all the answers in the study group, there were lots of reasons to say “no”, but she said “yes”.  So, from then on, she gathered with five other women, mostly widowed on the third Thursday of the month.  They met usually at Joy’s place and Joy led the group through a study guide that took them through a book of the Bible.  They seemed to have been looking at Psalms forever, but that was fine because it was almost like poetry and Joy was an excellent baker.

When lockdown was announced the church emailed everyone and said they would communicate by sending a weekly order of service, with prayers, suggested hymns and the sermon.  Small groups were encouraged to meet more frequently and provide pastoral support for each other and use the time to study the sermon.  Joy was straight on the phone to check everyone had internet access.  Four women did and two didn’t.  Joy knew all about Zoom as she used it to call children overseas, others in the group had used Skype for much the same thing.  With the ability to phone in to a Zoom gathering, everyone could be part of it.  Joy provided details on how it would all work and they tested it out the day before the meeting and then, after emergency calls to grandchildren to sort problems, they were set to go.

Joy tried to lead the group on Zoom, but it was difficult keeping up with making sure people unmuted and those phoning in didn’t talk over the top of the others.  While she was tending to the technology a new leader emerged.  Marion never had much to say before, but there was no question about it, she was good at listening and asking the questions that invited others to participate in a way they had not done before.  In fact, they were starting to get into some quite deep and difficult questions.

During the week they kept to their respective bubbles. Some had food delivered and some went to the supermarket.  Two members of the group discovered they lived in the same street and had done so for many years.  They looked out for each other on their walks and shouted across socially distant pathways. They discussed the Bear Hunt and the bears in their neighbourhood.  Every house but one in Frances’ street had bears in the window.  “Maybe they don’t have any”, someone in the group suggested.  It was agreed that everyone should have the opportunity to have a bear and Frances got the task of knitting a bear from the many scraps she had accumulated over the years.  Ted was quickly completed, sprayed with sanitiser and trapped in a plastic bag.  Frances decided to include a note: “with love from your neighbours” and dropped Ted into the relevant letterbox.  The very next day Ted was in the window, accompanied by a china doll and a notice that could be read from the street, saying “thank you to our neighbours.”

Easter followed and the group wondered how it could be celebrated.  Some members planned to watch special services on TV and others had found favourites on the internet.  The Moderator’s devotion was popular, but there wasn’t an obvious way the group could watch and interact together.  A plan formed.  They would watch the Moderator’s Easter message on YouTube (except for the two who didn’t have internet who would view a service on TV) and then they’d Zoom and have communion together.  Communion was what you did at Easter, so that is what they would do.  When it came to it there was a bit of a problem about bread and wine.  Some said that they needed a minister for that, but they felt a bit rebellious by then.  In the end communion was a cup of tea and a biscuit together.  They still said the special words and thought that “whenever you do eat and drink, remember me” was just as applicable because it was the thought that counted.  Since tea and a biscuit was a common activity, they were prompted to turn their thoughts to God often during the day.  Frances, Joy and Marion shared their growing sense of excitement in (re) seeing God in the everyday, not just on Sundays at 2pm.

Anzac Day followed in fast succession and poppies adorned windows.  Joy’s son, a high-flyer by all accounts, lost his job.  Joy shared her worries with the group and as they prayed for her, she felt a sense of relief that the group no longer relied on her energy to lead but were listening and responding to what each person needed.  A prayer, a word of comfort, even a difference of opinion.  They felt like they mattered to each other and that they mattered to God.  That wasn’t the way they experienced church before.  They had stopped going to church and were being the church.

Lockdown ground to a halt and with the new freedom there was a desire by some to “get back to church”, but for Frances and Joy at least something had shifted.  The group agreed to meet on-line and in person on alternate weeks and see how it went.

Six months later Zena shared her despair at her husband’s increasingly bizarre behaviour as dementia sunk its teeth into him.  A couple in the group researched carer support and helped Zena get the help she needed.  When she sank into depression, they helped her recognise the signs and get help for herself.  Zena didn’t feel judged.  One day she asked if two people she had met at the Carer Support Group could join the little group.  Room was made and the group took on a different dynamic.  Not better or worse, just different.

When Neighbours’ Day 2021 came around, each member of the group committed to invite her neighbours to an afternoon tea party.  The day was a success in all respects.  More people asked to join the group which, although it had lost one member, was growing and no longer a small group.  The question that now faced them was do we keep this sense of community and fellowship to ourselves or do we foster it elsewhere?  In the end it was as simple as making Ted; follow your heart and welcome all.  The original group still meet, but there are now 4 house “churches” or new faith communities that have been birthed.  They meet for a cup of tea and a biscuit and remember to remember the one who said, “when you eat and drink, remember me”.

There’s lots more to the story – personal spiritual growth, a dawning sense of God’s presence and call into community and into the community, but for these women who make up the majority of the PCANZ’s congregations there is a place for profound vulnerability and love within and alongside Sunday worship.

