It’s Time to Return to In-Person Service… Now What Do We Do?
Dr. Bridget Stirling, Director of Stirling Public Health
“Let’s go! Let’s leap back into the church building for a summer of increasing normalcy.” This is what some are saying, and I can’t fault their enthusiasm. I miss church. Many of us do, and thanks to vaccines, better testing, and overall lowered rates of disease, safe return to gatherings is on the horizon. But what steps need to be put in place before we all get back together safely?
Having been a missionary overseas for many years, I have seen my share of outbreaks of disease. I hope to love people, identify obstacles between people and Christ, and help them to get around them. In many countries around the world the Christian church is associated with health and wellness.
As an epidemiologist, my job is to quantify public health outcomes, identify issues and come up with solutions. But I have often married my two vocations. While working to prevent malaria, cholera, MERS and many other infectious ailments, I also hoped to encourage everyone with the love and hope that we have in God.
I’ve taken the past year off from my government job to help out with United Nations, universities, and Asian Development Bank contracts. As I teach and advise governments and UN agencies, my heart is still with the church. I feel compelled to help church leaders to get back up and running as things open up.
Here in Canada, many people have lost confidence in public places. In the home, as well as at workplaces, people are reporting more stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues leading to decreased productivity and difficulty making decisions. COVID has changed us.
People are looking towards meditation, mindfulness and even artificial intelligence to process the collective trauma that our society has experienced. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled. Caring and responsive churches can act by inviting people to fill their spiritual needs with the healing power and truth of the gospel.
But there is work to be done in the buildings as well as in the community. Church buildings have been closed for over a year, many church employees have been in holding patterns or doing other jobs, and some churches have been impacted financially. So how can we return to being clean, vital, luminous settings again, where people can come to learn more about the Lord?
How does the church build confidence in our congregations, communities, and those in leadership over us?
I began reaching out to the churches in my sphere of influence in January 2020. Some thought that there was no need to prepare for the new virus. They asked, “wasn’t it just like the flu after all?” Some were very keen to know more and respond.
Informally, and in a volunteer capacity, I was giving advice and support to 6 churches in both Canada and the US. I wrote policies, designed pandemic plan templates, filmed training videos, wrote material, and supplied information. I responded to questions about what to do next, when congregants died. I supported church leaders who lost family members. I helped groups think around how to safely provide outreach and service to those in need.
I started to notice that many churches were asking the same questions and I was solving the same problems. Helping on this level was time consuming but rewarding. I wondered how I could replicate what I know and help more churches.
The Lord put it on my heart to help 5,000 churches. Being just one person, I decided to do this by creating a web-based application that would provide expert help. It would provide a training platform, a risk assessment, a forum where people can talk to each other, and a process for asking experts (engineers, mental health professionals, etc.) for their expert opinions. We called the program the ARCC, for Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches. Since then, the ARCC has been endorsed by several churches and denominational leaders.
From this experience, these are some of the key questions that churches are asking:
How do we deal with anxiety and depression from long periods of isolation?
Are our church policies covering what they ought to?
How can I assess the risk of disease transmission in my church, and by department or activity?
What are the issues with vaccines?
Where can I go for church-specific training on safer church operations, cleaning or writing policies?
The next normal is here! Let’s come safely back into the church building for a summer of increasing normalcy, with the reputation of being a place of health and wellness for all.
Dr. Bridget Stirling, Director of Stirling Public Health
Please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Are you involved in some form of paid or voluntary congregational/parish leadership in Canada? If so, on behalf of a national partnership between the Flourishing Congregations Institute and Alpha Canada, with in-kind support from the following sponsors – Canadian Church Leaders Network, Catholic Christian Outreach, Divine Renovation, and WayBase – you are invited to give up to 10 minutes to complete an online survey that explores the attitudes, behaviours, and experiences surrounding evangelism in Canadian congregations, across theological sectors. Those who participate will be entered into one of twenty draws for a $100 Amazon gift card.
This survey is open to any and all church/parish leaders across Canada. Participation is completely voluntary and your confidentiality will be maintained. At the conclusion of the study, a report with key findings and practical tools and resources to arise from this research will be made publicly available online and through an Alpha-led public online Evangelism Summit event in Fall 2021.
