Stories of encouragement from various congregations as they share how they are coping with the new Coronavirus restrictions.
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Restarting our Toddler Group Community
A story from High Street, Holywood Presbyterian
At High Street Presbyterian, our Parent and Toddler group is of utmost importance.
First and foremost, it is a community; a place where parents/guardians can come to find friendship, support and encouragement, and where children can have fun with other children and learn how to interact together. From a church point of view, we also see the group as one of the key places where discipleship and evangelism take place.
Throughout the pandemic, sadly we had to close for quite some time, and there was a real sense of loss for those who had been coming along.
We knew that parents in our community were struggling to cope with the pressures of looking after children with very little support. So as soon as we were able to resume, we did. We have had to change our structure significantly - masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer etc. We also had to split the group across 2 sessions, and reduce the time to 1 hour per session, with a "deep clean" period in between.
Safe to say, the effort has been worthwhile. The parents/guardians who come along have expressed joy at having something back up and running again that enables a sense of community. And of course, we love having the opportunity to forge deep friendships, to show the love of God, and ultimately to point people towards Jesus. As a result, we've started to see a number of young families from the group join us for Sunday morning worship in recent months.
A church weekend with a difference
Dundonald Presbyterian Church
Dundonald congregation in East Belfast are thinking creatively about how to run their church weekend as an opportunity to re-establish the community among members that has been diminished during the pandemic. Rob Bailie, Discipleship Ministry Coordinator, shares the plans that are in place and hopes for how this might grow the congregation’s life and witness:
Our focus for designing a church weekend was to re-establish a sense of community and refocus on what it is to be a church family. With the current Covid-19 restrictions in place a normal church weekend away wasn’t possible, so we thought about how we could do something similar in our own church building that would serve and encourage all the members of our church family.
On Friday evening, we will begin our church weekend with an All Age Fun Night. This will include a mini murder mystery and a few interactive and engaging quiz rounds. On Saturday we are planning a day conference. Our time together will begin with our whole church family together in our main building for an all age time of worship with Mark Moorehead from Scripture Union Northern Ireland. Children will then leave for their own programme and we will have a range of seminars, a BBQ lunch and a closing ‘On the Sofa’ session.
We have intentionally kept the flow of the weekend informal with extended breaks for coffee and lunch to allow for a greater sense of fellowship, something we have missed greatly over the past 18 months. On Sunday morning we will begin a new series called ‘Love Your Church’ that will help encourage and equip us to be the church God has called us to be.
We needed to do something differently!
Glengormley Presbyterian Church
In October 2020, when children’s ministries could meet in person, Glengormley had no Sunday school coordinator and so something different needed to be done to help the children connect in the church service. Each week when the children arrived there would be a box of activities on their seats when they arrived for the service. However, being back in church only lasted for a short time before another lockdown came in.
When in-person services came back in April, not everyone could fit in the main church because of social distancing and so the leaders knew that they had to come up with something different again.
Each Sunday in Glengormley, there are 2 services; one at 10:30 and one at 12noon. On the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month, the 10:30am service is aimed at families with primary aged children and so they are given a priority for seats. When the children come into church, their family’s personalised activity box is waiting for them in the pew that they have been allocated. In that box are activities that have been prepared earlier in the week and are planned according to the children in the family. They include worksheets, paper, pens, colours, scissors, glue, craft materials, and small toys for preschool children, whatever each family need for the service. On these Sundays when families are given priority in the main building, the hall is set up for older people who do not have access to the livestream at home to be able to watch the service from the hall.
On the in between weeks, the 2nd and 4th weeks of the month, the hall is set up for families with young children. They arrive for 10am and in the hall there are tables set up, allocated to each family and on the table is the same box that they would have in the services. Anything they need for the family activities Sunday is prepared earlier in the week and placed in the box and also a small treat for the children is included. Families come together, parents and children, and sit at the same table each week. On those Sundays, the families take part in an arrival activity at the table, prayer, songs, a Bible story and then a follow-up activity on the theme. This lasts for about 25 minutes and at 10:30 the families are encouraged to stay in the hall as the main service is streamed in on screens to listen to the opening prayer, kids song and children’s address. They can then stay on for the rest of the service or leave as they wish.
