Rick Pierce, works for the Northern Baptist Association as a Network Pastor, Health & Development. Here he shares some ways local churches can respond as we emerge from a lockdown experience.
As I write this, Auckland has entered its thirteenth continuous week in a Level 3/4 lockdown and Northland has recently come out of another brief Level 3 imposed restriction. At this point in time, while much uncertainty remains, we are hopeful that this state of response to COVID-19 will come to an end shortly. We at least know that vaccination rates will need to reach 90% of eligible New Zealanders in each DHB (District Health Board), which for Auckland is expected to occur sometime in early December.
The reality is, at some point in the future we will emerge from this lockdown and the COVID-19 Protection Framework will be introduced. However, there is no going back to what was. The disruption to life has been significant and we will most likely continue to face the challenges of COVID-19’s presence in our communities for months to come, including the restriction of numbers in our public gatherings, should we not implement a vaccination certificate requirement for entry.
With the eventual prospect of life beyond lockdown and the establishment of new rhythms and interactions which will help shape a ‘new’ normal, it’s important we give focus to those factors that will help people reconnect and re-integrate into society and into our church communities.
Restoration of relational connection
We have all shared the situation of being locked down but how we have experienced that period will have been very different for each of us. There has been a mix of positives and negatives and no doubt a wide oscillation on that spectrum that effects an individual’s overall perception of this time. For some, a sense of hopelessness and despair may be prevalent, for others the forced slowness of life has been a welcome relief to break unhealthy patterns of activity that had resulted in an unsustainable pace of life, for others its created huge financial struggles. Amid our experiences we may have been confronted with who we are, unable to avoid the feelings of emptiness and longing that are often masked by continuous activity. We have all been affected differently and will be carrying a range of emotions in response. As we look to reconnect physically with one another, be mindful of one another, seek to understand one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, and love one another!
The length of this lockdown experience, particularly for Aucklanders has significantly disrupted relationships, with minimal physical connection possible with others beyond our bubbles. Inviting people back into public gatherings, no matter what size, has the potential to overwhelm, create anxiety and highlight fears. Be considerate of how others may be feeling as we begin to interact physically again.
Here’s three important ways to help facilitate healing, restoration, and renewal of relational connection and community life:
Sharing Personal Stories
Creating a safe space in which people can share their story of lockdown experiences is a vital aspect to helping people process their experiences in a healthy way and to pave the way for reconnection with others. Story has the powerful effect of helping us feel heard, valued, and loved; the ability to draw us together; and rebuild trust and renew relationship with others in community.
Action: Identify ways to create a safe environment where people’s personal experiences can be shared.
Constructing New Meaning
Our experiences of lockdown have disrupted our belief systems about the world in which we live and may leave many with a sense of disillusionment. Questions may arise like, who am I? where do I fit? How do I respond to the what’s transpired? Providing opportunities to enable people to begin constructing new meaning and regain a sense of purpose will help move people through a time of new discovery, rather than remaining stuck in uncertainty, doubt, and confusion. Encouraging the church through a process of considering and renewing an understanding of who we are (our identity) and what God is calling us to be and do (our calling / purpose), as individuals and as a community will help facilitate an important meaning-making journey.
Action: Work together through a process of discerning and renewing our identity and God’s call, as individuals and as a church community
Rather than continuing to be in despair about what has been lost through our lockdown experience, let’s choose to focus on what lies ahead, to re-envision, to re-establish hope. Part of the process of doing this well may involve acknowledging the grief that lies within for the loss that has occurred, or the future looking very different to what was planned or imagined. Allowing people space and grace to do this journey well is important. Encourage one another to seek support from trusted friends and role models as we journey through this time. Ultimately, we carry the hope of Christ in us which reminds us of the freedom and hope we always have, not only for our present circumstances but in the glorious hope of what is to come as Christ ushers in the new heaven and new earth.
Action: Encourage people to join with others and start to imagine and describe a preferred future.
Vaccination Status – a potential minefield
One of the significant issues that has the potential to divide our communities into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is our vaccination status. Within our Baptist Churches there are a wide range of views on vaccinations and a diverse number of reasons why people choose or choose not to be vaccinated. Let’s remember that we are all created in the image of God, we are all image-bearers as children of God and to uphold one another’s value and worth, irrespective of our differing stances. May we be mature in the way we have conversations, particularly when engaging with people who may not think the same. Amid a global pandemic, those who remain unvaccinated for many a good reason (including those under 12 who do not even have a choice) are counted amongst the vulnerable in our society. How we as a church care, embrace and love those who are vulnerable demonstrates the love and grace we ourselves experience from God. May we all continue to bear image to the goodness, honour, and glory of our God by our actions and our righteous, loving treatment of others.
Action: Consider how as a church community we can continue to embrace and facilitate connection and engagement in loving community of those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated. Perhaps draw together mature people who ‘represent’ differing viewpoints and have a respectful conversation about ways to shape such a culture in your church community going forward.
Shaping the way ahead
The way ahead is different to where we have come from prior to lockdown. What COVID has effectively done is highlight the critical and urgent nature for the church to change, a change that was already present pre-COVID. As we emerge from this prolonged period of lockdown there will be a new reality. Through our lockdown experiences we have grown and changed and adapted our ways of being a church community. May the experiences we’ve endured act to strengthen who we are and the unity we share in Jesus Christ and help renew the shape of church for our context today.
New patterns of engagement, connection and organisation will emerge IF we allow them to. Returning to the patterns of relationship and connection prior to lockdown won’t enable the change that has gone on to take root and allow us to embrace new possibilities for the journey ahead. So, in this time as we await the end to this lockdown, why don’t you start initiating conversations with your church community about the future look of the church. Significant organisational change is often difficult to lead. Amid the disruption created by these lockdowns we have been given a precious opportunity to re-envision. Perhaps it enables us to become a radical, risk-taking, forward-thinking, prophetic movement of churches once again. A movement that is not about just being the church but being an effective missional church that is evidencing the life of God and making known the hope of Christ, bringing gospel renewal to people and places in our local neighbourhoods.
Action: From a church community perspective start to imagine what church will look like from a relational and missional perspective as we look to reshape the church for a post-lockdown, 21st Century context.
We are God’s people! Whether we are on the mountaintop or experiencing the dark valley created by our lockdown experiences, God is with us, God is for us and God is at work in renewing, restoring, and reconciling all his creation in Christ. May our church communities become a living testimony of that work as we emerge from a lockdown response to a global pandemic. How we do so will be critical to the churches renewal in the context we find ourselves in the 21st Century.
Contributor: Rick Pierce. Network Pastor Health & Development, North Baptist Association.
 These three ways are recognised ways of dealing with relational disturbances and were identified through a published article, W.A Klein, M.A Barton, S Fellows: ‘Organizational Crises and the Disturbance of Relational Systems,’ Academy of Management Review 2013, Vol 38, No. 3, 377-396.