The Last 12 Months of Church

It is now one year since we had what might be described as a normal service at our church. However, even that service was different. We all had to wash our hands on arrival and we were not allowed to shake hands or hug anyone. There was also no coffee served after the service. Although there were no restriction on numbers who could attend about one third of our congregation stayed away. Little did we know what lay ahead of us!

We were then closed the next week and after some experimenting we arrived at our current online worship format, which is a service done on Zoom and streamed via Facebook Live. It is also recorded and uploaded to our website too. We then have coffee over Zoom after the service.

In the summer, autumn and also in December we moved to a hybrid method. This consisted of limited numbers in the church building (up to a maximum of 30 people) and the rest of us met over Zoom or Facebook Live.

We closed again after Christmas, at the beginning of the third lockdown, and returned to a fully online service. At the beginning of April our church will be reopening again and we are moving back to the hybrid method mentioned above.

If someone had said to me on 1 January 2020 that this would be how church would be then I would not have believed them! But this is the reality for us all.

We are very fortunate at our church in having a good tech team, that has worked very hard making this new way of meeting for worship work effectively. Our team has spent many hours working on the technical aspects, such as making sure all the various gadgets speak to each other. And without their sterling effects we would not have been able to do what we have done.

It seems these days that virtually everything at our church is conducted over Zoom whether that is Sunday services, Midweek services, prayer meetings, housegroups, coffee mornings, Messy Church, PCC meetings and our APCM. Modern technology has certainly been a real blessing, as 15-20 years ago most of what we have done would not have been technically possible.

Whilst I am pleased that we have been able to meet, I do have to say that it is not the same as meeting in a church building in the normal way. There are times when it has been difficult to engage fully in the services. There are distractions at home too. I also feel that online communion does not really work. That is not to say that I do not appreciate our online meetings. I realise how fortunate we have been to still be able to worship together. It is just being honest. I have been to a couple of services in our church during these last 12 months, when we were open, and whilst they were different e.g. face masks, social distancing etc it felt really good to be back in the building again.

I am fortunate as I have a reasonable reliable broadband connection and am happy with using technology. However, I know there are some at our church who have not been attending our online services for various reasons e.g. no internet, uneasy with technology etc. For these people the last 12 months will have been difficult. In our housegroup 8 of 10 of us have continued to meet. Two of our members have not been attending the Zoom housegroup but others have kept in contact with them.

So what does the future hold for us? How long will we have to worship with restricted numbers? Will some members of our church be reluctant to come back? What changes might we need to make to our services e.g. social distancing, not sharing the peace with each other? What about coffee after church? There are some important decisions that need to be made. And they are not easy ones.

In closing I know it can be easy to get discouraged when looking at things from a human prospective. However we must remember that we need to keep on eyes focused on God and put our hope afresh in Him.

Returning to Church

Last Sunday I attended my first service at our church for seven months! The last time I had physically been to one of our services was on Sunday 16th March, which was our last gathering prior to lockdown. I have been attending our virtual services but it was great to be finally returning to church at last

My church reopened again in July. However we have been subject to certain restrictions for our services: numbers are limited to 30 attendees, face masks must be worn at all times, no singing is permitted and no drinks are served after the service. Additionally, if we want to attend a service we must book a place via our church office beforehand and understandably priority is given to those who do not have internet access.

We are currently running what our website describes as hybrid worship services. Basically this means that the service takes place in the church itself and it is streamed via Zoom and Facebook live. The services are also recorded and uploaded to our website. Those that actually attend the service watch parts of it on a large screen as some elements of the service are still online. All music is pre-recorded and as previously mentioned no singing is allowed.

When I first read about the restrictions that we had to follow, I decided that I would rather continue to worship virtually than actually attend a service. I did not want to sit in a service wearing a face mask and I certainly could not imagine not being allowed to sing. In fact I decided that not singing in church was a “red line” issue for me!

However, over the last month I had been thinking about possibly returning to church for a service. After pondering this I decided to apply for a place for last Sunday. One of the things that persuaded me was that it was a communion service, and I personally have found those services harder to engage with virtually. So I applied a few days beforehand and was allocated a place.

I found myself getting quite excited about the prospect of returning to church and set off eagerly on Sunday morning. Upon arriving at church I had to tick my name on the list of people signed up to attend. I was then given some hand gel to put on my hands. There were about thirty chairs set out in pairs in the service area, with good social distancing between them. I had a quick chat with someone and just before the service started our vicar went over the rules, including reminding us not to sing. Although we could hum to ourselves.

The service started and after opening prayers we watched the first song. Unfortunately, it was a song that I really liked and I suddenly realised that I was singing along to it, but quietly though! I decided to revert to humming instead. I think I got away with that!

The service continued as usual with prayers, a sermon and another song. As we came to communion our vicar reminded us how this would operate. We only took the bread and not the wine. Before we took the bread someone came round and gave us each hand gel to wash our hands. And after we had taken the bread we again were given hand gel to wash our hands. This is the first time I have taken communion for seven months and it was really good to be able to participate again. The service finished with a song and then we had to leave.