When asked what had motivated this way of doing things, the leaders said, “Children and young people were the ones missing out and we knew we needed to do something”.
This is a great example of thinking creatively in how to do something differently for a time to make sure that children and families are included on a Sunday, while also thinking about other members of the church family as well and maximizing involvement.
Re-de-fined summer discipleship
Bloomfield Presbyterian Church
Summer Micro-Groups at Bloomfield are an opportunity to encourage one another in relationship with God, while living out that relationship in connection with other people. Although restrictions on meeting in large groups remain, there are still opportunities to meet in gardens, coffee shops or for a walk.
Over the summer months groups of three or four people are encouraged to meet fortnightly to pray, and consider material that encourages them to grow deeper in their faith – perhaps a Bible study, a Christian book or a podcast series. Some people have signed up for a group, while other groups of friends have approached the opportunity more naturally just by choosing to include something like this as part of meet ups and conversations over the summer they would have been having anyway.
Micro-Groups aren’t a new concept, but as we emerge out of lockdown they provide an opportunity to reconnect with each other and encourage one another in our connection to God.
Young adults ministry
First Comber, by Katie McBurney
After a prompting to go local with our church life, my husband and I joined First Comber, coinciding with the introduction of lockdown. The best way to get to know and invest in a community is through serving and there seemed to be a need for young adults’ provision, so with this age group being on our hearts we accepted the offer to take it on.
You might question the need for a young adults ministry, assuming that once out of youth the young adults can just slip into the wider church community, but that would be ignoring the tempestuous stage of life that 18-25’s can be. Whilst it will differ for each of us, for the most part it is a time of change. A shift in dynamics in the family home or moving out, higher education, getting a first-time job, maybe a serious relationship or even marriage. Suddenly in charge of their time, money and future, young adults need support in such change, and for this generation with the world in their pockets it is all too easy to turn to smartphones for guidance rather than the church and the Bible.
So here we find our young adults no longer being dropped off by their parents at the church youth group or helping run a BB/GB or cut off from regular church attendance through Covid-19. How could we possibly help the young adults get grounded in the church community and turn it into their first point of call? Connection is our answer and our goal.
- Connection to God comes through Bible studies, worship and prayer with encouragement for a daily devotional life and each of us sharing over WhatsApp what challenged us.
- Connection to one another is about enjoying time together and what we have done this year has mostly been in 2’s and 3’s. Whilst Covid has made more intimate meet ups necessary, we think more regular, ordinary socialising in the week - walks or coffees - is more important than one off group trips.
- Connection to culture is about helping the young adults learn how to engage with the surrounding culture in a healthy mature manner - allowing ourselves to be in the world but not of it. Book clubs and watching films critically can expand our understanding of the world we find ourselves in especially when we open it out to discussion.
- Connection to Comber is where we seek to increase our young adults love of the town they are in. We each find ourselves where God has placed us and whilst many might move on, we need to invest in where we are right now.
Most ministries have a programme at the centre which is followed week in week out to teach, prompt and assess. We don’t have such a thing. For us we have found that honest, open relationship with the freedom to bring ideas and questions forward shapes what we do with our scheduled time. Most of what happens with our young adults is organic and short notice as you would find with most friendship groups.
So how do we invest in our young adults without a programme? Week in, week out we pray for one another, we go for impromptu walks, we do a Sunday evening Bible study, opening and discussing what we read honestly without agenda. We have book groups for diving into heavier topics and meet ups for more personal conversation We will plan for summer activities to enjoy together and hope to be able to offer an open-door policy on our house in the not too distant future but mostly we just have connection.
And this isn’t our idea at all, it was Jesus’ as he chose not to set a programme for his disciples to roll out, but instead said ‘come, follow me’.
Re-thinking the summer
Abbey, Monkstown by Rev Alan Carson
It’s amazing how quickly things - in life and in Church - become routine, and before long “the way we always do things.” Pre-Covid, summer in Abbey meant certain things - no business meetings, a PCI team helping with a holiday club and youth outreach, and a well-deserved rest for leaders, before a Community Fun Day for all ages to welcome folks back and highlight Church organisations and programme for the year ahead.
