PERSPECTIVES FROM THE PANDEMIC EXPERIENCE
A TIME APART
Sunday 22 March 2020 was a strange day across the church in Ireland. At the normal time of gathering for worship, gates remained locked, car parks were empty, church buildings were closed as the result of measures required to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Regular organisations and activities followed as well. Home groups, midweek meetings, gatherings for seniors, children’s and youth organisations, all closed their doors. Weddings were postponed, even funerals were restricted to immediate family members. The church no longer scattered for mission in quite the same way either, as measures for social distancing were applied, house to house contact and meetings of more than two people were prohibited. Congregations in the Republic of Ireland had already got there before. So began a very strange season of life for the church, a time apart, a lengthy interruption only now tapering to an end.
Congregations quickly readjusted to their new situation. Use of technology and social media flourished. New and creative ministries emerged as necessity became the mother of invention. But we all knew something was missing. The virtual was a poor substitute for the vitality of gathering together with others for worship. The dynamic of group conversation couldn’t be replicated in the conference call. The gracious touch of pastoral presence died the death of social distancing.
Now we find ourselves beginning to return to recommence everyday life and regular church life once again. What will that feel like? What will we see with fresh eyes? What will we have learned? What might we decide to do differently, do with greater vigour, not do at all?
Returning is a frequent theme in the Bible. It is always a significant event, whether for individuals or the people of God as a whole.
Jacob returns home and on the journey wrestles with God at Peniel and is changed forever (Genesis 32).
The people of God return from exile in Babylon with joy, having found that he was still with them when the familiar trappings of temple and well-worn practices of worship had been stripped away (Psalm 126).
The prodigal son in Jesus' story returns to the fold and in the process comes to a whole new understanding of who he is and of his father's love (Luke 15).
Returning is a core part of our Christian journey as well. We are called to a life of repentance, re-turning from our own ways to God and his ways for our lives. It marks a change of mind, heart and living.
NEVER THE SAME AGAIN?
So what should we expect as we return from the period of the coronavirus pandemic? Will everything revert to the same old, same old? Will our world be the same? Will we be the same people? Will our church be the same? If so, we will have learned none of the lessons God wants to teach us. The world needs to be different. For it to be so, it needs us to have become different people, in a different church, reinvigorated by the message of the difference knowing Jesus makes. The Prism sessions aim to facilitate reflection on how to come back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic further restored into the image of Christ as his church and people.
WHY PRISM? NOT YOUR NORMAL BIBLE STUDY
A prism is a clear glass shape which you may remember from your physics class at school. When white light is shone through the prism, the phenomenon of refraction causes it to separate into an array of different colours all emerging at different angles.
Prism offers the right name for this resource which is part biblical reflection, part framework for discussion, part practical response and part encouragement to take fresh faith in God. The content is intentionally more open and flexible than other familiar patterns of Bible study material. It has to be, because it will take many years for the complex lessons God wants to teach us through the coronavirus experience to fully unfold from what we can only imagine will be a once in a lifetime global event. Superficial answers swiftly arrived at may only expose our simplistic questions and shallow reflection.
Every participant’s individual experience of living through the period of the pandemic will also be different. Some will have done so as a family unit. Others will have experienced lockdown on their own. Some will be excited by the possibilities of new technology. Others will have felt digitally excluded, or feel digitally fatigued. Some may be sorrowful at having lost a loved one. Others may be grateful for having survived a period of infection. Some may continue to live with serious financial consequences. We want to gather all these perspectives allowing members of congregations to pastorally process where they are and to make different contributions to enrich the collective lessons to be learned. So after beginning with a Bible passage, greater space is intentionally left for less structured discussion to see what emerges. In allowing this to happen we will gain wide perspective on what God is saying to his church and begin to discern his ways for us in the future.
The content could be used in a home Bible study, midweek meeting or for more personal discipling. It could provide a framework for sermons or content for teaching in other settings.
Each session offers four sections.
1. Parallels and patterns
An invitation to look back at the experience of living through the pandemic and lockdown and forward into God’s future for his church through the prism of Scripture
Participants are invited to line up a particular Bible passage alongside their experience of living through the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, to explore what parallels they see and patterns for living as followers of Jesus they draw from the text.
2. Possibilities and perspectives
A kaleidoscope of conversation creating space for the Spirit to speak in and through his people
Participants are encouraged to further explore the possibilities of what God might be saying that arise by looking at recent events through the lens of Scripture, then share those perspectives to stimulate group conversation and deepen discussion.
3. Pathways to pursue
Refractions offering practical changes of course in congregational life and individual followers of Jesus
Participants are helped to think through the significance of what they have talked about for their church and personal lives and to pray together for strength to follow through on what God has taught them.
4. Promise and prayer
Shards of God’s light to illuminate the way ahead
Each session ends with a promise of Scripture and a short prayer drawn from it assuring participants of God’s presence.
After an introductory session there are eight sessions divided into two tracks. All nine sessions can be used, or individual tracks chosen and followed. The four sessions of the first track focus on church life as we come together again. The latter four sessions provide a track helping participants to gather their more personal reflections on lessons God has taught them in the period of pandemic. This order can be reversed if desired, or a variety of sessions can be mixed and matched from both tracks and used in standalone ways. The two tracks could also be used in parallel in church life, one providing material for a sermon series, the other offering accompanying small group material.
A downloadable Leader’s Guide is available to help those facilitating sessions to navigate the resource.
Stepping out again // Luke 15:11-24 // Time to take stock
COMING TOGETHER AGAIN IN CHURCH LIFE
Setting foot in a post pandemic world // Genesis 8 // Out from God’s shelter
Starting over again in church life // Nehemiah 2:11-20 // Gradually rebuilding
Starving for real relationship // Psalm 122 // New joy in community
Sharing God as good news in the aftermath // Acts 27:13-44 // Meeting fear with faith
GATHERING TOGETHER OUR REFLECTIONS ON LIFE
Seeing through fresh eyes // Mark 8:22-38 // How spiritual insight comes
Sensing life’s fragility // James 4:13-17 // Living with uncertainty
Stuck for answers. Struck by lessons // Luke 13:1-9 // Why did this happen? What shall we do?
Shaped by experience // Romans 12:1-21 // Changed forever