Although the service was the same as the other communion services I have attended virtually, it felt so different actually being at church. I really enjoyed the service and found that I was able to engage in it and focus on God much better than when I am at home watching it on the laptop. Of course I would rather not wear a face mask and would prefer to be allowed to sing, but I did not feel my enjoyment of the service was diminished in anyway.

Going forward I certainly want to go back again and will probably look at attending the communion service again, numbers permitting.

If you have not gone back to your church yet I would strongly encourage you to consider doing so. I realise that some people may have legitimate health concerns, which may mean that it is wiser to attend virtual services. However, if you are able to attend please seriously pray and think about it. Virtual services have been important over the last few months and no doubt will be going forward. But they are not the same as attending a service. I certainly enjoyed returning to church. Why not give it a go?

How I Worshipped on Pentecost Sunday 2020.

Pentecost is one of the highlights of the year as we remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, described in Acts 2, and celebrate the birthday of the church. However, this year obviously was very different due to the current lockdown restrictions. Nevertheless, I was glad to have the opportunity to attend a couple of services and decided to share how I worshipped on Pentecost Sunday in 2020.

Our church has been evolving our online services since we first started them. Originally, we used to record a service and put it on our website for people to view. A few weeks ago, we moved to live streaming our services via Zoom and this week in addition to this we also streamed it live on Facebook too. (We are still placing a recording on our website).

Preparing for church is very different these days. On Sunday morning, about 20 minutes before the service, I check the link and password we are using for this week’s service. I normally log on about one minute before the service starts. This is mainly because I do not particularly like looking at myself in the web camera. Once I log onto Zoom I play around with the positioning of my laptop so the webcam is the right level for my wife and I.

It is strange to sit round a laptop to worship but that is how we do this currently. Our service was an all age one which lasted about 35 minutes. The service followed the format of opening song, confession of sin, interactive bible reading, sermon (including animation video), prayer and closing song. The theme was Pentecost and the sermon challenged us to see what God might be doing during this time and to be praying and preparing ourselves for life after lockdown, being ready to share His love with those who do not know Him.

Following the service, we had “virtual coffee”. Basically, the Zoom admin person randomly sends us into breakout rooms with 2 or 3 others and we chat for about 10 minutes. We are then brought back together and repeat the exercise. This has been a good way of getting to know some church members who I had not previously spoken with.

In the evening I attended the Diocese of Guildford Pentecostal Prayer Service which was streamed live via their YouTube channel. The service lasted about 55 minutes and contained prayers, songs, greetings from Bishops in Denmark and Pakistan, a very funny sketch based on Acts 2, a sermon, and a song from a Coptic Church in Surrey.

It goes without saying that watching a service on a laptop or the TV is not the same as attending one in real life. However, sadly that option is not available to us yet. It is wonderful that despite the lockdown we still have this technology that we can use to worship God. There is a lot of work that is put in by technically gifted people to ensure that everything works ok. Many people in the world do not have the freedom to worship and so we should be grateful that we still can.

Interestingly in both our services today we were reminded that the disciples were in “lockdown” themselves before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whilst we would prefer to actual meet as we used to, God can still speak to people and meet them through remote worship. He is not restricted by this. Both services were encouraging, and one felt some excitement in looking forward to what might happen in our churches once we come out of lockdown and can meet again.


Online Church Services

Due to the current lockdown it’s now been 31 days (15th March) since the church I attend has been able to meet together in our building. Since that time we, along with many other churches, have moved our services online. We are uploading our online services to our website. Additionally, we are uploading videos for our Messy Church to our Facebook page. Other churches are live streaming services on Facebook.

We are used to services being broadcast on platforms such as BBC Radio 4, Premier Christian Radio, United Christian Broadcasters and not forgetting of course Songs of Praise on BBC1. However, all these programmes will have professional sound engineers working on them. Therefore they will be professionally produced and will be of a high technical quality. Most of our churches will not have access to such skilled personnel, and instead will have to work with the skills available to them within their own congregations.

Obviously all this is a big change for churches and I felt it might be useful to share some thoughts on my experiences of online services.

Our vicar mentioned that he encountered a lot of technical challenges in putting together the services for last week. As it was Holy Week there were four services to produce: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We are using the Freemake video converter to put together our services. This means that everyone who is taking part in the service has to record their contribution and send it to the organiser of the service. The various different files then need to be converted to the same file format and the video produced. Anyone who has been involved in any audio or video production will know though that invariably things are never straightforward. This can be very time consuming and frustrating! Whilst a service might last 30 minutes it would take significantly longer to produce the final video to upload to the website.

When watching an online service it is obviously essential that your internet connection does not crash. Whilst watching a live streaming service on Facebook on Easter Sunday our connection went down at home. Fortunately the outage was only 7 minutes, so we carried on from where the crash occurred. Depending on where you live in the country, the quality of the broadband can vary. For those in areas where the internet signal is weak live streaming services may not work.