Then in 2020. Covid. Nothing. We got back to in-person services during the summer, worked to develop live-streaming, and brought into the mix a couple of evening drive-in services - something which brought folks back in a way they were comfortable with and that was a visible witness given our prominent site at a busy road junction.
So what then for 2021?
June. Meetings! Given the opportunity to meet in person, we believe it is really helpful for our sub-committees, committee and session to gather, review, pray and plan. Having started a practice of bringing all leaders together periodically, this is an opportunity to thank folks for their adaptability and on-going work and to recognise both where we are and reflect on where we are going.
July. Adaptation! We have adapted our plans for a holiday club, which will be pre-recorded and on-line early in July. We will then follow up with an in-person fun event that everyone can come to in the grounds of the church and an informal holiday club service on the Sunday.
August. Regathering? Our intention is to have a series of informal events simply to bring people back together. These will be aimed at families with children, young people, and seniors. We want to focus on relationships and start conversations that will help us re-frame our programmes, remove the fear of change, and see where God leads us.
Redefined small groups
Adelaide Road, Dublin
Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church has recognised the importance of discipleship to aid maturity and growth in the Christian lives of members. We found that coming to church weekly does not guarantee spiritual growth and that a more personal interaction was also needed. The congregation has had a system of home groups for many years and we have always tried to keep discipleship at the heart of them.
However, the pandemic forced a re-think when restrictions meant that members were unable to meet in groups of more than three households. So, within the enforced criteria a new arrangement sought to combine, Bible study, prayer, discipleship and encouragement of real conversation about faith. The result was 3D groups meeting virtually, but when circumstances allow, returning to meeting in person.
The three dimensions of the groups were to:-
- Developing prayer-filled relationships
- Digging deeper into God’s Word
- Discuss how it impacts the way participants live in real life situations.
Initial feedback has been very encouraging with better development of leadership, more buy in from the participants, an increasing desire to reach out and invite others, and general appreciation of the focused format.
Redefined connection with young people
Drumachose Presbyterian, Limavady
Since the lockdown restrictions have come into play, we moved our youth fellowship over to Zoom and I can say like everyone else in the country and world, we have now become Zoom experts … we can happily share our screen and mute our mics! We are very thankful to have young people and leaders who pop up on the screens and are ready to engage in discussions.
We wanted to strip youth fellowship back and keep it simple – in a way getting back to basics.
A usual night would be catching up with how their week was, opening prayer, “Youth Alpha” discussion and then some silly games (anything from silent karaoke to reverse charades!).
In order to keep connected with our young people we did the usual at Christmas and sent out advent calendars and candy canes.
After attending the webinar “New Skills and Methods for Different Times” I was really challenged to step it up a bit with connecting more not only to our young people but to their parents. After chatting with the other leaders, I messaged each parent, just to check in and to ask if we could help them with anything (if there was any topics that they feel would benefit their young person). I had some great responses and was really encouraged by our parents.
Now, at half-term, we are checking in again with our young people and have done up wee packs for them which include wooden discs (thankful for a dad who needed a job to do over lockdown). We are asking them over their holidays to create either a coaster or a wall hanging based around a word or bible verse and one for everyone in their family. We sent off a card of encouragement for the parents to tell them to keep going and to say how amazing they are doing along with a “half-term treat bag” filled with cookies, crisps and popcorn (my own children weren’t happy that they didn’t have one!) to enjoy some well deserved family time without the added stress and strain of home-schooling or work looming.
Being willing to reach out and to take time to listen to others has been the forefront of our youth fellowship – as much as we enjoy the banter, I hope that our young people know how valued and loved they are within our churches.
A little encouragement goes a long way, especially in a global pandemic!
Joanne Gallick, Youth Fellowship Leader, Drumachose and Derramore Presbyterian Churches (DDYF)
Welcome to Assembly… on YouTube!
Waringstown Presbyterian Church
Weekly school assemblies have been a welcome fixture in many primary schools across Ireland, often facilitated by local church clergy and staff.
