The post-circuit breaker church
“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
When Wesley Methodist Church (MC) went through our risk management exercise last year, we attempted to identify “black swans” that might disrupt our church and ministry. Unsurprisingly, a global pandemic was not on the list. With our usual forms of ministry gone, we had to ask ourselves, “What does the LORD require of us?”
But God had planned 2020 well in advance for us, forcing long-awaited rethinks in some areas of ministry, but in many ways strengthening existing Methodist priorities, principles and practices. This is a sketch of how COVID-19 has affected Wesley MC, how it might look post-circuit breaker, and how Wesleyan principles can guide us forward.
For Wesley MC, this season has heightened our awareness of what is “essential” Christian ministry, both by what we have been doing, and what we have not been doing. Wesley MC has found ways to adapt and continue providing these ministries:
- Worship services (online)
- Small group meetings & discipleship classes (video conferencing)
- Pastoral care and counselling (urgent cases)
- Social outreach (financial assistance, distribution of essential goods etc.)
Weekday discipleship has also increased in significance and frequency:
- Daily devotions on social media (written and video)
- Church-wide synchronised prayer (on Wednesday nights)
- Meetings with ministry committees, leaders and volunteers
Yet it would be wrong to think that what we have not done is therefore not essential. In fact, our deep longing to resume these activities indicate their importance to the life of the church:
- Physical gatherings (for corporate worship, camps, fellowship etc.)
- Presence with fellow believers (through bereavements, illness and hardship etc.)
- In-person outreach (through youth/elderly centres, mission trips etc.)
- And many more!
I personally hope the shift to “weekday discipleship” will continue. While weekend activities will always take up significant time and energy, the “everyday” should have increased focus even after the circuit breaker if we are to make true disciples of Christ.
We are all now every familiar with using our mobile phones to “check-in” at shops and malls. We also use these devices to “check-in” with our loved ones to make sure they are doing well.
Our church also decided to “check-in” with Wesleyans by initiating “Call to Care”, an exercise where we mobilised 138 staff and volunteer “Care Ambassadors” to call every person in our membership database. The phone calls were well received, and we were able to identify members’ pastoral needs, update them on our church’s online activities, and share joy with them.
Wendy Tan, a Care Ambassador, said, “At first I was a little apprehensive, but I soon got the hang of it. Those that I called expressed appreciation and it was heartening to learn that most were holding up well! One told me about her joy of cooking for the family. Another who is working from home realised she now had more time in the evenings, and wanted to join a Small Group. I am glad I volunteered for this, although it took courage. I found that God can use me in ways I had never expected.”
“Checking-in” is something everyone can do. We have had Small Group Challenges in which members bought food for each other, and even exercised together. During our online services, we pause the video to text five friends for our virtual greeting time.
I pray this proactive “check-in culture” will become a permanent feature of our church communities. Many struggles in our world are invisible, hidden in broken homes and with broken hearts. Their burdens can be lessened with an outstretched hand and a listening ear.
“Virtual (is) reality”
In the first days of the outbreak, we suspended many courses and meetings in a “wait and see” approach. We felt that “online” ministry would not have the same quality as “in-person” ministry.
However, as the situation worsened, we realised that doing something was better than doing nothing at all, and restarted many meetings and ministry online. In the process, we found that online experiences could still be meaningful for our spiritual growth.
For example, we initially suspended our weekly staff devotions and corresponded via WhatsApp instead. However, as we familiarised ourselves with video conferencing, we reinstated groups meeting online. Seeing each other’s faces and hearing familiar voices certainly made working from home a lot less mundane!
I see online ministry continuing to complement our usual forms of ministry in a post-circuit breaker world. Whether they are in-person or virtual, our bonds are genuine because the Holy Spirit makes us God’s family across space and time, just as they were with the New Testament churches who corresponded over distance; we join them in longing to see each other in person once again.
“The Wesleyan way”
“By religion, I mean the love of God and Man filling the heart and governing the life.”—John Wesley, “Of Former Things”)
John Wesley saw faith as wholly involved from the inward heart to the outward life, expressed through works of piety (loving God) and works of mercy (loving man). A complete Christian life involves all at once.
So while many Methodist churches have seen reductions in offerings, and it would have been tempting to focus solely on our own congregational needs, I have been heartened to see many of our churches make it a point to devote resources to help the needy in society.
Wesley MC has continued to support the community, especially migrant workers, through existing and new partnerships, such as adopting two dormitories through the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach. We have also commissioned a “COVID-Acts of Kindness” task force to identify specific needs and how we can bless others, including frontline and healthcare workers.
Social outreach is non-negotiable in Methodist practice. It is baked into to our constitution in the Book of Discipline. It is exactly what God requires of us in Micah 6:8, to “do justly” and to “love mercy”. They are not things to do “after” we have done the essentials, but are themselves essential.
“What does God require?”
Yet if there is one thing that should carry on long after this season, it is the last injunction to “walk humbly” with God, and to place our utter reliance and dependence on Him at all times.
This was a time of great uncertainly, and following in the tradition of the New Testament Church, this was a season of many “pastoral letters” from our leaders, through video and the written word. Our leaders in our churches openly acknowledged our initial unpreparedness for this situation, and exhorted us to direct our gaze and reliance on Christ. They explained how our church would continue to be faithful, and asked for prayer and unity.
No matter the situation, may our “phase one” always involve looking to God first and asking Him to guide us each step of the way as we submit our lives to His hands. This is the most “essential service” we must perform if we are to be true disciples of Christ. No matter what happens, the best of all is that God is with us!
Jonathan Huang is the Deputy Director of Administration at Wesley Methodist Church. / Photos courtesy of Wesley Methodist Church