Generally speaking the contents of an online service would contain all or some of the following: a sermon, worship, bible reading, prayers, children’s talk, testimony and communion. If we go through each of these individually:

Sermons – most churches these days upload versions of their sermons onto their websites anyway. Therefore in that respect we are used to online sermons. Over the years churches have recorded sermons, making them available in various different formats dating back to the days of cassette recorders. For most of us then this is not really a significant change in how we have listened to sermons if we were unable to attend church. The big difference is that normally these are audio and not video recordings.

Worship – it can seem strange watching someone singing and leading the worship from their own home. We can find ourselves distracted, looking at their wallpaper and pictures that are hanging up! Another potential issue is we might slip into the role of a spectator just watching them sing, rather than joining in the worship ourselves. Our church helpfully includes song lyrics for people to download from our website. In some ways it can be similar to listening to a worship cd whilst driving. Although unlike with driving you can close your eyes and raise your hands!

Bible reading – ideally we should close our eyes and listen to the passage of scripture being read. I have, if I’m being honest, found myself distracted by the same wallpaper issue though as mentioned above.

Prayers – in the Anglican church we have the practice of someone leading the prayers each week. This has worked well in our online services. Obviously it prevents any open pray, as we are all in our separate homes, but I personally have found this part of the service helpful. The important thing is to ensure that you close your eyes and concentrate on the words of the prayers. The same as in “real life”.

Children’s talk – the ones I have watched in the live stream services have been specific and to the point. They have included some visuals too which have helped get over the main point and been done well. In our Palm Sunday service we had a donkey appear which I’m sure the children would have enjoyed seeing. Interestingly the donkey seemed to have a very familiar voice!

Testimony – this is really similar to the section above on sermons. The only thing I would add is that it’s nice to see another member of the church speaking and see a different face.

Communion – one of the online streaming services on Facebook which I “attended” was a communion service. I took the bread and wine, and personally found the service beneficial. This particular service was put on by a baptist church, which has different rules to the Anglican church in this area. In respect of our church on Easter Sunday the service was a communion one. However, that just involved our vicar taking communion on the video. To be honest it felt strange not taking part but that is the current practice in my denomination.

The obvious criticism of online services is they are not the same as meeting together to worship. Of course it’s difficult to disagree with that view. However, at the moment we cannot meet as a church in the normal way. We do not have that option. Therefore this is the best method we have available and we should seek to embrace it. There are many countries in the world where Christians do not have the freedom to worship and they would I’m sure love to have this facility.

Also although we are unable to meet it least it gives us opportunities to see members of our churches on our screens. Additionally, when you post something online, you never know who will watch it. God can use our services to speak to people all over the world.

A lot of work has been put in by churches in producing these services and therefore I am not inclined to criticise online services. Instead let us pray that they might be powerful and effective in spreading the gospel message.

10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman

We have a second-hand bookstall at my church and I recently came across a copy of a book called 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman in the bookstall. Like many I enjoy singing the song 10,000 Reasons but did not realise that there was also a book with the same title.

In this book Matt Redman shares stories of how God has used the song 10,000 Reasons to sustain people in very difficult situations. In circumstances where you would normally expect to encounter hopelessness and despair instead there is hope, thankfulness and victory.

One of the recurring themes and challenges in the book is praising God in difficult and dark times. Both in the testimonies of others, as mentioned above, and in his own life Matt gives examples of worshipping  God in all seasons.

It is interesting to read of Matt’s development as a worship leader which started when he taught himself to play guitar at a young age. He shares how worship brought him closer to Jesus. Matt writes about experiencing that worshipping Jesus through music has bought healing into his life. We are told how the Psalms have been both a great source of inspiration and encouragement to him.

Matt speaks about the importance of emotion in worship. We are reminded in the book that worship is very often a decision. We all experience times when it’s a struggle but in those times need to decide we will worship. Importantly Matt also speaks about how worship is more than singing songs.

This is a very good book which is moving, uplifting and challenging too and certainly well worth reading.

Worship is more than singing songs in Church.

Often when I’m discussing a church service I attended I reflect on how I felt the worship went on that particular Sunday. I might say that we sang a couple of my favourite songs. Additionally I could say I really enjoyed the worship or perhaps I struggled to enter into it. Whatever my comment is it’s usually related to the songs that were sung in the service and my enjoyment of them.

Last Sunday at the end of our service we were reminded though that worship is more than singing songs in church. We worship God not just by singing but also by the way we live our lives. Every thought, word and deed forms part of our worship to God.

We worship God by offering our bodies to Him as a living sacrifice whether we are at home, work, study or play.

When we look at worship like that then it should totally change our attitude to it. It’s more than 30 minutes singing our favourite songs each Sunday. In fact it’s a 24/7 lifestyle!

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship (Romans 12:1)