“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near.”
– Mark 1:15


We will not save a place we do not love. We cannot love a place we do not know.”
– Baba Dioum (Senegalese Environmentalist)

Ched Myers’ writing on Watershed Discipleship advocates for a Christianity that recognises we are in a watershed moment of interlocking crises of climate, consumption and ecological degradation. He calls for a refocussing of radical Christian discipleship on a bioregional basis of environmental resiliency and social justice. The gravity of these crises, and what the Christian responses should be, remain contested within our evangelical sub-culture.

If concepts like “saving nature,” “creation care” and especially “social justice” fail to offer enough stimulus for churches in Northern Ireland to radically rethink their engagement with the world…has this pandemic presented us the watershed moment?

Since the middle of March churches across Northern Ireland have stepped into action helping the self-isolated, the shielded, and the marginalised in our communities with coordinated, practical support. The responses have been swift, involving cross-denominational collaboration, and building new relationships through necessity with community organisations and statutory agencies.

In recent weeks the mainstream evangelical church in Northern Ireland has been near to those in need, and largely without the time to work out a comfortable theology of engagement alongside it. Perhaps this will come with hindsight, and when it does, it must be broader and bolder than how to transition from well-received online communication back to physical buildings.

How will our churches’ worship (as witness to the world) respond to a post-pandemic Northern Irish society that will be (i) slower, (ii) smaller, and (iii) poorer?

When we worship needs to take into consideration how this pandemic has slowed down the pace of family and community life.

Lockdown has led to a resultant slowdown in how we navigate many of the tasks we previously juggled: shopping for food, accessing public services, and family responsibilities are just some of these. As conditions shift with social distancing measures still in place, will the usual busy church calendar of multiple Sunday services, committee meetings, youth ministry, and uniformed organisations crank into gear again? If so, churches that have been life-giving during lockdown could soon be life-draining afterwards.

When families are intentionally going for walks together, and a socially spaced conversation with a neighbour provides welcoming focus and a break rather than an unwelcome distraction, churches should pay attention to these unforced expressions of community.

Where we worship should reflect how our world now looks a little bit smaller.

During this pandemic we can participate in worship services all over the world from the comfort of our living rooms. In the words of Krish Kandiah, “there’s never been an easier time to go to church.”

This shift to online services exposes a digital divide. Churches with an already established online presence, strong corporate branding, and a capacity for high production values, will continue to thrive and attract new followers at this time, while many smaller congregations are simply not able to compete with a slick and polished online product.

Coming out of lockdown, there could be implications for smaller churches that have been unable to harness this technology to sustain their ministry. Perhaps our big-box worship centres and mega-churches have a responsibility to point new followers towards their smaller local neighbourhood partners in ministry. If are encouraged to shop local, perhaps we can we foster a culture of “worshipping local.”

How churches worship in communities that are now poorer as a result of COVID-19 will perhaps be the most significant expression of a new watershed discipleship.

Four in ten people financially impacted by coronavirus have seen half of their income wiped out. In the midst of this many church leaders are faced with the reality of a drop in financial giving.

There are also broader considerations about the future relationship between evangelical Christianity and economic aspiration. The perception of “redemption and lift” is still alive and well. Some of the wealthiest churches in Northern Ireland manage the largest food bank operations in the country. How do we navigate the contradiction of operating a food bank during the week, and standing-over what could pass for a country club on a Sunday?

It’s not enough for the church to be good news for the poor solely for the duration of lockdown.

Over the last few intense months, as engaged churches have made themselves known to others around them through practical expressions of Christ’s love, engaging with community groups, key workers, politicians, local businesses etc, it is crucial that we reflect on what we now know about the places we inhabit.

For us and many of our most marginalised neighbours, the Kingdom of God has never been nearer.

Becoming re-placed in the intricacies of an actual community may even lead us to ask bigger and better questions than were previously being asked about concepts like creation care or social inequality.

As Wendell Berry puts it:
“The real question is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighbourhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different to others.”

The time has come.