“How can we stick resolutely to our marching orders, now that proper ‘churching’ in person is impossible?”
Like every other church, we asked numerous such questions as the global pandemic gathered its eerie pace in what now seems almost another age, barely three months ago.
In particular we urgently needed to answer this question: How do we ensure that we leave no one behind (slipping through cracks) nor alone (disconnected from church), while simultaneously cultivating a church community oozing with unmissable hope and love in Christ, and aiming to give our wider village another glimpse of the difference Jesus makes? (One size can never fit all, but we had no real option but to try.)
Jumping online may have seemed an obvious solution; but what if perhaps one third of church members were not digitally fluent? Moreover, centralising ministry to a handful of people would not be a healthy solution if that handful began contracting COVID-19. “What happens when I get sick?” was my quietly repeated question.
So rather than attempting to maintain familiar structures via an unfamiliar online medium, we resolved to set up a brand new ministry structure with every current and fringe church member assigned a place.
Rather than centralising, we radically decentralised. Rather than creating an opt-in system, we created an opt-out system. Rather than allowing ministry to become impersonal, we insisted that it must remain intrinsically personal. Rather than promoting a sort of passive disciple-making, we prioritised active disciple-making. As one warden put it, church in effect became much smaller (relationally) and much wider (as church members discovered a wide spectrum of ministry resources). While online options may well have been the default ‘second best’ choice for others, we perceived that in our case this could only be third best.
One-to-one ministry of the word and prayer has never been a strong feature of church life at Oatley West (despite prayer-laden efforts). That has all now changed—with the new challenge now of figuring out how to embed this in our long-term habits and structures.
In the space of two days of superb teamwork back in mid-March, a Prayer Vine (hopefully its long-term nomenclature) was lovingly designed and populated. In effect, one third of church members suddenly found themselves recruited (coopted?) to deliver word and prayer ministry to the other two thirds, via intentional, person-to-person phone conversations focused on hearing and heeding God’s word together every Sunday.
To fuel these conversations each week, I supplied a basic curriculum, consisting of key Bible passages, discussion questions, family activities, suggested prayers, online sermons (eventually my own), and plenty more to shape and strengthen the soul. Behind this lay an administrative structure to coordinate communication (in the manner of clandestine cell systems, we subsequently discovered).
In God’s providence, this turned out to be a season of fragility and engulfing grief for our church community. Two of our beloved fellow-servants died in April—their funerals proved to be remarkable if harrowing moments for forthright proclamation of their solid hope in Christ. Given these challenges, I cannot imagine how church life might have been sustained any other way than via our newly minted Prayer Vine. Along the way we have dabbled in online ministry, alternating between brilliant and vexing moments like anyone else.
As the task of this once-in-a-lifetime church reboot now gathers pace, one pressing question is what should happen with our Prayer Vine over the longer term. How might this season end up changing how we church together?
Looking back over the past three months, so many across all generations who would otherwise have been vulnerable to isolation have received loving personal contact and ministry week by week, and those initiating calls have discovered the wonder and privilege of one-to-one ministry. While some Sunday conversations have typically lasted 10-20 minutes and others well over an hour, most have normally required 30-50 minutes, often with follow-up contact during the week.
Like any human system, our Prayer Vine has plenty of shortcomings in practice, and has not been a wonderful experience for some. On the whole, however, we would not wish imagine a future All Saints’ without it! We are still discerning how best to redeploy the Prayer Vine structure once this season has ended; we are hopeful that even our passing conversations over coffee on a Sunday will now find themselves transformed.
Amid the tumult, I have relished this opportunity to refocus on equipping the saints for their works of ministry, as we joyfully play our respective parts in making more mature disciples of Christ together—with the benefits of an unplanned, nine-week break from Sunday preaching. In the process, we have added a potent arrow to our collective ministry quiver.
Here’s the prayer I suggested at the outset, and which I have prayed many times myself since March. Lord Jesus, be my joy and confidence. Spirit, sustain me. Father of all mercies, teach me to lean wholly upon you, and make me a channel of your grace. As the end of lockdown approaches, I wonder, what further evidence might emerge that this prayer has been graciously answered?