To respond to school restrictions and closures Waringstown Presbyterian responded with the launch of a weekly assembly on YouTube. Children’s and Family Worker, Suzie Taylor’ gives an insight into this opportunity for a local congregation to broaden its witness:
I remember the first time a child responded, “I want to be a YouTuber” when I asked them “What job do you want to have when you’re older?” I remember thinking, really? Is that a thing?
My job title hasn’t changed to “Youtuber”, I’m still the Children’s and Family worker – but never did I think that I would be reaching children through YouTube! It’s not ideal, but in September when the pandemic situation was still ongoing, I had the idea of doing assembly videos. By making a YouTube video that could be played in the classroom I was hopeful that we could engage with children, teach them about Jesus and praise God. Teachers always email to tell me how enthusiastically the kids in their class dance and sing along to the praise songs. The thought of children worshipping God in school is definitely my motivation to keep going. I also added the opportunity for classes to get a “shout out” within the video. This was a great way to find out who was tuning in. Along with many local schools, our videos are being watched in Newcastle, Magherafelt, Belfast and Antrim.
Currently the videos are designed knowing many kids are at home, but I still seek to open God’s word and give children an opportunity to praise. It’s great to see that children are still tuning in and enjoying the assembly videos…and parents are getting some peace and quiet while they watch!
The hundreds of views on the videos is encouraging and random children saying, “Mum that’s the girl from YouTube” as I’m out for a walk, can make me feel like a bit of a “YouTuber”. However, I never want to seek any glory – the main purpose will always be to point children to Jesus and so it’s His Name and goodness that I hope has an incredible and lasting impact.
Evangelism redefined by creativity in current circumstances
Gym virtual Bible study, Union Road congregation, Magherafelt
Rev David Leach of Union Road congregation, Magherafelt, shares an encouraging story of the courage and creativity of one church member in bringing the Bible into an unusual place. David shares how the opportunity came about:
Just before Christmas one of the young men in Union Road, who runs a successful gym and has a great reputation as a personal trainer, invited me to plan a three week online evangelistic Bible study through the auspices of his gym. He has an all-round concern for the physical, mental and spiritual health of his clients and so he has given me this opportunity for three weeks online.
We are two weeks into the study using Mark's Gospel as our guide. The whole session is recorded and shared with gym members who may wish to watch in their own time in the private group section of the website and Facebook page. Gyms are not my thing, but we are already thinking about how we could develop this in the months to come on site when restrictions lift.
I have found the group, which has ranged in number between 12 and 20, engaged and excited about guided reading of the Bible and very open to discussion. It is amazing how God's Spirit enables people to 'see' things I have never seen before.
We are praying that this bold and enterprising step by one of members will grow and that he would be encouraged and given further opportunities to share his faith when he returns to one to one or group training.
Building community with sunflowers
Second Dromara congregation were thinking creatively about how to bless and connect with the local community during restrictions last summer. They decided to distribute sunflower seeds in a pack along with a note from the church giving contact details offering support over lockdown, and some Christian literature. These gifts were distributed to homes around the village and were very well received. As the bright sunflowers began to pop-up around the village it became a talking point that brought the community together through a difficult time.
Andrew Dawson, Community Outreach Worker in Second Dromara shares his thoughts of the impact of this simple practical witness in the local community:
By May/June a weariness had descended upon people, we felt it ourselves. The virtual world, while useful, couldn’t sustain us. The Sunflower Project (the best ideas are stolen) was an antidote to the sense of hopelessness around us. Those who volunteered from the church to put the packs together jumped at the chance to show practical love to others. For those who carefully put them at the door, knocked and stepped back, it was an opportunity to see and bless our community. We wanted them to know we were there for them, that there was hope, and that hope was found in Jesus. The sunflowers seeds spoke of that hope. A real concrete hope, not distant images on a screen but real living plants in your hands. People we had never met before reached out through Facebook to say thanks. One wrote, “On the note with them, it advised they were being given out to provide a little light and hope during this tough time
of the Covid crisis and that is exactly what they did. I was so moved by the symbolism of the sunflowers...”
