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Time to make a change

A baptism at one of The Street Church's local services. 

Juggling the logistics of gathering restrictions was one of the most significant challenges for many churches in the past few years. While smaller churches were often able to manage changes with a degree of flexibility, the challenge for larger churches was more complex.

When lockdowns first hit in 2020, many large ministries pivoted to develop an online presence. As time wore on, the impact of no face-to-face interaction started to take a toll and new ideas and solutions emerged.

By the time the ‘Traffic Light’ COVID-19 Protection Framework was put in place late in 2021, many larger churches were exploring a range of options.

We spoke to four larger churches within the movement to discuss their experience of juggling gathering restrictions—what they learnt, what worked, and what has changed.

At Raleigh Street Christian Centre in Cambridge, adjusting to restrictions revealed the weaknesses and strengths of different-sized groupings, and the benefits of mixing things up.

Associate Pastor Nick Goodwin says the disruption of restrictions often led to new opportunities, “At Raleigh Street we have tried a number of different things over the past two years, sometimes because we were forced to, sometimes just because the disruption provided freedom to change.

“A new Sunday morning routine emerged, not as a direct response to the pandemic, but because we felt free to innovate and try something different following lockdowns. Previously we had one service of about 75 minutes, but we now keep that service slightly shorter, around 60 minutes, followed by morning tea, then a time of ‘electives’: a range of classes, seminars, missionary talks etc. that people can choose to attend (or they can stay in the café and chat).

“The smaller additional Sunday services running during the traffic light system have provided opportunities for participation from many who would not be comfortable contributing publicly in our usual large Sunday morning meetings. There has been opportunity to grow the experience and confidence of some of our people in new ways.

“Smaller meetings have also seemed to meet a need in the community for a different expression of church. We have seen people engage in these services who have not been so involved previously, including non-Christians. We will continue to run an afternoon service that will be small, more relaxed, and more participatory than has been typical for our Sunday morning services in the hope this helps widen the reach of the church.

“We’ve also focused on upping our game when it comes to community support and engagement. A new initiative, Te Mahi Whenua, has started which involves church groups giving practical assistance in the community, such as clearing up yards and tree-planting. There has also been a lot of effort going in to provide frozen meals for those self-isolating or sick: There is a freezer cabinet in the foyer from which church members can take meals to distribute, and regular cook-ups to replenish supplies”.

For Raleigh Street’s youth group, juggling restrictions has meant a change to the way the group now regularly meets, says Youth Pastor Aaron Hodgson: “Adjusting to the traffic lights was big for us as a large group. Prior to lockdown we had over 100 youth gathering each week—this was a great outreach into the community, but when we couldn’t meet as a large group, we quickly realised we were lacking depth of relationships.

"Because we didn’t want to use vaccine passes for youth we chose to prioritise small group meetings in homes. Some were initially very resistant to this and didn’t even want to try. But it had amazing results in cultivating deep discipleship relationships and developing new leaders. It also helped break down friendship cliques.

“Even though we can return to ‘normal’ we’ve decided we’ll pursue a hybrid model. We meet one week in a large group setting, and the next week in a smaller group setting—giving us the best of both contexts”.

Embracing House Church Worship

Making the most of smaller gatherings was one way Hope Community Church in Nelson chose to embrace the opportunity for change provided by the pandemic, says Lead Pastor Daryl Bay: “God has been really gracious to us over the past years of change, simmering tension, and fatigue. Early on, one elder appealed to us to embrace challenge as opportunity. It has been a case of back to the basics and cultivating the ground in which true life in Christ is grown. We’ve relearned the vitality of unity in Christ, how life-giving grace and patience can be, and how important it is to care, communicate, and listen well”.

Hope Community Church experienced the joy of House Church worship, to the extent that they are building it into the rhythm of their monthly gathering plan, says Daryl:

“Rather than having one Sunday worship leader or communion leader, the House Church model has had dozens of worship leaders expressing their giftings each week. Little gatherings have contextualised their meetings, equipping children and teens to engage in worship, and allowing more personal and interactive times of communion”. Hope Community Church’s passion is to grow more than just a crowd of disconnected people, “We long to cultivate a vibrant family of faith, sharing life and love in Christ, and on mission to bring hope to our community”.

The church re-gathered as one large church family for the first time at Teapot Valley Christian Camp at Easter, says Daryl, “We heard testimonies, the gospel was preached, Teapot Valley served us beautifully, and the church family relaxed late into the day on the wonderful campus”.

Growth Amid Restriction

While the time juggling very limited gathering restrictions was difficult, the change in church rhythms has produced some encouraging areas of growth for Te Awamutu Bible Chapel, says elder and Lead Pastor Bradd Trebilco.

“One of the highlights of the past season was the unity we experienced as a church and eldership in navigating gathering restrictions and vaccine passes. As an eldership, we felt convicted early on in the process that we wouldn’t use vaccine passes in our services. As we were finalising the decisions around the practical management of gatherings, we stopped and asked the church to join us in praying and fasting. In doing so the congregation was actively behind us as we were making this decision. Doing this as a whole church together has been one of the highlights of the whole COVID experience. There has been a great sense of unity and expressed love for one another.

