As the initial COVID restrictions came into force earlier in the year, the team at Wodonga and District Baptist Church talked about how they could practically move forward. Pastor David Hodgens explains that “as a large regional church we recognised that it would only be once restrictions were completely removed that we could function as a gathered community in the manner we were used to; so we looked for an alternative”. Medium to larger gatherings, assuming 20, 50 or 100 people in the same space were going to be difficult for Wodonga to facilitate because of the contact recording and cleaning expectations. Sensing back then, what we know to be true now, David was also mindful that there might be a second wave of the virus, which could return them to a constrained environment, and so the church looked for a model of gathering that would sustain them for as long as needed.
So began Wodonga’s network of neighbourhood churches. These churches were intentionally neighbourhood churches, not house churches – the language was important because they wanted to anchor the people in their own neighbourhood. Practically, this would mean church being hosted in a neighbourhood home that was hospitable and large enough to gather with groups of between 5-12 with social distancing space and capacity to view the online material. It also meant not only finding the homes, but also the hosts.
The church went about this firstly by breaking the wider church up into geographical areas. “Our congregation is spread across two states as well as the hinterland and so all regular attenders were nominally allocated to a particular neighbourhood church.”
The second step was to produce an online service for people to engage with in the various homes across the region. “We started delivering our services online from day one of the Covid-19 restrictions and so we already had the perfect platform to engage the Neighbourhood churches with resources for adults and children.”
The online service had to be as interactive as possible – particularly around the message. “This remains a bit of an ideal, but small neighbourhood church has a greater capacity to engage with teaching material, conduct discussions and talk about life application and we want to encourage that by providing some discussion questions or activities that can be done by the neighbourhood church as they gather.”
Thirdly, the church had to focus on encouraging people to not just attend the service in the home but to stay for lunch or brunch following the service. “We also wanted hosts and church members to consider how their neighbourhood church related to their actual geographical location – encouraging them to gather people from the area, connect with their neighbours and be ministers in their neighbourhoods.”
David recognises that the Wodonga network of neighbourhood churches is still a work in progress and due to the tighter restrictions that have come into place in regional Victoria, the neighbourhood churches have had to shut down for the time being. But the mission potential for the church to influence the community on a long-term basis is great and this model may continue to operate well beyond the current conditions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.