Lisa Wells,

PressGo Catalyst

Timothy Rose (Northern Presbytery Enabler) reflects on imaging this story as an example of the new normal:

  • The Gospel is acted out in day-to-day activities outside of Sunday services. Should worship services be adjusted to celebrate these activities?
  • Relationships are more valued than before when about spiritual matters. How can cognitive-based groups embrace this value?
  • New leaders are needed and encouraged for technological mission. How can current leaders empower new leadership?
  • Communion is appreciated outside of traditional settings. What else can be freed from traditional limitations? What does this tell us about people’s hunger for faith?
  • Home groups function as communities of faith, offering pastoral care. What other groups can be included in a network connecting through congregations?

What does a church without walls look like?

Imagine a congregation of more than 200 people who connect daily.

Currently, a non-denominational congregation worshipping within West Auckland has found a way to stay in relationship with God and fellow members while engaging with the Community.

Early in the new year, leadership goes into retreat and considers feedback from congregation for a theme that guides church through that year.

Having decided the theme, a special worship service is organised at rented venue to accommodate full membership. A celebration of song precedes the theme’s announcement, given through a sermon. More singing is followed by food & fellowship.

Worship is enjoyed collectively on weekly basis, usually at a dedicated venue. The congregation are happy to meet at 5 pm. This gives full weekend for family and worship is completed before Sunday evening meal.

A community meal is then hosted at 7 pm each night.

Utilising technology, there are morning prayer groups that receive a verse-of-the-day and related devotional before leaving for school or work. Pastoral needs are identified during these short interactive meetings. The needs are communicated to the pastoral team who minister as needed. Multiple applications are used for follow-up. WhatsApp is used to communicate announcements.

One evening each week during school terms, home groups meet for coordinated studies that enrich both personally and collectively. The studies are delivered in homes and led by group leaders.

Holiday programmes are sponsored between during school breaks.

They sponsor a community Fun Day every Summer to connect with wider community.

A special end-of-year celebration reviews the year and inspires ideas for the next. The process repeats.

This is a mobile church that moves to different venues for its special services. It keeps itself engaged in a general area but does not limit itself to the neighbourhood of their hired venue. It is also very effective in helping new immigrants assimilate into the community. Although ethnic-based, surely there are some lessons on community engagement to be learned?

Tim Rose

Northern Presbytery Mission Enabler

Stuart Simpson (Presbytery Central Catalyst) reflects on imaging this story as an example of the new normal:

  • Possibility of gathering prior to the service or instead of a service, once a month, to carry out particular missional actives within the community they gather, primarily through relationships the congregation has with the wider community.  These actives could be carried out in pairs or groups.  The idea of the groups would be to a witness in the community, grow intergenerational relationships within the faith community and an opportunity for faith to be lived out practically.  In level two having smaller groups will work well. 
  • Theological reflection/what worked and what didn’t work could happen over the meal or be part of the devotion time during the week.  Studies on mission and being called by Jesus to follow him, to make disciples.  Learn to listen and discern what God is doing, or desiring to do, in the wider community. 
  • If working with immigrants become proactive in building a relationship with organizations who look after immigrants.  Invite them to share what they do and ask how the church could be involved, build relationship, support the work carried out. 

A local church who simplified in staying online

During the first 7 weeks of lockdown, the local church had offered church services online each week. At first it was new and raw and a panic. Over time, it settled into a more regular pattern. The tone became more conversational. The service became slightly shorter, about 40 minutes. There was increased use of items from the household. One week people were invited to bring their bears for an online children’s’ talk. Another week people were invited to make their own bread for the Emmaus Road story.

During the 7 weeks, there were visitors online. Some were “known” – old friends, family members or congregational members who had travelled overseas. It was great to interact. Some were “local” neighbours, specifically invited after years of quiet relationship building.  This made sense – it is so much easier to click a link than to drive and step through a door to meet people. Some were “unknown” with no sense of who they were or where they were coming from, but the increase in online statistics suggested they were present.

As level 2 began, the church wrestled with what to do? People wanted to return but people also didn’t want to lose contact with what was happening online.

The local church decided to try for 6 months to do both. First, to return to church as physically gathered on Sunday. Second, to keep a simplified online gathering going.

They carefully chose to focus on the online church into 4 parts.

  1. A “bring an object from your house” praise activity – in which people were invited to participate in online church by bringing something.
  2. A sermon. Since the church had already invested in a better video camera and microphone this made good economic sense. Since a sermon was being prepared already by the minister, this was only a small amount of extra work, a dress rehearsal on the Saturday, videoed at the kitchen table (In the end, the minister realised that that Sunday sermon actually got better with a dress rehearsal)
  3. Interactive prayers – a confidential online drop box was opened up and people invited to leave prayer requests. This shaped prayers for the world
  4. Coffee and (online) chat – an open time – using a chat forum, that ran for 8 hours on the Sunday – to catch up with those who attended.

A number of church members went on a roster, to send out the “bring on object” messages, to help with the uploading of the sermon, to collect the prayers and offer a prayer for others. 

