There is no question that the Delta variant outbreak in 2021 was significantly harder than previous outbreaks of COVID-19. Parents have found the home learning and life juggle harder, more people are seeking help for mental health concerns, and churches and church leaders are facing numerous challenges.
There’s a cumulative effect from the turmoil of the past 18 months, says PastorLINK Enabler Kerry Rickard, “Church leaders have had no respite from the relentless decision-making that is required in a pandemic. One key difference this time around is that there is no ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, no easy solution or knowledge as to when this will all be over”.
There is also a distinction between Auckland (and Waikato and Northland) and the rest of the country—as they’ve endured the longest lockdowns and degree of restrictions, “But it’s more than enduring lockdown,” says Kerry, “Aucklanders have faced a higher level of risk. They know people who have suffered with COVID-19, the risk of catching the virus has been greater… there is much more complacency about these risks in the rest of the country”.
In the midst of all the noise, there are many people faithfully pursuing real and creative ways to be the Church in the context God has placed them.
Gathering together in new ways
As restrictions have relaxed in different parts of the country, some churches have explored home-based gatherings—watching church online content together and discussing it in smaller groups. Other groups have been meeting for picnics or making the most of the outdoor space for encouraging connections before moving back to services of 100 people max (if in Level 2).
Online gatherings have continued to be a source of connection for many churches. This year CCCNZ Auckland hosted an online Prayer Gathering and three online Church and Ministry Forum—two in partnership with Murray Stevenson and GC3; one on lament, and a second one about empowering mission from home, with a third forum in partnership with Pathways College, on Biblical Teaching and Preaching, facilitated by Alan Stanley.
Leaders in Children and Families Ministry, and leaders in Prayer Ministry joined E-QUIP online training where small groups met over Zoom to discuss books, share ideas and keep each other accountable.
Many small groups have continued to meet online, and new connections formed during lockdown have been maintained or grown. A few churches have found unexpected ministry to people in different parts of the country via online ministry.
As churches and leaders seek a way forward under the traffic light system, the flexibility of churches to meet in smaller groups, to utilise online tools, and prioritise pastoral care will be key in navigating the next season of ministry.
Our website features a section on navigating the new COVID-19 Protection Framework, where we aim to feature more perspectives from a variety of churches within the movement and their approach to this new season, check it out: www.cccnz.nz/covid-19-response
Caring for each other in new ways
During 2020 many leadership teams and elderships realised a real gap in pastoral care of their churches—as revealed by the disconnection of lockdown. Many elderships have committed extra time to listening and praying with people. Working through a phone tree and intentionally asking people how they’re going.
It takes real effort to go deep with people and shepherd them out of a place of care and understanding, says Kerry.
One of the elders of Mt Wellington Community Church in Auckland recently made up care packages for every home in their church, and the eldership distributed the packages in a COVID-safe way. Senior Pastor Russell Grainger says the packages were very well received. Thanks to the generosity of Lichfield Lands, Willow Park Christian Camp (Eastern Beach in Auckland) were able to partner with Tāmaki Community Church to bless people during lockdown. With no camps on over the 11 weeks of lockdown, the funding from Lichfield Lands enabled Willow Park to be able to regularly supply cooked meals for distribution by Tāmaki Community Church to those in need.
In Hamilton, Hillcrest Chapel’s Children and Families Pastor Rach Dixon and her team delivered 146 ‘Light Party in a Bag’ kits to their community. Rach says they estimate the bags reached around 300 children and their families—with some people from church ordering bags to gift to neighbours, grandchildren, and friends.
Bags contained everything they would need to have a fun party at home—games, a link to a playlist, a QR code for a video of people from the church sharing what it meant to them to know Jesus’ love, a scavenger hunt and more. The deliveries were hugely successful for connecting with children and their families to show them Jesus’ love at a time where they are under immense pressure and stress.
For LifeChurch Manurewa pastors Lui Ponifasio QSM and Ane Ponifasio QSM, connecting with their community during the Delta outbreak has meant facing significant public health issues head on. Their team have been active in connecting their church and community in a range of ways: helping people to stay healthy and get tested when their community became of ‘suburb of interest’, providing practical help like food deliveries, supporting people to access vaccination, translating key COVID-19 health information in Pasifika languages, as well as the ongoing pastoral work of leading their congregation spiritually.
"Our main thing at the moment is setting up vaccination drive-throughs, giving out meals and food parcels, and using media ministries to help people,” says Lui.
Facing ministry challenges together Waikato Youth Enabler Aaron Hodgson initiated an online gathering of youth leaders and youth pastors from Waikato and Auckland to discuss ministering effectively to young people in the midst of a lock down—a place for sharing how difficult and challenging the past few months has been for youth and their families.
“Many elderships have committed extra time to listening and praying with people. Working through a phone tree and intentionally asking people how they’re going. It takes real effort to go deep with people and shepherd them out of a place of care and understanding.”
Kerry is also aware of pastors, pastoral couples, and pastoral staff calling each other for support, sharing, and encouragement—with people making the most of increased ability and willingness to use video connecting technology.
Remaining connected in the face of division
Many have invested a huge amount of energy into ministering in the pandemic and there is what Kerry describes as a “real weariness” among the leaders he’s regularly talking to. Leaders are now facing the added pressure of navigating the Scriptural, ethical, and practical dilemmas of the new COVID-19 Protection Framework, or ‘traffic light’ system. There is a significant threat of opinions over vaccines, mandates, certificates, and public health dividing churches.
Despite the changing and challenging landscape of the past 18 months, we’ve seen that our connection with each other hasn’t been cancelled—in fact, in some areas, connection has deepened in unexpected and profound ways.
This COVID-19 season is a profoundly difficult time for church connection and ministry, and yet God is at work. Perhaps this time of distancing and stress has revealed significant cracks that need addressing?
This season has revealed our utter dependence on our Creator. It has revealed our weaknesses and our strengths. As we move into a new season where there are many unknowns we must not forget that our goal hasn’t changed: working together to see people come to hear about and know Jesus.
Our God hasn’t changed. He, who has been at work throughout history “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”.