Emerging from a very different summer
I love the summer months, bringing warmer weather and a slower pace. No busy school runs or homework to complete, and less weekly activities to run to. We’ve been blessed with some great weather this summer and have made the most of a few staycations, with lots of time outdoors enjoying the beauty of our wee country.
The change of rhythm to family, school, work and church life is appreciated and helpful for recharging the batteries in advance of the autumn when normal patterns resume.
In line with school life, September has always been that moment for the resumption of the church season with a return to normal patterns after the summer break. However, normal patterns of church life have changed significantly since the onset of the pandemic. Through long periods of restrictions, we have grown used to watching church from the comfort and safety of our own living room whilst eating our breakfast or enjoying a cup of coffee. Perhaps we have enjoyed the flexibility of doing other things on a Sunday morning and ‘catching-up’ with the church service later in the day or during the week. As physical services have returned, restrictions have meant that many of us have had to book-in to attend church and, in smaller church buildings with larger congregations, this has meant that the frequency of attending is now monthly or fortnightly at best. Some people, who attended church weekly pre-Covid, have not been there since March 2020.
Into and out of the way of things
Habits are funny things. Often when we talk about our habits we refer to bad habits related to our lifestyle such as diet and exercise. However, many of our habits are good actions and behaviours that have been deeply ingrained in our upbringing and experience. Saying ‘thank you’ when given a gift, raising your hand when asking a question and brushing your teeth twice daily (I’m still trying to embed this one with our children) are all good and healthy habits that we reflexively perform day and daily without thought. Habits like these are hard to unravel, but the pandemic has shown over the past 18 months that no habit is safe. Do you remember when we used to shake hands? I’m not a big hugger so I don’t miss that invasion to my personal space, but the handshake was part and parcel of my greeting to others and a habit that certainly took a couple of months to break and allow a new one to form, although I’m sure we all agree that the elbow bump is a poor substitute to pressing flesh!
Phillippa Lally is a health psychology researcher at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit. The answer?
On average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally's study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
It has now been more than 500 days since the pandemic struck in March 2020 so we should not be surprised that new habits around all aspects of life, including church life, are well embedded and have become ‘normal’ for everyone.
What if some of these new habits are not good? Hebrews 10:24-25 is a warning here:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching
As we approach the new church season, might we reflect on the following question, has weekly church attendance become less of a priority than it once was?
Reviving the body
For most of us if we are honest the answer will be yes. It might be a small yes, but we all must acknowledge that through no fault of our own, our habits of church attendance have changed during the pandemic due to the restrictions imposed upon corporate worship. As restrictions have eased, many people have understandably exercised caution around a return to worship for health reasons and the wait for vaccinations. However, as we approach a new church season, and as restrictions allow, might we all consider resuming more regular patterns of church life? There are many reasons why this important (see article noted below*), but here are two that stand out for me.
Firstly, worshipping as the body of Christ. The church is a community of people unlike any other and in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 Paul uses the image of the body of Christ to describe it. We are one body made up of many parts. Everyone in the church has a part to play and we are interdependent upon one another. We cannot grow or change as Christians on our own. The local body of Christ has been disembodied in recent months and we have lost the encouragement that can only come from worshiping with others through prayer, singing, preaching and the sacraments.
Secondly, witnessing as the body of Christ. The image of the body places the church in an incarnational position in God’s mission. This means that following Christ’s ascension, the church is the fleshed out, living, breathing, visual, alongside, up close, personal representation of the life of God in the world. We are the body of Christ. Our lives together as a church are a window advertisement to the world for the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the unreached people around us want to know who Jesus is, what he is like and whether he is worth knowing, then they will naturally observe our lives and the actions of the church. We are a witness to our community corporately and we cannot fulfil this alone.
Reclaiming Sunday for church attendance
So as the summer draws to a close and a new season of church life unfolds, how might we begin to nurture new habits of more regular church attendance, as restrictions allow? Developing any new habit causes discomfort and awkwardness as we are required to make conscious decisions to prioritise what is important. This might mean saying no to some things as we seek to reclaim Sundays for attending church. However, in time - 66 days according to Lally - the habit becomes normal, and we will once again play our part in spurring and encouraging one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in both our worship and our witness.
*Peter Wright (Hill Street Presbyterian) has written a helpful blog unpacking five reasons why we should come back to church. Read it here.
Neil Harrison is PCI's Mission Development Officer.
This blog is part of the digital programme series, Refined: Fanning the Flame, an emphasis within the Refined initiative on gradually resuming more regular patterns of congregational activity.
Visit the Refined hub here.