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.

Housegroups with Zoom

Like many church groups, our housegroup decided that we would continue meeting during these unusual times, using Zoom instead of meeting physically, as the lockdown restrictions do not permit us to meet in the normal way. Now that we have done this for a few weeks I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences of meeting virtually.

The format we have used each week is:

• Welcome tea and coffee / catch-up

• Opening Prayer

• Worship song

• Bible reading and short reflection / discussion on passage.

• Prayer time

• Worship song

• Saying goodbye

Our housegroup normally has 10 people who attend. Unfortunately, 2 of these are unable to join the Zoom meeting, leaving 8 of us who have meet each week from 4 households.

I think we all found it initially quite strange looking at each other, and ourselves, on our computers / laptops. One starts to feel self-conscious of everybody looking at you!

It obviously goes without saying that it is not the same as meeting together and cannot replace that. However, currently we cannot do that and therefore this is the only option available. We all agree that it has been good to see and talk with each other again.

As far as the individual parts of the meeting have gone, I would say:

• Worship – the host of the meeting plays a worship song via YouTube. It is a good way to start the meeting, but the videos sometimes suffer from pixel issues when played back via Zoom. We discussed this last night and the problem is with the speed of the broadband connection when streaming the video via Zoom. I think it is something which we are just going to have to live with!

• Bible reflection – We have found that it does not really flow in quite the same way as when we normally meet together as a group. One of the problems is that sometimes it has been difficult for the group leader to gauge the mood of others in the group and if they want to contribute. This is a lot easier to do when we are all in the same room and you can see people’s expressions. That said our reflection last night did flow well and we may find that as we get more used to meeting virtually this might improve.

• Prayer time – I think the prayer times have worked very well. We have a prayer list which is shared on the screen and we quickly run through it, adding anything new, and then we pray together. I would say that the prayer times have probably been the best part of the evenings.

On a personal note there have been times during our meetings when I have struggled to hear exactly what one of the others have said due to the poor quality of my laptop speakers. I could put my headphones on to resolve this but then my wife would not be able to hear anything! I did investigate downloading the Zoom app to my tablet, however they wanted what I considered excessive unnecessary access to my tablet, which I was not prepared to grant.

Anyone who has used the free version of Zoom will know that meetings are limited to 40 minutes. We are fortunate to be using one of the subscription versions so do not have this time limitation.

One of the drawbacks of meeting virtually is that there is the risk that two people in different houses might start talking at the same time. Zoom does have a facility where you can put your hand up if you wish to say something. However, that facility is only available to the host of the meeting and in our group the leader is a different person to the host.

When all is said and done the majority of the issues we have experienced are not major ones. Some might call them “first world problems!” We as a group have enjoyed being able to meet again, even though it is virtual and will continue to do so until we are permitted to meet physically again.

We are very fortunate with the advances in technology over the last few years that we have this option which enables us to continue to meet during these times. I would certainly recommend that if your housegroup has not tried this yet then you consider doing so. You do not necessarily have to use Zoom as there are other options available e.g. Jitsu. Whichever option you choose it is worth meeting virtually to encourage one another.