Months later the photos came with sunflowers fully grown and glorious. One man was adamant I saw his sunflowers every time I visited. Did this bring anyone nearer to Christ? I don’t know. But I do know it created goodwill, built new connections, brought hope and was a piece of positive news when there was very little to find. At a time when it felt most hopeless Jesus’ hope grew.
Redefined youth discipleship in Greenisland
Strange as it might sound, the interruption to church life caused by Covid-19 has brought some exciting opportunities for our congregation in youth work. While we used Zoom at the peak of lockdown, since mid-September we have resumed regular meet ups, all be it in significantly smaller groups.
The restrictions meant we cut back on a lot of things. Boys’ Brigade and Guides aren’t meeting, and we have put our Youth Club on hold as the numbers were too large to cope. Our Youth Fellowship isn’t meeting in its normal format.
That doesn’t sound very positive at first reading, however, stripping everything back has turned out to be great. We made the decision to focus on the young people attached to our church and what we have now is 29 young people distributed across multiple small groups that run throughout the week with the aim of creating disciples. While it may sound like an organisational struggle, it wasn’t. Getting groups together on appropriate nights was easy and getting leaders for each group again fell into place beautifully. We really felt God’s favour and blessing in getting things up and running. Each night is 90 minutes and consists of fun, food (following appropriate guidelines), a Bible-based talk and discussion.
We are now a couple of months into these groups (with a temporary return to Zoom included) and the commitment has been great. Each group has its own dynamic and the engagement during each evening has been great. We continue to seek God’s will and guidance going forward and ask him to cut away anything not of him and build up anything that is.
Redefined discipleship: Shifting the focus from programmes to relationships
High Kirk, Ballymena
Over the period of lockdown our leadership spent a significant amount of time not only considering what ministry would look like in the interim but also how long-term future ministry was going to change. Whatever happened, we knew that things couldn’t simply return to how they were before.
The biggest challenge came when thinking about what discipleship would look like when restrictions on people gathering together interrupted the way we had been doing things. For many years now small groups have been in the DNA of how we carry out discipleship in High Kirk. In the early stages of lockdown, there was no way for our groups to meet the way they had just a few months before. Initially, some groups met online and others kept in contact via WhatsApp groups. However, it wasn’t long before many of the groups suffered from digital fatigue and, surprisingly, it was the younger small groups that gave up on these platforms more quickly.
When the church building opened up again a few elders and staff met for three nights of evaluation and exploration with our small group leaders. There was a sense of togetherness and honesty in the conversations and a desire for more. We chatted through the options for the best way of keeping the groups together, how they might meet, reconsidered their purpose, and pondered how they might better care for one another pastorally. We also discussed the idea that some groups might want to split into temporary smaller gatherings and advocated engaging in one-to-one discipling relationships.
These and other discussions have led us to the conviction that, going forward, our model of discipleship will focus more intentionally on relationships rather than programmes with the aim of seeing believers mature in Christ and go deeper in their faith. Discipleship has moved from a department in the church to a fluid aspect of who we are as a worshiping community.
Some of our small groups continue to meet online to accommodate those who are shielding. Others have begun to meet together in the church building on designated evenings. Even under the ongoing restrictions these groups have reported the blessing it has been to gather again with brothers and sisters in Christ. For those who have been engaging in one-to-one discipling relationships, the reports have been extremely positive and much spiritual fruit has been produced with authentic friendships growing out of these times together.
While the pandemic has had a devastating effect on many lives it has also helped us to see a new way forward in our discipleship. For us, it has redefined discipleship for the better.
Gathering together for women’s ministry in Maze
So many of us have been experiencing new things over the last months. At times life seems unrecognisable and we find ourselves appreciating things closer to home, as well as prioritising relationships in our lives that really matter. Because relationships are so valuable to us, we have found ways to grow and deepen them, even if that has meant learning how to do things we have never done before. It is good to know that God is still at work in and through the lives of so many women throughout our congregations. Here is one story of how ministry among women in Maze Presbyterian Church has been being done differently, making the most of this moment in these unusual times.
