Back together again - Listening together

David Thompson

22.7.2022 | Congregational Life

This week's blog contains an excerpt from a forthcoming booklet due to be released by the Council for Congregational Life and Witness entitled ‘Back Together Again.’ It is intended to enable us to reflect on the community of the church. 

Listening together

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kind, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  James 1:2-5

Hearing God together

The first few weeks and months of the first lockdown were a remarkable time. Life slowed down enough for us to experience silence and stillness once again. We found it both unsettling and strangely calming. 

As the hamster wheel of ceaseless activity ground to a halt, we could see clearly what our lives had become and a window was opened on alternative possibilities. Of course, the pandemic period was a one-off set of circumstances that was never destined to last forever. However, perhaps as we come back together again the memory of that season still echoes with the voice of God to us. What did we hear? How have we listened? 

Back together again now, what do we still sense God saying might be different about our church life going forward?    

Tentative and tailored

Answering that question remains a very tentative exercise. The full outworking of the pandemic on our church life has still not completely played out. Every congregation has been impacted differently and will resume a fuller expression of church life tailored to the realities of its starting point in terms of leadership and membership. 

Listening for what God by his Spirit is saying to us in his church is probably best approached as a steady, rather than speedy, exercise. So, it will be good for us to dwell together with a few key questions for a while, letting them ripen in our minds and hearts and conversations, rather than rush to hasty judgements. With that in mind, what follows are some general reflections on church life that seemed to emerge during our experience of the pandemic and continue to linger for our ongoing consideration as aspects of what church life could be going forward. 

Church life can be…

  • Unhurried – During the restrictions and uncertainties of the pandemic it was not possible to do anything quickly. Organising everything took more time, but equally we found we had more time. If we have learned a greater patience and a gentler pace, that may be a rhythm God is saying needs to continue to charactarise our life as his people. 
  • Unpolished – Before the pandemic we liked our polished programmes, perhaps even came to over rely upon them. The switch to digital forms made everything appear that bit more rough and ready. After our initial discomfort, we came to see that dressing things up in their Sunday best was no longer as important as keeping them real. While always wanting to give our best to God, going forward this might be an important reminder that we serve a Lord who looks on the heart rather than on outward appearances.
  • Uncluttered – Stripped back to basics by restrictions, church life suddenly appeared sparse and bare, minimalist even. However, as time passed we may have sensed a different outlook emerging. We began to ask if we needed the clutter of all our weekly activities? Was there unnecessary doubling up of meetings and ministries? Might a streamlining of what we do reduce the stress of finding ourselves being a smaller church now but still trying to run the programme that we could deliver when we were a bigger congregation? 
  • Uncomplicated – A much greater simplicity of church life also emerged from our experience of the pandemic. Perhaps we can now see that over the years the way we have gone about managing church life has become more and more complicated and demanding. A focus on what we could do, rather than what we couldn’t, helped us appreciate that less can be more. We became better at discerning what was necessary and what was just nice. While still needing to ensure that we maintain basic standards and good practice in all we do, might we have discovered some ways of making our life together simpler? 
  • Unencumbered – For such a long time we have judged the impact of what we do on the basis of how many came along. While that is an important factor in determining if we are being as effective as we might be, during the period of the pandemic we rediscovered that depth of engagement with God and one another was as important as breadth of reach. This removed so much of the anxiety about numbers that often encumbers our church life and becomes such a cause of discouragement. 
  • Unfolding – The disruption of the pandemic and ebb and flow of restrictions brought a humbling in terms of our illusion of being in control. Our well worked plans on the page were replaced by having to move forward stage by stage. We had to learn to walk in step with his Spirit, sometimes finding ourselves lagging behind, at others stretched to keep up, with what he was doing among us. Might this be a necessary schooling in the art of walking more by faith and less by sight as we go forward? 

 Rev David Thompson is Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness.

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