While coronavirus is certainly no game, and in navigating lockdown we’re not playing, I feel the board game Snakes and Ladders is a helpful analogy that reflects the experiences of family, work, schools, local businesses, social life and, yes, church.

We wait to roll a 6. We plod forward, feeling like we’re ahead. We climb another ladder. 100, our desired destination, is in sight… restrictions lifted, new measures in place, the R number dropping, social connections rebuilding. Circumstances looked and felt better, hopeful even. In church, buildings were opened, some small groups, weekly activities had restarted. We had climbed a ladder.

But then, we hit a giant snake, and down we go, back to where we started, with a soaring R number, many community sectors shut down under localised lockdowns. For many churches, new restrictions on who, where, how many can gather have shut down some of these opportunities – and we are aware that further restrictions may come into play. 

As I speak with church and organisation leaders, I wonder what it looks like to function well and to navigate church life on this seemingly never-ending Snakes and Ladders gameboard. Some thoughts:

Acknowledge the gameboard’ we inhabit

This is the reality of life within all sectors for this ongoing season. Accept that how we worship and fellowship and organise church activity will not be a linear predictive, progressive journey. Rather, moving through this period is a circular, spiral, forwards and backwards journey, trialling and exploring how we be the church of God. 

The new norm’ quite possibly will not be a return to the previous, familiar places and spaces, patterns and programmes of church, but perhaps to forms currently unfamiliar or unimaginable to us. 

Reacquaint yourself with the origin, rules and aim of the game

The changing questions of logistics can be draining. Figuring and reconfiguring how’ to make familiar church structures and systems function within changing restrictions can be paralysing and frustrating. 

But church structures as we have known them are only inherited manmade frameworks that contain the living, dynamic reality of church. These programmes and schedules have been developed through previous eras of time – constructed only to serve the purpose of church as God’s redeemed and regenerated people.

Take time to reflect with others on the quiet, foundational why’ questions that should shape your ministry:

  • What is the church? We are a people who gather and scatter.
  • Why do we gather? For worship, witness and formation into God’s people.
  • What are we here for? To embody and proclaim the reign and rule of Jesus Christ, our Lord in whole-life worship.

The core identity and activity of church has not changed. It will not change, not even in lockdown. While lockdown has prevented some of the familiar ways of doing’ church, the current challenges and restrictions can lead us to new opportunities – at various stages of the gameboard – ladder or snake.

Move with agility, flexibility and perseverance

My daughter, who during the lockdown recovered her love for Snakes and Ladders, feels like it is game over’ every time she hits a snake. Hang in there! You will always move forward. We move forward together to grasp the opportunities available to us.

On this gameboard, church worship has moved out of the building and programme. On this gameboard, church mission has been spread out from leaders, full-time workers to every Christian every day, everywhere.

Take the core identity and activity of church – the who, why, what for – and consider you could make some tweaks, to let your church people fulfil their identity and purpose within the current and ongoing restrictions. 

Within current restrictions: how can you tweak the sections of your church to identify with and be formed as God’s people? How might your people connect, pray, worship together? 

  • How many members of a small group can meet to prayer walk their local community or area surrounding the church? Use our Walk, Pray, Talk resource.
  • Could two households meet in a coffee shop or park, to worship in prayer, read a short liturgy, and read the Bible?
  • Could you create avenues to serve your local community (foodbank delivery, debt counselling, etc) and present this as a corporate act of worship from your people?

Within current restrictions: how might your people be formed as missional disciples? 

  • Can you inspire and equip individual members of your church to create a Harvest celebration or Christmas carol service in their neighbourhood?
  • Could you assist the medics, teachers, business people in your church to hold a prayer call on Zoom for their colleagues?
  • Could your families get together to deliver treats, kids’ drawings/​stories to the local nursing home and pray a blessing over them?

Look ahead – the desired destination might not look like you think it does

Consider the current restrictions. How might these change, or remain, in the future? How might this affect your longstanding church programme? How can you redirect your resources most effectively?

  • If children’s work isn’t allowed or deemed to be wise, can you make available your people as a volunteer force, to offer alongside your building, as resources that can serve the local primary school in this season?
  • The end of furlough scheme is approaching, and communities will see many difficulties; how might your people be present with local businesses, as chaplains? And how might you encourage the ingenuity of the business people in your church community for this season?

Make each move as you are led

As we navigate the gameboard, up a ladder, down a snake – with agility and flexibility – we ask for a Spirit-filled creativity and imagination. We do not cast the dice and move by chance. As we seek to be and do church within the frameworks available to us, we are not alone. Jesus Christ is the head of the church. We are His body, the fullness of Him, who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

In church history and in my own experience in cross cultural church planting without a church building and other Christians – Jesus Christ, the head of the church, through His Spirit, always leads His church out and beyond themselves – through geographical locations, manmade structures, cultural blind spots, etc. 

Jesus Christ, our head, has often led His people in ways, times and into places that surprise us. The same is true for today. As you journey through this season, draw your people into a prayerful community pilgrimage. Watch together to see what God will do, in you as well as through you.

You aren’t the only player on the gameboard; there are others playing the game too, going down the same snakes, climbing the same ladders. This is a time to step into and to celebrate our unity as God’s people.

At the heart of the Evangelical Alliance is unity. We are an alliance of churches, organisations and individuals who are passionate about making Jesus known at this time. Never before has the church in the UK needed to have a strong, united identity and presence. 

We encourage you, therefore, to approach fellow church leaders in your local community. Talk to others. Pray with others. And know that we at the Evangelical Alliance would love to be part of these united expressions of unity among God’s people, as well as support you in developing relationships and networks.

Revitalised and renewed

Lockdown also revitalised my childhood love and memories of the simple and timeless classic board game Snakes and Ladders. How could this strange, unchartered season, full of challenge and ups and downs, be the much-needed catalyst for your church people? To revitalise our identity as God’s people, to rekindle a deep love for Jesus and a passion for His kingdom, to unite with others as we venture into unchartered territory, and to grasp and fulfil His purpose for us all, in our places and spaces, for such a time as this. 

Church structures as we have known them are only inherited manmade frameworks that contain the living, dynamic reality of church.