Reflections on the past 18 months
As we emerge from the experience of Covid, many Christian leaders and other commentators are wondering about the future shape of the church in a post-lockdown world; how we are to re-gather, what we should be doing now as local church, and what from the past we may need to change. It seems to be a common refrain these days that we can’t just go back to the way things were before: the period of lockdown has truly been a period of reflection before God for many.
But it is also true, though, that while our public meetings were curtailed during lockdown, many church activities continued apace in different forms. For example, in the area of mercy ministries much of our social action work has continued over the last 18 months, and often at a heightened level. Notably too, many ministries have had to be fleet-footed, adjusting to changing circumstances.
We have featured here many of these works over the last year. Largely unable to meet people face-to-face new ways of working have been found. The Keys Community Detox started counselling people online. ‘Truth be Told’ in Dorset found new ways of getting their children-based activities into care homes. Projects like Lighthouse Furniture Project in Essex saw their work expanded in new directions partnering with other agencies. The Hope Initiative at King’s Church London reassessed local needs and the ways they could address lockdown issues such as isolation and loss of jobs. And many foodbanks - for periods unable to meet people face-to-face - changed to delivering much need food parcels, some using outside people on furlough.
While the church as a whole reflects on the future, so too it may be a time for social action ministries to assess why they are doing what they’re doing, whether the work is still relevant and how they are operating.
Aligned with this reassessment for the future, there is also a sense of expectancy that God may well be doing more through our social action ministries; not simply meeting physical or practical needs but seeing fruit through people meeting Jesus in salvations. The story of the foodbank run by King’s Church, Darlington is one to encourage us. In the years before lockdown they had seen just a trickle of salvations, but in the last year over 40 people have come into a new relationship with Jesus. Far from shutting the doors in lockdown, when giving out food parcels, the car park became an active place of ministry. Caroline Todd shares enthusiastically about the openness of people to prayer, significant conversations opening-up and relationships established. People have shared their needs for healing, for jobs, and the message of Jesus has been shared openly more than ever during lockdown.
But, with a widespread expectancy and a hope for more, come questions. Are our social action ministries ready? Are they functioning within the overall vision of the church? Are they embedded with a sound understanding of God’s heart for those in poverty, or has there been a drift so that they are more like just another social-service, having more favour with community leaders but lacking a cutting edge? And, if new people are saved, how will they be added?
One thing that might be considered afresh (even looked at for the first time) is the role of the key ministries of the church (Ephesians 4:11 -12); relating them not just to the church as a whole, but how the prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher directly impact every ministry that a local church runs. For example, is there opportunity for those with prophetic gifts to bring encouragement or words of direction to a social action team? Or, how can the evangelist engage and train people to share their faith as a natural outflow of works of mercy? Is there space for the teacher to build up the people who serve on the frontline and ground the social action ministry in scripture, or for the pastor to lay the ground to follow-up new people? The role of discipling and building new people into the church community - often those coming with chaotic lifestyles or from backgrounds different from the majority of the church - is likely to be the most significant challenge for most churches.
As we live out the gospel, the mercy ministries in our churches cannot be an optional add-on just for some Christians. But neither are the works of service the main driving force of the church, replacing the Great Commission. This period gives us a time for reflection and an opportunity to ensure that word and action are integrated throughout the whole church, as together we all seek to see the Kingdom extended and disciples made.