Whitehouse Church is a new church plant in the western expansion of Milton Keynes. Planted out of Loughton Baptist Church in January 2020, it started with fourteen adults and nine children and quickly grew to fifty people worshipping out of the local primary school each week. Their Minister, Tony McGinley, gives us an insight into how the church has responded to the challenges of COVID-19.
Like most churches, the whole corona situation took us completely by surprise! Suddenly finding ourselves in lockdown, we were faced with two key questions.
- During isolation, how do we maintain the things that we would normally do as a church?
- How can we respond to the growing needs of our congregation and the wider community we serve?
For us at Whitehouse, the first was relatively easy to answer. Situated on a brand-new housing estate where the majority of households are made up of twenty to forty year-olds, young families and young professionals, we were quickly able to move our day-to-day work online with Zoom. Our weekly connect groups which used to meet out of leaders’ houses now meet virtually via Zoom, as does our Sunday morning service. For services, I log into two devices, using one as a camera and a microphone and the other as a screen to share a presentation, with opportunities for people to chat before and after the service. Other than the obvious lack of physical interaction, our Sundays are pretty much the same as they were at the school, but with an added bonus that there is a lot less time needed for setting up and packing away!
We use our Sundays as a bit of an escape from COVID-19, recognizing that people are tuning in to hear about God and to hear from God. Although the wider situation is referenced in prayer, we make a point of not letting COVID-19 be at the centre of each sermon.
The second question was a little more difficult to answer. After moving onto the estate with my wife nearly three years ago, we quickly established a relationship with the school, which tends to involve taking batches of sixty Krispy Kreme doughnuts at the end of each term to thank and encourage the staff for all they do – it’s become a bit of a tradition! In the week leading up to the lockdown we approached the school to ask if there was anything we could do to help. We were asked if it would be possible for us to provide lunches for up to thirty-eight children of key workers for the foreseeable future. We are a new church with limited funding, but with a big heart, and spent three sleepless days and nights working out how we were going to achieve this, only for the government to then roll out their meal stamp idea, making our plans redundant. What is more, we had lost three days that we could have spent planning how to serve the community in other ways.
However, with schools closing to most pupils and the country going into lockdown, we wanted to maintain our tradition of celebrating the staff at the school. This felt particularly important as they would still be open to support the families of key workers, so we bought an Easter egg for each staff member. (A video of this can be found on our Facebook page.)
As lockdown began we put two posts out on social media, one offering practical help to buy shopping for anyone self-isolating or to pick up prescriptions etc. The second was an encouragement that self-isolation didn’t need to mean self-isolated – that even if we are needing to be in isolation we shouldn’t cut ourselves off from the world. As a church we have offered anyone who is feeling worried, anxious or scared during this time the opportunity to contact us. We will give them a call, just five minutes or so, to ask how they are doing, how they are feeling, what their plan is for the day, etc. This post was picked up by the local Parish Council and put in each of the noticeboards they have around the estate.
We are now turning our minds to when the lockdown is over, asking questions of how we are going to help the community celebrate! Also, how can we continue to nurture the community spirit that has grown in this situation? And how can we support those who are grieving? Our challenge is the same as all other churches, just with a little less experience, and we stand together with them as the body of Christ.
Some things that have helped us:
- Make Sunday as ‘normal’ as possible – our weekly meetings can be a welcome escape at an otherwise crazy time, offering refreshing perspective.
- Know which waves you should ride in terms of ideas of how to serve the community and which you should let go by.
- Think carefully about initiatives you start during this time – if you find that one works, you may need to continue doing it for a long time! Will daily devotionals, thoughts for the day and recorded church services be sustainable after COVID-19 and lockdown have passed?
- Be confident in doing the things only you can do, unique to your context, because God has placed you where you are for such a time as this.
- Keep reminding the church that this will pass, that there will be a time post COVID-19, and that your church has a role to play in helping its community move on.