Back to Church?

It’s that time of the year when I look through my calendar to see what is coming up and realise that September is almost upon us. After the disruption of recent years, hopefully this time, it will be all systems go! For me, that means that Monday mornings will start with school assembly at 9AM. (It’s called ‘collective worship’ these days. After periods of contributing via a camera on my desk in the study, it will be a pleasure to go return to seeing the school hall filled with three-dimensional children.) Then we start back with the routine meetings and appointments that have taken a back seat during August: clergy Chapter, PCC and Standing Committee meetings (for both churches), as well as school governors and other bodies. It also means that we start a new year of Praise & Play, and can look forward to meeting new P&P families as well as welcoming back some familiar faces.

In a normal year, my work tends to follow the school calendar, so September feels like the start of everything. And in a normal year, I think of September to Easter as being my ‘busy time’ (although we do usually manage to take a break in school holidays). This year, however, things are different in that I will be taking a Sabbatical at the busiest time of all – including Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the closer it gets the more daunting it is beginning to feel! I need to make sure that I have done all that I can to leave both churches in a reasonable state so that things can at least continue to tick over until my return. (Who am I kidding? They’ll probably both thrive without me getting in the way!)

In September, some churches organise special ‘back to church’ events. There’s even an organisation that promotes ‘Back to Church Sunday’. The idea is not just for those who have been able to take a holiday over the summer, but for those who used to attend but have got out of the habit. Getting out of the habit of going to church is easy enough to do at any time, but the pandemic has meant that many who were regular church goers have stopped attending, and for very good reasons. I’m not all sure what COVID is going to do over the next year, but I’m hopeful that church services will continue uninterrupted. If that is the case, then what are the barriers that get in the way of people returning to regular worship?

Obviously, some are rightly worried about their own health or that of loved ones. We are continuing to do what we can to make sure that our services are conducted in such a way as to minimise risk, but it’s not possible to make any public event completely risk free.

Some may have decided, that, having missed church for so long, they didn’t really miss church… If that’s you, then here is something for you to think about: maybe the church misses you! Or maybe, to put it bluntly, and to paraphrase, maybe it’s time to “ask not what your church can do for you but to ask what you can do for your church”.

I have sometimes in a sermon used an illustration which goes like this: I tell the congregation that I have put together a list of all the jobs that need doing for a church service to take place. It’s a long list because there’s a lot that needs to happen. The building needs to be clean, safe, and comfortable. Also, ideally, it will look attractive – flowers have been purchased and arranged; the altar cloths with be clean and the frontals will have been changed to suit the season. The bills must have been paid so that we have heat and light. Someone had to unlock the doors and switch on the lights. There will be someone at the door to welcome you, and, after the service, someone will be there to ask if you want tea or coffee. (I say often that the welcome people get coming through the door, and the chat over a cuppa after the service, are far more important than anything that happens during the service!) Of course, between the warm welcome and cheery goodbye there’s the simple matter of worship having been planned and prepared. There are readings and prayers, and music. You might hear a sermon and be offered holy communion.

Having made a list of all the jobs that need to be done, I tell them that I have written each job on a sticky note and placed it under one of the seats in church. (This is not strictly true: I’ve never actually done that – but it’s not a lie, it’s a rhetorical device…) I then say that, in a moment, I want each person in church to look under their seat and discover what their job will be for the coming year. If you get a job that you really can’t do, you have to swap your sticky note with someone who can. Everybody ends up with a job that they can do. In that way we know that everything is covered. As I say, I’ve never actually done this, but it’s an idea!

I did read about a church where they did something like this. They had a set of badges made: one said ‘Welcomer’, another said ‘Bible Reader’ and so on. At the start of the service, the pile of badges was on a table at the back of church. As each person arrived, they had to choose a badge and that would be their job for the day. I have to say, I’m quite tempted. Except that I think it’s better if the person doing the bible reading has had chance to have a look at it beforehand in case there are any of those pesky names that are difficult to pronounce.

So, rather than sticky notes or badges, we have always used rotas. They’re a pain to produce, and we often have Sundays where there are more people standing in for someone else than there are people doing what they’re on the rota for. But that is all right. It mostly works. And what it avoids is having a very small number of people doing all the jobs every week. Which is where we have ended up after the disruptions of COVID19. I am very grateful to those who have kept the ship afloat over the past few years. But I am hopeful that the time is coming for us to return to those pesky rotas. In order for that to work, we need volunteers – from among our regular worshippers, and from those who plan to return to church, and it would be good to have some new names and faces.

Here’s what I would like you to do: pick a Sunday in September and plan to come to church. Let me know that you are coming and that you would be happy to do a reading, or welcome people at the door. I will then put your name on the rota and – voila! – it’s sorted!

If there are other barriers to you attending a service, please let me know and I’ll see what we can do to help you.

I look forward to welcoming you back to church.

Alan Jewell

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