“Over the last months we have really been trying to find new ways to connect with our women@maze and so we started a new initiative on a WhatsApp group - in the past month this has grown to full capacity of 100 women. As we have quite a few newish people and many of the other women in the group don’t know each other very well, we decided to keep things simple, for example, sharing a photo and introducing themselves and family, sharing a Bible verse, delivering gifts to those who have had to shield etc. It has been a real blessing to see how this simple idea has worked out so well allowing so many women to feel a connection with each other, encouraging one another with God’s word and building a deeper sense of fellowship.”
One hundred women are being encouraged and blessed as this group of women in Maze PC stepped out to do something they had never really done before. Perhaps this will inspire you to do something new in your church family making the most of all that God has given us.
Redefined pastoral care and sharing faith
West Church, Bangor
When lockdown struck it seemed as if we were all forced into our respective burrows without warning. What happened thereafter, was not a series of well-planned or thought through actions but rather a series of responses which we trusted were prompted by the Lord. We knew we couldn't simply let our members drift away from their moorings or be cut free by the winds of coronavirus. We felt we needed to make contact, both to check that folk were managing, but also to let them know that they were not alone and not forgotten.
Our dormant district lists were resurrected and we set about conscripting people to telephone. We provided a few pointers to help with the initial call and because we were keen that prayer should be part of each call, we provided some prayers to help where necessary. The conversations were to be friendly, supportive and pastoral. Any weightier pastoral issues were to be escalated to the members of our pastoral team. Many of the subsequent conversations were on everyday things, but also on matters of faith and trust. People were usually keen to talk and prayer was rarely refused. We know of at least one person who came to faith as a result.
Although inevitably there were gaps and over time some members understandably grew weary with juggling the demands of home life and work, the calls were appreciated and stories began to circulate of a range of pastoral support and practical help that was generated as a result.
As lockdown eased and Sunday services returned, we were acutely aware that not everyone felt comfortable with returning to a large group. In addition we began to sense that people missed social interaction, meaningful conversations and the opportunity to engage with one another in an authentic way about spiritual matters. All of that pointed to the value of finding a way to begin regathering in small groups.
We took the opportunity to rebrand our home groups as 'Life' groups, encouraging the existing ones to meet on church premises as well as setting up five or six new ones. That sparked the idea of asking the telephone callers to invite those who they had been calling to come together on church premises, socially distanced, for about an hour.
The gatherings adhered to the required precautions and were limited to 10. As they were scheduled to meet during the day, they tended to attract retired people. They took the form of conversations about what was most difficult during lockdown, what was enjoyed, things that were missed, new skills that were learnt and new activities that were tackled. Each gathering finished with a short devotional. So far 23 different groups have met.
For some, the group was their first sortie into a public place and built confidence in resuming more normal life. For most, it was a time to renew friendship or forge new ones. It has been very apparent that people have missed church very deeply. The groups, therefore, provided a safe space in which they could share openly and honestly. There was much laughter but also tears as some laid bare their hearts and the pain they had experienced during lockdown. It has been heart-warming to receive texts, emails, cards and to hear the appreciation of those who have attended. The groups have been a lifeline to people and many want to know when they can meet again.
Gathering again in new ways outside of Sunday worship in Legacurry
As congregations begin to bring groups together again outside of Sunday worship, social distancing, apprehension about additional work involved in setting up and cleaning, along with the possibility of reduced numbers as we move into winter are all significant challenges.
In Legacurry congregation in the Dromore Presbytery, two groups which previously met monthly and fortnightly with a focus on ministry among senior members, along with two home groups which can no longer meet in private houses and are not comfortable using Zoom, have come together in a new way on Wednesdays.
Split into morning and evening gatherings to accommodate those available at different times of the day, a new configuration of groups meet in the church building. By reorganising in this way, social distancing is easily catered for using the same arrangements in place for Sunday worship and a 72 hour gap between Wednesdays and Sundays means set up and cleaning is kept to a minimum.
A format of praise, prayer and Bible teaching brings the best of each aspect of the previous format of each group together for the benefit of all. It is still early days, but the response of those attending is positive, the new arrangements proving manageable and this format something the congregation hope to grow going forward.
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