Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:15-16
Experiencing God’s living Word as his word for living
During the pandemic it wasn’t only our services of worship as opportunities to learn from God’s Word that fell foul of lockdown and restrictions. A wide variety of other activities in church life that take shape around an open Bible and shared prayer for one another also came to a halt. It became obvious how much both contributed to the way we learn together as a community of disciples. There is a place for both proclamation and exploration of God’s Word in a Bible learning church – the kind of congregation that really helps all ages to experience how God’s living Word is God’s word for living.
Learning with one another and from one another
In worship we gather to learn with one another as we listen attentively to God’s Word preached and taught. In other settings for discipleship we have the opportunity to learn from one another as we discuss together the implications of Scripture for a whole range of ages, stages and circumstances of life.
During the pandemic these smaller settings provided valuable places for maintaining pastoral contact, prayerful support and the personal application of God’s Word to disrupted lives. While many congregations had small groups before the pandemic, the circumstances under which they had to meet for a long period has caused a rethinking and reshaping of this means of discipleship. Some congregations moved activities from homes to halls. Others, found a willingness among members to participate online in a way they never had before in-person. New ways of approaching spending time together in group settings also developed.
Re-establishing the regularity of routines
For all ages the pandemic has brought an extended interruption to the commitment of being part of things with others. Re-establishing regularity of the routine of attendance at everything from youth fellowship to Bible study groups has been challenging. It may take some time to do so, along with a recognition that fresh formats may have to replace previous patterns. The following emerging observations may be worth further consideration as congregations go forward.
If numbers of participants engaging are small, it could prove easier to start with one-to-one mentoring or micro-ministry groups of three or four, rather than try to bring back larger groups of eight to twelve.
If regular recommitment seems to be an issue, it might be necessary to think about delivering small group ministry on specific themes and topics in shorter four to six week blocks scattered appropriately throughout the church year, rather than try to begin to restore a fortnightly gathering scheduled to run throughout the autumn, winter and early spring.
If it doesn’t feel like the moment to move back to meeting in separate homes, getting groups together around tables in a church hall offers an alternative that may outlive advice about the need to maintain social distancing.
In every case, the specific format is less important than a gathering which serves the function of facilitating the kind of depth of relationship that grows increasing confidence to talk about following Jesus and offers an environment to share, pray and support one another.
A more balanced discipleship?
With a desire to get church life up and running again there will be an understandable momentum in encouraging people to resume serving and leading again in all sorts of congregational organisations and activities. Christian sacrifice and service is a vital part of what it means to follow Jesus. Nevertheless, in pursuing a desire to restore a breadth of programming, it may be that other crucial aspects of discipleship that involve time devoted to learning together and deepening relationships are inadvertently squeezed out. This would be unfortunate, particularly in this moment when many may continue to sense a need to be supported in processing the impact of the pandemic and deepening all aspects of their walk with Jesus.
The next season of church life may offer the opportunity to reflect on how to better achieve the kind of balance in discipleship that offers supportive community alongside opportunities to serve. It may be helpful to reflect on where the balance of our congregation’s messaging falls and how it might be redressed where necessary.
Rev David Thompson is Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness.