The Bridge Church, Cardiff
Our elders’ meeting on 16th March 2020 was a meeting of firsts. Lockdown had not officially begun, but it was clearly coming. It was the first time we’d had to anticipate not physically meeting together as a church family, with the rare exception of snow days! We’d also never previously considered online meetings. In hindsight, our conversation seems a little comical. We were contemplating a matter of weeks without a meeting together. Our worst-case scenario at this point was, ‘This could last for a couple of months!’ Little did we know then that the Bridge Church, along with so many others, would be spending a lot of time in the virtual world in the year ahead.
In the goodness of God, we had the right mixture of skills and experience in the church to adapt pretty quickly for Zoom Sunday meetings. We decided this interactive approach was best for us, in order to maintain the church’s sense of togetherness. The first few Zoom meetings were hilariously chaotic in places, but also happy and upbeat. Of course, many times since then, we have been tempted to loathe both the technology and terminology of Zoom. But whilst we’ve become painfully aware of the practical and theological downsides of ‘online church’ during the pandemic, we’ve also realised how important it is to celebrate the blessings experienced, and mark the lessons learned.
Here are just a few of those lessons from 2020.
Our nomadic journey has its pros and cons
We have no building of our own. The Bridge Church was planted as a satellite congregation of Highfields in 2012, became independent in January 2019, and to date we’ve not been able to secure our own permanent base in the community. We’ve moved fairly frequently between schools and hotels, most recently to a school right at the heart of the community. This impermanence and pilgrim status has had an obvious down-side, especially during the pandemic.
Although the school has been incredibly helpful and accommodating, we have far less flexibility and far fewer options as we do not own the space. Even when Welsh Government guidelines have allowed, we haven’t been able to move at our own speed or hold meetings whenever we want, or wherever we want in the building. But the fact that the church family has had to periodically up sticks and move on over the last nine years has helped us in this season. It’s developed in us a tolerance for change and an adaptability that a more geographically-rooted congregation might not have. When we have periodically reflected that ‘the church is not the building’, no one has disputed it! Much as we would love to have a building to call our home in Pontprennau, there have been providential blessings flowing from our ‘homelessness’.
‘Online church’ has been stressful but strengthening.
It didn’t take long for the Zoom honeymoon to end and for Zoom fatigue to well and truly set in. Yet there have been obvious signs of God’s goodness in this new, temporary way of interacting. If we’d tried randomised breakout groups in our pre-Covid gatherings we would probably have been (rightly?) accused of micro-managing or even heavy-shepherding, and maybe had a mutiny on our hands! Instead, what we’ve experienced has been an uncomfortable yet obvious means of grace.
For some, the breakout rooms have added another level of stress. But numerous people have told me how they’ve had conversations with people in our church (of around 100 adults and 50 children) whom they’ve not meaningfully talked to before. This has highlighted areas where possible silos have been developing. God has used these new online connections to create new spiritual synapses in the local body of Christ, which would not have existed otherwise. ‘Online church’ is certainly sub-optimal and this year has been a trial, but the Lord has been using it to forge stronger bonds and new relationships amongst us, and I’m so grateful.
The pandemic has not stopped sanctification.
It didn’t surprise me that the majority of our relatively young congregation swiftly adapted to this new way of doing things, but some of the people in the church’s older age bracket have humbled me. Their steadfast, loyal, love of God and a deep love for the gathered church has shown through in their determination to learn the new technology and adapt so that they can be ‘with’ their brothers and sisters. I suspect this is because these saints know that worshipping with the redeemed isn’t an add-on or a luxury; it’s a necessity. They’ve impressed me in not slacking their pace in the race set before them. In fact, many (of all ages) seem to have intensified their efforts in sanctification of self and discipleship of others.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the youth in our church have also amazed me. They too have struggled with a lack of ‘real-world’ interaction. They have had little time together with their peers in church and although some of them are currently spending as much time video conferencing as some adult professionals, they have turned up to online youth meetings, laughing and interacting, when they could easily have opted out. The grace of God is wonderfully surprising and has been glimmering in every age group.
Care and witness have not just survived but thrived
Neither the caring imperative nor the missional impulse of the church have been eradicated by the virus and the resulting restrictions. God’s people have found ways (within guidelines) to encourage each other and to stay in touch and the pastoral team has found new ways to shepherd. Phone calls, FaceTime, cards posted, gifts dropped off at doors, walks in the rain, coffees under gazebos; all have been used to keep on building up the church. Two of us on the eldership team recently remarked on another ‘first’ after we’d spent an hour in a member’s front garden, sitting on deckchairs, under umbrellas in the November rain, drinking coffee, talking about Jesus and praying! We’ve discovered that the sub-optimal can be special. The God who brings hope out of hopelessness uses his people in each other’s lives, no matter what the circumstances and trials.
Witness and outreach have not stopped either. The Holy Spirit has stirred creativity and initiative in people. Members have had garden fence conversations that would not have happened in ‘normal’ times. People have invited friends to an online Christianity Explored, and those friends have come, when they might have been daunted by a ‘normal’ approach. Novel ideas like local nativity trails, online wreath-making workshops and virtual advent calendars have given us links with thousands in the community.
To put some numbers on this, we had 46,000 views of our online Christmas content; that’s over 15,000 unique people! That content included mini-talks, testimonies, activities and group songs – the most popular being the Bridge Kids’ Christmas song. We had 10,000 interactions with our nativity trail post alone. But the numbers that have thrilled us the most have been the smaller ones: the 25 nativity booklets sent out to local homes and the four families that contacted us asking for help explaining Jesus to their children.
How would I sum all this up? Even as we have increasingly found ourselves longing for an exodus from the virtual wilderness and into the promised land of hugging, standing and singing together; I have been encouraged that the Holy Spirit’s work in and through his people has continued, sometimes in surprising ways. The grace of God is unstoppable. We are trusting he will continue that gracious work, however 2021 unfolds.