The new normal’ has been unlike anything that we were used to before. Some of us haven’t stepped into a church building in over a year. Many of us have had to show admirable restraint while listening to How great Thou art’ and only humming or whispering the words behind our masks. Few of us have experienced communion in the way that we so fondly remember.

With the potential of restrictions being lifted in the coming weeks, however, things like hugs at the door and belting out Blessed be your name’ are all tantalisingly close. It’s emotional just to imagine how it might feel to be back together again in the fullness of church family. For many, it will be a time of joyful celebration, while others may be anxious and overwhelmed by mass social contact. For the bereaved, there may be an outpouring of grief, especially if they find themselves reminded of their loss by the empty chair beside them. So much has changed in this long year.

But God has not stopped moving. Communities have grown closer together as a spirit of neighbourliness has been rekindled up and down the country. The church has been meeting need in an extraordinary way and building vital relationships to help support those who feel vulnerable. People have been spiritually searching and outreach has moved online. Millions of people have checked out online church, and many have chosen to follow Jesus but are yet to experience in-person worship.

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Put simply, there are lots of people who are ready to be invited to the party. Jesus, in Matthew 22 , compares the kingdom of heaven to a banquet. Invitations are issued, rejected and accepted. The parable contains examples of the expected guests making excuses, so in the end, the banquet is beautifully full of unlikely guests.

It’s understandable that the UK church might want to take a moment to acknowledge all that we have lost in this journey, and then to play it safe from here. The path of least resistance limits our thinking and means we only invite the guests already coming to the party. But the gospels and the times we find ourselves in demand that we go further.

As restrictions lift and we reopen our doors, we must go beyond consolidation. This is an unmissable junction moment for our church communities, not only to regather and regroup, but to reach out. This is a unique invitational moment.

To the family next door who we’ve got to know while working from home; to the couple who did online Alpha in the autumn; to the millions who have been accessing church foodbanks; to the friends who comforted us as we mourned the death of loved ones; to the neighbours with whom we have endured countless online quizzes: let’s extend the invitation.

There’s a dramatic realisation for four men in 2 Kings 7 : This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves.” Let their words stir us as another good news day approaches. As we look forward to unrestricted church gatherings in all their fullness again, let’s invite the millions of people searching for a fresh start to join us.