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What We Are Reading and Pondering These Days . . .
Varieties of Religion Today
Well, here is a round-about story that typifies some of the ways that I have come to benefit from certain books (meta-reading) and their timing with my own life-world; in this case, books that I’ve enjoyed for their relevance to the clusters of learning that I think God is working into my personal and professional practice.
I expect many of you may also be blinkist.com users/subscribers. My typical morning walks are for 30-40 minutes. I vary my “consumption” during these walks with silence, audio Scripture, music and blinkist selections. Over the course of a morning stroll, I can quite easily “blinkist-through” a couple of books. Of course, there are other sources of nurture too. In late May, I was asked to be an external examiner for a thesis on “Unravelling:” Exploring the Experience and Meaning of Spiritual Deconstruction. This task requires more that bullet point reading but obliges me to analysis and critique that builds on comprehension. This fascinating research told the story of six young people (20s-40s) who were trying to make some sense of their negative experiences with faith-based institutions and communities, with their own faith, doubt, experiences of abuse, betrayal, and the worst of religious experiences. As I read the thesis, I could hear the voices of deep anguish, frustration, and despair. Lots of dark places were described. I resisted judgement of their utterances and sought to better understand and gain some insights. Provoked, I needed a means to frame the varied and “at variance” narratives.
Back to blinkist . . . I listened to the app’s sketch of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) because I had recalled that his framing of experiences might be useful as I read through the thesis. This helped immensely. I went back to my paper copy of the same (still in library from seminary days). Indeed, it was highly relevant and useful, adding ways of seeing and hearing that added to my empathetic interests. This then led me, through another source to knowledge (amazon.ca and a two-day wait) to Charles Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today (Revised). Taylor’s book, like James’ – written a hundred years beforehand, had its origin in his Gifford Lectures. So, in a short period of time, I had three works in my hands: a 2021 documentation of a handful of religiously disaffected young people written by an able graduate psychology/counselling student, a classic by the Father of Modern Psychology and American Pragmatism (with Pierce and Dewey), and a short book by Canada’s premier philosopher (author of A Secular Age and numerous other splendid works).
Tracing the source of these three writings and my engagement with them over a few weeks in June has generated a thankfulness in me. What an absolute privilege to have ready access to the thinking of three centuries of people (lay and expert) on similar or related themes – to begin to appreciate the consilience, confluence and convergence of disciplines and ideas. I am thankful that we can read and benefit from thoughts, experiences and framings that are different from my own. The advice that we should “get out more often,” and listen to what “other tribes” are saying may have been somewhat more difficult in the COVID era but books, theses, and God-generated themes of disruption and transformation are there to be sought and found. I am thankful for our capacities to grow, adapt, critique, and construct our understandings and feelings on a range of topics and phenomenon, facilitated so efficiently through digital and in-hand ways. There are so many ways books and conversations help us to make meaning for us. This is one small case-in-point.
Buy Varieties of Religion Today
Buy Varieties of Religious Experience
Dr. Keith Walker, Professor of Leadership and Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan
Resources for Church Leaders
Casting Our Nets
Thursday, July 15, 2021
10am PDT (2pm ADT)
Join Divine Renovation and Alpha International on Thursday, July 15 for “Casting our Nets”, a conversation about creating a culture of invitation and making missionary disciples with Peter Herbeck of Renewal Ministries and Fr Justin Huang of Saint Anthony of Padua in Vancouver, BC. Register Here.
Risk Assessment for Churches
Operating your church more safely in a time of respiratory infectious diseases can be a challenge. The ARCC is a set of tools to help church leaders improve their policies, assess their risk, learn more about controlling diseases, and know how to support people's mental health. Instill confidence in yourself, your congregation, the community and those in authority by visiting churcharcc.com
Resources for Safer Church Re-Opening
Want to increase confidence in your congregation and community; to increase your knowledge; and to share what you've learned over the past year?
Join Dr. Bridget Stirling (epidemiologist and former missionary), a team of public health specialists, and church leaders from around the world in the ARCC.
The Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches (ARCC) is a program that increases safety through Risk self-assessments and guidance, church-specific training and an interactive forum. Visit us at stirlingharmston.com
Researching the Impacts of Covid-19 on Congregations
Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.