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26 March 2020

Embracing A Virtual Church

For many years’ churches have used some aspects of technology to assist in their mission. Whether a Facebook or Twitter account to share their service times and publicise events, or a WhatsApp group for their music group. Yet many have been sceptical about the idea of virtual churches. In Hebrews 10v24–25 we see the author, in his teaching about persevering in the faith, give us this advice:

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”

Yet now that around the world churches have had their buildings closed, and weekly meetings cancelled, most have taken hold of their opportunities to meet virtually together to encourage, teach and disciple their flock, and even to reach out evangelistically.

Never before have so many churches engaged with extensive technology like they have during the coronavirus outbreak.

We have asked 2 church leaders to talk to us about the impact it is having on their churches.

David Heath–Whyte, Rector of St Lawrence Church, Morden shares his experience so far:

1. What is the name, denomination and demographic of your church?

St Lawrence Church, Morden. Church of England. 130 adults (80–100 each Sunday) and 50 children (20–35 each Sunday), multi–ethnic, mixed ages 0–90+

2. Briefly, what are the key ministries that typically take place in your church week?

Sunday Services: 9.00am (more traditional, older folk & hymns), 10.30am (all ages, songs and hymns), 6.30pm (smaller numbers, adults, songs and hymns)

Midweek: Toddler group, School Assembly, Home groups, Mums’ Bible Study, Older Ladies Bible Study, Women’s Fellowship, “Connections” Community Café, Kids Club

3. What changes and cancellations have you had to make in light of coronavirus and the recent social isolation measures?

Every physical meeting is cancelled, but we’re doing what we can to operate online and to provide things for non–online people.

We streamed our morning services last Sunday before the suspension, and from this Sunday we’ll be streaming a single service at 10.30am, which will develop as we work out what we can do and what works.

We’re going to be preparing material for our church children for families to do together each week – a short video Bible slot, links to online material, and a fun sheet.

We have held our midweek pre–Easter course by video–conference. 20 people attended and we had a great time (we’re doing “So Many Questions”). Mums’ Bible Study has happened by video–conference. 

We’ve set up a phone network, primarily to make sure that our vulnerable church members (about 40 of them) are all called at least once a week and offered practical support where possible. I’m going to work on contacting the others. 

We’re planning to provide a special service–card for non–online people, so that on Sunday at 10:30am they can have their own little service, and know that others are doing the same. We’ll try to provide them with other resources to help their prayer and bible reading too.

4. How are you planning to reach out to serve and share the gospel with your community in the coming weeks?

We’ve provided “I’m here to help” cards for church members to use with their neighbours.

We’re encouraging Church members to engage with their contacts and be a support and witness to them.

We’re planning to run a Virtual Kids Club instead of the fortnightly kids club we’d normally have. 

Our website is gradually coming round to the fact that everything is online, and will offer local people the opportunity to join online meetings like Christianity Explored.

We’re using Facebook and an email list to keep people up–to–date with what we’re providing online.

Our church noticeboard banners will be advertising online contact – but many fewer people will see that!

5. How can we be praying for your church at this time?

That we’d still be helping people to come to know Jesus, grow in him, and be equipped to serve him, even though it’s all weird. 

That we’d help our church members to keep spending time each week in corporate prayer, word and worship.

That this would all work for good – that many would come to Christ, and folk would grow in Him because of this hardship.

6. When you look back on the Coronavirus outbreak of 2020 in the future, what would you hope that people would have done more of? 

Pray, probably! I suspect there’s a lot of worrying going on, and not a lot of casting it on the Lord.

Stephen Kneale Pastors Oldham Bethel Church, and runs the blog Building Jerusalem, so is no stranger to online technology, but here he shares how coronavirus has impacted his church:

1.     What is the name, denomination and demographic of your church?

Our church is called Oldham Bethel Church. We are an FIEC and North West Partnership church in Oldham, Greater Manchester. We have 30 members and a regular congregation of around 50. We are a mixture of ages, nationalities and ethnicities. We function bi–lingually (English & Farsi) as a result of our Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers.

2.     Briefly, what are the key ministries that typically take place in your church week?

We hold weekly services on Sundays that also provide translation for Iranian and Afghan Farsi–speakers. We hold English Classes for the local community. We are also engaged in regular Interfaith Dialogue with a local Muslim group in our area. We are involved in town centre outreach including open air work and one–to–one leafletting/conversation. We hold weekly community groups for discipleship as well as a regular community football game mainly (but not exclusively) reaching asylum seekers and those from deprived backgrounds. We also hold regular men’s breakfasts and women’s prayer and share meetings.

3.     What changes and cancellations have you had to make in light of coronavirus and the recent social isolation measures?

All of our activities have been cancelled until further notice. Several of our folks are in the most vulnerable categories and had to go into self–isolation long before the wider–reaching advice came out. This limited what we were able to do. But since the government advice that religious meetings are also included on their list, and following the FIEC advice to close all public meetings, we felt we had no choice but to cancel all meetings.

4.     How are you planning to reach out to serve and share the gospel with your community in the coming weeks?

With great difficulty, is probably the answer.

Internally, we are now setting up live streaming of our weekly services and have signed up with Zoom so that we can conference call our weekly community groups. These are probably the easiest things we are able to do.

But most of our existing evangelistic activities are necessarily larger meetings of people. These simply cannot continue any more. We are still working out, under the circumstances, how we might best reach out. I suspect it will be largely amongst our immediate neighbours who will, also as a result of the shut–down, be as desperate for some social contact as we inevitably will be!

5.     How can we be praying for your church at this time?

·      As I said, we have lots of particularly vulnerable people with serious lung and heart conditions. Colds can often cause serious problems for them. Please pray that people will be calm in the face of what is going on, take necessary precautions and ultimately be kept safe.

·      As for most churches, though we are doing our best to mitigate what is happening, the big concern is for the spiritual wellbeing of our people. Please pray that the means we are using would serve them well and they would not be left spiritually bereft.

·      Pray for our community. We have spent many years building up good links in our area, particularly among Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. But an enforced absence may put paid to much of that groundwork. Equally, pressing as the coronavirus is, loneliness is a major killer in our area for the elder, the depressed and the otherwise vulnerable. The social implications of a near lock down, for an area like ours, cannot be underestimated.

·      Pray most of all that the Lord would be glorified in all of this. We know he is sovereign and even these circumstances are under his control. We are also sure that he is using them to glorify himself in them somehow (whether we can see it or not!) Please pray that would not just be something that we know, but would genuinely prove to be something that is seen both within the church and by our community watching on. Pray that we would respond in ways that show, not how difficult the situation is, but how glorious our God is.

6.     When you look back on the Coronavirus outbreak of 2020 in the future, what would you hope that people would have done more of? 

Given the time we’re all going to have on our hands, praying more would seem sensible. So many of us claim to be too busy to pray, but whether that is true or not, it can be an excuse no longer. Maybe the Lord has brought this about to force us into doing exactly that (I don’t know). What I do know is that without prayer we can’t expect anything much to happen and I know my own heart, and my own general prayerlessness. Here is our opportunity not only to get back to the importance of prayer, and to commit ourselves to it like never before. I think given how little we are able to do – and how much we might well be able to pray – the Lord might just surprise us with what He (who is the source of all these things anyway) might do when we can’t do anything much at all.

For advice on how to live stream your services, Stephen has written a blog post here

We’d love to hear from you about how you have adapted, and what you have found a blessing from the changes you have made, or things you are still struggling through. 
Email bethan@10ofthose.com, or tag us on Facebook or Twitter @10ofthose

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