It’s safe to assume that the fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers Luke wrote about in Acts 2:42 happened in the presence of others. Luke did not have Zoom calls and WhatsApp voice notes in mind when he wrote this passage. This year, COVID-19 has forced the church to find new ways to fellowship and create connections in a sometimes isolated, fearful environment. So how have church leaders and communities been staying connected, and how are they reconnecting?
“When we gather corporately, there’s a psychological benefit”, said Ps Simon Lerefolo, senior pastor at Every Nation Church in Rosebank, Johannesburg, in an online discussion on “Reconnecting Beyond Lockdown” hosted by Heartlines in partnership with the Association for Christian Media. He cited neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf’s findings on the positive effects of worship on a participant’s health, saying that it has been found that worshippers’ heartbeats synchronise when worshipping together.
Lerefolo also spoke about the exclusion faced by different groups of people during this time. On the one hand, there are those who are still not able to attend church due to being at risk health-wise, and for them, continued online services are necessary. On the other hand, while technology has created a better opportunity for connection for many, economic disparities in our nation mean that not everyone has been able to experience online fellowship while churches were not allowed to meet in person.
“We need to deal with fear. People are scared. When we reopened, one of the first things we did was to spend time listening to people’s stories”, said Ps Sipho Mahlangu, senior pastor at UAFC HOPE to You in Soweto. He encouraged leaders to be present and communicate regularly and clearly. “We must ensure strong social connections,” he said.
“During this time feeling that everyone else but you is coping can be very isolating. So creation of safe spaces where people with similar interests connect, is helpful,” said Joanne Tatalias, a lay preacher at St Martin’s in-the-Veld Anglican Church in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Lerefolo affirmed this by saying that his community had also explored new, creative ways to fellowship safely, such as with hikes, picnics and drive-through ministries.
“When planning for logistics, we sometimes forget to pray,” said Tatalias, highlighting the balancing act that many church leaders faced in having to be mindful of implementing the COVID-19 regulations while leading. “I’m passionate about gathering for prayer – when we meet together and pray for one another, we connect. While virtual prayer meetings have worked well, connecting in an outdoor prayer meeting was very helpful,” she said.
Host Loyiso Bala reminded the audience that the Lord promises to be in the midst of those where two or three are gathered in His name, as Matthew 18:20 says. Yet this is not an invitation to be inward-facing. He urged the church to impact its community as it is the only organisation that lives to serve those who are not members. “If the church closed down, would people care?” Bala asked.
“It's about time we become more people-conscious than we are about structures, systems and meetings," said Bala on re-imaging the church as it emerges from lockdown. “We must ensure that in everything we do, we bring back the integrity of our social fabric,” added Mahlangu as he encouraged churches to be a catalyst for positivity in the nation during this time.
“We’ve seen how the sharing of stories can turn enemies into friends, and friends into family”, said Olefile Masangane, from Heartlines. Masangane explained how the What’s Your Story? initiative for churches, which provides free resources for churches and communities, would be helpful for churches wishing to form deeper connections after being apart for so long.
The discussion on reconnecting after lockdown was presented together with the Association of Christian Media and is part of a series of online conversations hosted by Heartlines’ What’s Your Story? team. Visit www.church.wysza.org for more information about the What’s Your Story? resources.