Lynette Teagle, together with her husband Peter, is part of the leadership team of Northway Church, a neighbourhood church which has served the Northway and Marston communities in Oxford for the last sixty years. In her ‘day job’ she is Head of Learning and Development with Friends International, a ministry to international students at British universities.
But what about those who can’t use Zoom?
It’s only been a week since national lockdown began, and one word has dominated many of our conversations: Zoom. The online conferencing software has become ubiquitous to Covid-19 church life, as Christians all over the world scramble to find ways to continue meeting as a body.
For our small local church here in Oxford, the conversation has taken a somewhat different turn. While congregations filled with students, young working people or retired professionals are managing to find ways to ‘do church’ online, the same cannot be so easily said of our very mixed congregation.
A good number of us are families with young children or working adults, all comfortable joining live streamed worship services, meeting in small groups on Skype or Zoom, and downloading e-books or podcasts for spiritual food. But for a significant number, the internet is still an unfathomable black hole which they have never become familiar with, let alone apps like Zoom and Skype. Even those with smart phones lack the confidence to do much beyond using WhatsApp for family phone calls.
Some struggle with technology and cannot keep up with the many different apps and communication tools. Others have learning difficulties or come from homes where there is simply no internet access. Quite a few are elderly and until now have eschewed anything online, preferring to continue their faithful face-to-face habits. For these precious brothers and sisters, going online for fellowship and spiritual feeding is not only difficult, it is – if you forgive the pun – virtually impossible.
When social isolation measures hit in earnest, I searched (online!) for resources and ideas from others facing similar challenges reaching those in their communities who are ‘offline’. Amid the flood of posts and blogs about Zoom services and Facebook worship, I found nothing to help care for physically isolated Christians who have limited access to the internet. There are parallels here with the problem faced by the early church in Acts 6:1-7. As the new believers gathered joyfully in Jerusalem by their thousands to worship, eat together and share resources, a situation emerged among the Greek-speaking widows who found themselves left out of the daily food distribution. Rather than dismissing their outcry as rumblings of discontent from a cultural or linguistic minority, the apostles wisely put together a solution, led by a team known to be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’. By promptly directing time and thought to ensuring that everyone was catered for, regardless of language or status, ‘God’s message continued to spread [and] the numbers of believers greatly increased…’ (Acts 6:7).
So what are some ideas for building up our offline brethren in ways which are similarly inspired by the Spirit and wise? Here are some initiatives we have found to be useful which might encourage you as you seek to do ‘church in social isolation’ away from the internet:
Go ‘back to basics’
Make the most of the Royal Mail by sending postcards and letters (but don’t lick the envelope!) to those who are not contactable by social media/email. We have also looked for Bible reading plans and short, accessible books to send to our congregation so that everyone has the same reading material in their hands that will feed their souls during social isolation.
Similarly, go back to connecting people via landline or ‘brick phone’. Our ‘prayer tree’, or ‘prayer chain’, which connects everyone in the church is key to this and can be especially precious to individuals living alone. The idea is that each person receives and gives a phone call at least once a week, thus having the chance to hear from and speak to others, and also that we pray for one another over the phone and aim to discuss what has been learned from the Bible or reading materials that have been shared, thus forming a ‘spiritual book club’.
Maximise the technology that folk can manage
Those with WhatsApp on their phones can be part of church group chats, in which prayer, praise and practical needs are shared. Every morning from Monday to Friday, our leadership team posts a devotional thought and prayer based on Scripture, sometimes accompanied by a song. Older people might struggle searching the internet for resources on their phones, but many are happy to click on a Youtube link posted on WhatsApp. We have already had feedback from young mums at home with toddlers and babies, and the elderly, expressing gratitude for these simple prompts for prayer and praise.
Physical isolation doesn’t have to mean social isolation
While we cannot visit one another, we can try to express our care for others in tangible ways. Why not use that money you might have spent at Starbucks or McDonalds to send letterbox flowers to an elderly widow, get a Deliveroo takeaway for a busy mum and dad who are struggling with home-schooling, or order simple crafts and toys for children in the church? Every gesture, big or small, says, ‘I may not be able to see you, but I am thinking of you.’
These are just some of the ideas which we are experimenting with. I would love to hear from others who have congregations which simply cannot go online, so that together we can encourage one another to make sure everyone gets fed, and no-one is left behind in these times of physical isolation.