Help to run coffee and (online) chat: was asked of the “known.” They were delighted to take a turn and lead the online chat, monitoring the church Facebook page to ask questions, share stories and maintain social contact with their much-loved community.

In time, a new form of church began to emerge. Two of the “locals” – previously unchurched remained online; while another two “locals” joined face to face. Several of the “knowns” asked for bank account details and began to contribute financially, a welcome gift following COVID. Quietly, over several months, the “unknowns” began to participate in the coffee and (online) chat. This began with a request to post photos of their bears, which generated lively chat and resulted in an “unknown” becoming “local.” Another “unknown” family made contact to say thanks for the pastoral prayer that had been prayed in response to their need.

It was slow and took pastoral skills. But six months on, there was energy to keep going. It felt like the one church, sharing the same minister and the same sermon, yet larger as people connected in two weekly gatherings, one online, one face-to face.

Steve Taylor

Principal Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Lisa Wells (PressGo Catalyst) reflects on imaging this story as an example of the new normal:

  • This story highlights the importance of developing and maintaining relationships in all spheres of our lives.  Here the original groups expand as others join.  Some are known, others are not, but this form of interactive church attracted people who had not responded to a physical gathering.  In the rush to get back to “normal” gatherings it is easy to forget these people.  For them the on-line casual interactive service has become their tentative normal.  In agreeing to “try” both, there is an acknowledgement that doing new things come with a cost, usually in time and energy.
  • Simplification is important.  Sharing the load is too.  It means sharing leadership and with that the power over content.  New leaders emerge.  The group ownership grows.
  • Deliberate links are maintained with the parent (physical gathering) church in terms of the minister and the weekly sermon.  What are the things that help it feel like one church?  How do we foster this without imposing one style on the whole group?  This is a pertinent question for any church with multiple congregations, for example one with European and Korean worship services.
  • The pastoral skills needed to nourish a new congregation can not be underestimated and will need to come from a deep sense of discipleship and related giftings in the parent church.  What can you do to foster a deep faith, that ignites faith in others?

It started with a blessing

On the 25th May 2016 a blessing service was conducted for the residents of a Housing New Zealand complex on Dixon St, Wellington.  This was in response to the death of a long-term tenant who had died in his flat a couple of weeks earlier.  After the blessing service an afternoon tea was held and conversations were had about the possibility of having a weekly free cafe for the tenants, to help create community and deal with the issue of social isolation.   Since then volunteers from St John’s, along with volunteers from the flats and HNZ have worked together to run this café, which has now been going for four years. 

Going forward, there are such great possibilities for St John’s to continue to get more involved in what God is doing through the relationships built in the café.  Level 2 and 1 means that there will be limited community connection for a while, so the relationships that have been built over four years are even more crucial.  Some of these possibilities might be:

  1. A bible study has organically grown out of the café relationships, but this has so much more potential in the climate we find ourselves in.  It is smaller in nature to the café so allows space for social distancing but also a space for relationships to grow, develop and for the gospel to speak into people’s fears.
  2. St John’s relationship with Housing New Zealand could grow even stronger through this time.  We have worked through a lot of issues and created some good relationships within the HNZ organisations, and they have come to realise the importance of working with communities like the church.   
  3. The faith development of the St John’s volunteers as they help lead the bible study and run the cafe, learn to listen to what God is already doing and where God is leading.  This could lead to a small church plant that has support from St John’s. 
  4. Some of the tenants become Christian, or grow in their faith to the point that they witness Christ to the wider HNZ complex, which brings radical change to an environment where many people are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction or mental health issues. 

Steve Taylor (Principal Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership) reflects on imaging this story as an example of the new normal:

  • Starting with a felt need “across the street” i.e. on the turf of someone else, not on church turf
  • Mission creates opportunities for new gifts to emerge and so draws in those perhaps not currently involved in church life
  • The project unfolded, and the shape it is now is nothing like what they envisaged. So be flexible, be willing to experiment

We develop rituals and traditions in churches to give a shape to what we regard as normal.   Sometimes we forget why the tradition developed in the first place and we continue to do something just because “that’s the way it has always been done.”  The imagining we have done in the stories above helps us to think new thoughts and when things that we previously though immutable, like gathering on a Sunday, have changed we start consider what else might change.  What is life-giving?  What can we take with us?  Where might that lead?  Without being flippant I offer the colloquialism: “God knows”.

The next stories are yours.  We want to hear from parishes, faith communities and small groups about the things that God has been stirring up.  About the things you have tried that worked and the ones that didn’t.  Stories that start with the seed of an idea, ask “what if” and then, with a playful demeanour, give it a go. 

As you think about the stories ask some questions like:  

  1. What other helpful insights for mission do you see?
  2. If you were writing an “new normal” imagining for your context, what would you imagine?
  3. What first next step could you take this week?
  4. Who could provide energy and wisdom for you as you took that step?

Every blessing as you discern your next steps in mission.

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