In Lewis Carol’s classic novel, Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice, previously having been to Wonderland, climbs up on the mantlepiece and goes through the mirror and goes into a world where everything is reversed.
On 23rd March 2020, the U.K. followed much of the rest of the world and went into lockdown. And at that moment, the U.K. Church went through the looking-glass, and entered a world that felt almost as opposite to what Alice encountered.
Pastors and Vicars across the countries stopped being pastors as they knew it and immediately became online ministers. Churches that up until now didn’t have an online presence went online overnight. Pastors who didn’t believe in livestreaming their services got their mobile phones and cameras out. Small group leaders who said that you needed to be in the room to be discipled suddenly started Zoom meetings.
It’s not as though the church hasn’t gone through previous looking-glasses. When the Early Church met in the upper room in Jerusalem in Acts 15 they went into the new land of Gentiles being welcomed into the church. Once they went through, they couldn’t go back. When Constantine became a Christian, the church went through another looking-glass, albeit not necessarily a positive one, but it couldn’t go back. When the printing press was invented, and William Tyndale started translating the Bible into the common tongue the church went through another looking-glass. It could never go back.
COVID-19 is the church’s looking-glass of our generation, and we can’t go back.
One day, hopefully very soon, life will return to normality. Shops will re-open, social distancing will end, and we will all be able to leave our houses more than once a day. However, for the church, things cannot go back to what they were. Yes, church buildings will re-open, Services with live congregations will resume (now starting to be known as Analogue Church), small groups will return to homes. However, there are three ways that must permanently change for the church in the U.K.
It only took one Sunday for the U.K. church to realise that livestreaming works. Not only can you feel engaged, but it’s naturally evangelistic too. Friends on Facebook are checking out the service, even if for only a few minutes. People who promised they’d never set foot in a church are taking a look at the church again. Now we’ve seen how powerful livestreaming can be, we cannot go back to running our churches without it. For people who are interested in attending church for the first time, your livestream will become an expected minimum, not a nice-to-have.
Recently, Canadian speaker and church influencer, Carey Nieuwhof, stated that he now encourages churches to spend 50% of their staffing budget on online services. At the outset, this sounds absurd, until you realise that at this moment, 100% of all church staff our now online pastors or producers. When the season of Coronavirus ends, most church staff will go back to their day-jobs, but the demand for online is still there. So how are you going to fill the online need when all of the other church activities start back up? For churches where there is one part-time or full-time staff member, half of your job will now need to be running your church’s online services and presence. Your next hire will probably need to be in the area of online church.
Now that the online church revolution is here, churches are going to need to re-structure in order to maintain their online activities. Churches are used to a smorgasbord approach to ministry. A bit of this, a bit of that, something for everyone. But through the looking-glass simplicity is key. At thinking.church, we call this Minimum-Viable-Church. That is, keeping the church as lean as possible to allow reach the most amount of people as best as possible. To achieve this, the church must go back to the basics of the calling of the church – discipleship. Not discipleship as a programme, but discipleship as the entire aim of the church. In the new world, every programme must be scrutinised as to how it is helping to disciple people, and we must be courageous enough to trim the excess.
When the U.K. lifts lockdown and goes back to normality, the church will be tempted to do so as well. As church staff and volunteers go back to their old roles, all of the time invested in online services, discipleship and community will be lost; not because of a lack of desire for it, but because the church didn’t prepare for the post-COVID world. The time for the church to prepare for that moment is now, so that churches are prepared to go back to analogue church and digital church.
At the end of Through the Looking Glass, Alice wakes up with the world beyond the looking-glass all being a dream. This, however, is no dream, and church, we can’t go back.