The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to re-think church, says Dr Peter Roennfeldt. And with a return to pre-COVID “normal” unlikely, his new book Your Church Has Changed offers guidance for asking questions about our understanding of church and how this is practiced in local contexts.
Citing historical examples, Dr Roennfeldt urges that the pandemic will shape our communities, cultures and lives for decades and that these shifts include increased health, economic and social consciousness. “We are now in a new mission environment,” he says, “and it seems unwise—and maybe naïve—to suggest that ‘once we are past this pandemic, we will get on with church life and mission!’ This is now the world we live in, and it is likely to only become more complex.”
Dr Roennfeldt has observed the church’s responses to COVID-19 and public health restrictions in the course of many meetings and consultations with church leaders around the world over the past 15 months. “There have been many requests from local churches, pastors, denominations leaders and mission agencies for discussion papers and Zoom meetings,” he reports. “The big questions for many has been, ‘What is church?’ ‘How do we do mission during COVID times?’ and, for many, ‘How can the New Testament church inform us?’”
With the onset of the pandemic in the early months of last year, many churches scrambled to move their worships services and other programs online. “It has seemed that the Adventist Church, as with other denominations, has been intent on reproducing what had been offered for decades—two hours of programming to watch each Sabbath morning,” Dr Roennfeldt comments.
“But it quickly became evident,” he adds, “that many were not looking in on church—that perhaps less than 50 per cent of pre-COVID attendees were online, some of them surfing the internet for churches other than their own, and the majority of those most social-media connected not present among the viewers of online Zoom or Facebook church.”
At the same time as many people have disconnected from their regular churches, different forms of church, worship and connection have grown. “While the building closed, I am blessed in being with a church that never went into hibernation,” says Pastor Darren Croft, lead pastor of Lilydale Adventist Church in suburban Melbourne, one of a number of local pastors who reviewed and gave feedback to Dr Roennfeldt on the manuscript for this new book. “However, the challenge before us is what comes next. Peter asks lots of questions—and they are the right questions.”
Your Church Has Changed suggests a hybrid model for smaller in-church worship, online engagement and “households of faith”, offering a model for how these can work and serve together. “Some significant issues have been made very clear by having the church thrust suddenly into COVID lockdowns,” says Dr Roennfeldt, “and the basic unit of church is much smaller than most of us had imagined.”
Your Church Has Changed is Dr Roennfeldt’s third book release in a six-month period—after If You Are Thirsty, You Can Be Spirit-filled and Enjoy the Living Word—each book addressing specific questions and needs he sees in the church at this time. While his schedule of travelling and speaking has been limited since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr Roennfeldt has remained active in ministering and teaching internationally via Zoom, as well as continuing to build relationships and faith among his immediate neighbours. “This past year has been one of the most intense but invigorating years of my 50 years in ministry,” he says. “We have been scattered to our households by the pandemic, and we can gain rich insights from the early church being scattered by persecution—for mission!”
Your Church Has Changed: Rebuilding Church and Mission Post-COVID-19 and other books by Peter Roennfeldt are available from Adventist bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, or online.