Re-gathering in the Northern Territory: the new normal for St Peter’s Nightcliff

For 11 weeks our church gathered virtually for live-streamed services filmed in our church building. When the Northern Territory announced its ‘Roadmap to the new normal’, we realised we couldn’t allow as many people into our church space as before lockdown, and so we had to move from two Sunday services (9am and 5pm) to three (8:30am, 10:30am, 4:30pm). One of our church desires is to be genuinely intergenerational, multi-cultural and diverse. My biggest fear was we’d end up with an early ‘older folks’ service, a ‘family’ service, and a ‘youth and young adults’ service.

Everyone was asked to choose a preferred time: ‘either morning service’ or ‘any service (put me where it will be most helpful)’. In God’s kindness we had a very even spread of people in terms of total numbers (31%, 35%, 34%), crèche-aged kids, kids’ church kids, and youth. It was also, again in God’s kindness, a reasonable and workable spread of musicians, kids’ church leaders, parish councillors and Bible study leaders.

Our intention until term 3 is to have the same liturgical style at each of the three services on any given Sunday, though they will change from week to week. The liturgy, prayers and songs are the same. On our first Sunday we had a communion service, with morning prayer the following Sunday, and this Sunday will be a contemporary service. Yes, we’re singing, as the Territory has not mandated a restriction on it, but only two songs (instead of our previous four) per service.

There are now many practical changes from when we arrive on site to when we leave. The child-proof gate is kept open, and welcomers ensure no children run out. There are pre-printed name tags for everyone we expect to be there, and anyone without one fills in a welcome card with some contact details so they’ll have a pre-printed one next week. We encourage everyone to bring their own Bible, pen, notebook and water bottle, though we still have plenty available if needed. We have ‘Entry’ and ‘Exit’ doors. The louvres are open and the air-con is off… last Sunday the ‘feels like’ temperature at both 10:30am and 4:30pm was 32°. Hand sanitiser bottles are everywhere!

The biggest change inside the building is people now sit in what we call ‘pods’ of 3-6 chairs. The majority of chairs are set out with 1.5m gap to the next chair within the pod and between pods, so that anyone can sit in any single seat. However, those in a pod could move chairs closer as they felt comfortable—i.e. couples could move two single chairs next to each other, friends or family could choose to sit in a row of 4. We think of it like tables at a restaurant.

Ministry is about people, and it’s been good to reflect on how we’ve responded to change. There is grief as restarting with three services prevented a farewell to those we will no longer be ‘in church’ with. There is delight seeing people face to face again. There is rejoicing over the newcomers who’ve joined us. There is concern for those who are still unsure about meeting together in person. There is excitement as many are getting involved in new or different ministries. There is encouragement from being a participant in, not a consumer of, our church family. There is fear and/or enthusiasm about the opportunity to meet new people. There is comfort in seeing how God has sustained us all through many changes.

Clearly there are many and mixed emotions; sometimes across different individuals, sometimes for each of us individually. However for me, overriding them all, is peace in knowing God hasn’t changed at all. Jesus still reigns with all authority and power. He still loves and delights in his people. He wants us to keep making disciples for his honour and glory. And his promise to be with his disciples always, to the very end of the age, stands strong.