“Reaching this clarity early on helped us navigate the traffic lights when we moved into the red light setting. From there, it was about managing logistics and focusing on communication—answering all the frequently asked questions, figuring out what it meant to incorporate children and youth into our services, handling locations etc.

“While the red light setting placed a greater deal of stress on a smaller number of people—more responsibility for leaders, and the technical issues of livestreaming into people’s lounges—there were surprising and encouraging things as well.

“The congregation was so willing to step up to make things work in difficult circumstances—we noticed this particularly in the area of pastoral care. One of the major reflections of the time in restriction has been how the church has grown in love for one another. It has been encouraging to see people’s faithfulness… everyone has pitched in, helped out, enjoyed close fellowship, and got to know new people.

“One thing we noticed was there was a rural-urban difference in terms of response to meeting in smaller groups. “For several groups of people who drive in to Te Awamutu from further away, they appreciated the opportunity to be ‘salt and light’ in their rural community. One rural group still meets approximately every six weeks for the express purpose of continuing to reach families in their community that were attending the smaller gatherings. Another group of around 80 people from Pirongia (a rural settlement about 15 minutes out of Te Awamutu) have had a small taste of what a church plant in that area might look like, and this is an ongoing conversation.

“Still, throughout the time there was a significant desire to gather back together as a large group, and to a degree, we have returned to ‘normal’ in terms of how and where we gather. “Even though we functionally look similar to the way we did two and a half years ago, a lot has changed. While we wouldn’t want to go back to navigating restriction, we wouldn’t take back the experience as it has been a positive thing for our church overall”.

Reimagining Sunday Gatherings

For the team at The Street in Wellington, the COVID restrictions provided an opportunity to reassess and reimagine the role of Sunday gatherings in terms of discipleship and leadership development.

Pre-pandemic, The Street Church met in three locations on Sundays (City, East and Night), and in multiple locations for life groups throughout the week. The three locations pre-pandemic have now become local services that meet across the Wellington Region.

The biggest change being for City, which has moved to meet in four locations—Mt Victoria, Hutt Valley, Porirua, and Karori (West). Night has also seen a change, meeting together as a large gathering every second Sunday, and meeting in small groups across the city every other Sunday—making the most of the deep relational benefits of meeting in smaller groups.

“Small groups are great ways of going deep in community and helping people follow Jesus day-to-day and these have remained places of meaningful connection, fellowship and discipleship for people throughout the past two years,” says Senior Pastor Simon Gill.

“I heard someone make the observation, and I think it’s true, that the pandemic was a discipleship stress test for the Church in the West… The measures of weekly attendance numbers and giving revenue didn’t always turn out to be good indicators of spiritual maturity. For The Street, the pandemic has helped us focus our attention on growing healthy, resilient disciples of Jesus”.

Many of the changes to The Street’s gatherings were initially in response to restrictions, but have since developed into something with renewed purpose. Smaller gatherings in many locations brought a number of opportunities and benefits, says Simon, “This year we’ve entered a season of planting and investing in local services across the city, to see if God would have us establish these as permanent locations.

“Smaller gatherings have helped move people from passive recipients to active participants in Sunday gatherings… the school halls and older buildings we’ve been using for our local services are less intimidating for people developing a preaching or leading gift, and have resulted in people stepping up to lead worship or play instruments”.

The same has been true for preaching, “We’ve been trying to develop more people by finding manageable ways for people to take next steps… one thing we’ve done is ask 2-3 people to share a devotion-style reflection on their favourite verse from Proverbs during the service on Sunday. This is a manageable step in supporting people to take the next step in developing a teaching gift”. In July The Street Church – City celebrated the milestone of having four preachers teaching in person at each of City’s local services.

In a recent church update, City Lead Pastor Jerram Watts shared, “…it has been a truly amazing couple of months seeing the way these gatherings are thriving… it obviously doesn’t come without its challenges, right? When you take a congregation and ask them to change how they gather… One of the things that comes to mind most is this phrase, this refrain I hear so often from people, is that ‘I’ve never felt so connected to church in my life, I’ve never felt so connected to the people that I’m worshipping with’. And that for us is just a massive win, a place where people can come and gather and be known”.

Jerram also describes other discipleship opportunities that have been developing, including people meeting together to go through systematic theology, several recent baptisms, more chances for people to serve in practical ways, and an increased desire from people to serve their local communities.

“We tried multi-site before,” says Simon. “We went into it with lots of plans and kept running into issues. With the local services, one downside is making plans along the way, but there’s also freedom in that. We think this is what God is leading us in, and we have to trust him”.

Simon says the discernment process is continuing, with the church seeking feedback from members as they work through different challenges and opportunities, “How are we intentional in the training, feedback, and development process? Kids Ministry has been happening in new ways at different local services, and we’re looking at what it means to have people who are more than just police vetted and prepared to look after kids, but are people who are equipped for and passionate about the discipleship of children.“

This has been exciting for us, our elders are involved in more than just governance decisions, but leading people in tangible ways… We’ve noticed that local services are naturally intergenerational in nature, and are also more accessible to local communities, as people are more likely to invite their friends along to a local service, rather than one that is 30+ minutes away”.

Story by Sophia Sinclair.



 

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