It’s happening all across the country and right here in the Midwest. Churches, forced to shutter their doors due to COVID-19, are finding creative ways to continue their ministry.

In the process, they’re discovering this new church methods works well, well enough to survive past the pandemic.

Like many of the pastors we visited with, Bishop L.F Thuston, leader of the Kansas East Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the Church of God and Christ, sees the challenges forced upon the church because of the pandemic as more positive than negative. Churches have been long on tradition, and they were probably due for a change.

It’s a change that has made churches more responsive to their members and because of it, a number of churches are reaching more, instead of fewer people during the pandemic.

“The ability of the church has been increased to minister to people and to be in communication with them in ways that we had not focused on as much before,” says Thuston. “There are persons who would never have been able to have access to physically come to church on a regular basis because of jobs, because of physical conditions, because of overlapping responsibilities. Now the church is more accessible to them.”

Thuston feels like the change is permanent, and they’re not going back. Even when it’s safe to return to church, church will be different going forward.

“The message will stay the same, but the methods will have to change,” says Thuston.

The change has brought the church in step with the way members are communicating outside of the building. It’s a method they’re comfortable with and use regularly, why shouldn’t it continue to work for them.

THINKING OUTSIDE THE

CHURCH BOX

Sunday morning worship, Bible studies, prayer meetings and inspirational check-ins are happening via conference calls, online video conferencing platforms (such as Zoom, Skype and GoogleMeets) and using features within social media applications (for example, FaceBook Live). Some congregations have adopted even more creative approaches.

Even before Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued the statewide “Stay at Home” order near the end of March, Dr. Cynthia Wolford, pastor of Greater Faith Christian Church in Wichita, was thinking of ways to stay connected while keeping her members safe. “We have a lot of senior members and others who are at-risk due to illness,” she said.

She opted to use a simple conference-call service. Members and others call a main number and enter an access code to connect with Sunday worship, Wednesday Bible Study and three weekly inspirational devotions.

“Some of our members don’t have computers, or don’t have internet service,” says Pastor Wolford. “But everyone has access to a phone. We stay connected and can check on each other throughout the week.” She adds that the frequent check-ins are also a way to combat loneliness for those living alone.

Kansas City had one of the first COVID-19 outbreaks in the state. Adrion Roberson, co-pastor of Berean Fellowship Church in Kansas City, pushed to stop in-person church gatherings even before the governor’s order.

“The cluster was just blocks from my house, over 30 people died.” Because the church already had a robust sound and video system, it was easy for them to live-stream services on FaceBook Live and through the church’s website.

“Some of our ‘seasoned’ members struggled with the technology at first, but we were able to help get everyone set up,” says Pastor Roberson. A majority of congregations throughout the state have chosen to continue worship through online streaming.

Credit Bishop Broderick Huggins of St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Wichita with one of the most unique COVID-19 solutions. He puts giant speakers in the church parking lot on Sunday mornings and encourages members to fellowship together while remaining socially distant in their cars. “I wanted to keep the worship experience as close to ‘normal’ as possible,” says Bishop Huggins. “It’s important for them to see each other as well as their pastor and other members of the worship team.”

As an alternative to his Tuesday “Lunch and Learn” series for senior members who don’t get out at night for traditional prayer meetings and Bible studies, Bishop Huggins prepares carryout meals which are delivered by men of the church, then they all eat together as he live-streams the session. “I don’t get everyone every time, but eventually all are included.”

That’s the kind of customer service and outreach church members are experiencing in the secular world. Finally, the church is catching up.

GIVING CONTINUES, AUDIENCES HAVE GROWN

The pastors are diverse in their approach to COVID-19 building closures, but have similar responses to how their ministries have been affected. Surprisingly, all say that offerings have either remained steady or increased. Some members still bring or mail their offering envelopes to the church, but many choose to give using apps such as Givelify and CashApp.

“I think people are more aware that the (financial) needs of the church continue even when the building is closed,” says Dr. Wolford.

Bishop Huggins points to the congregational health and maturity of his church, which is over 70 years old. Pastor Roberson says, “In addition to our regular membership giving, we are reaching more people on our live-streaming platforms and some choose to sow into our ministry as well.”

All three ministers agreed that members lose the connectedness of meeting in person, but all have gained audience from a distance. They all plan to continue alternative worship options even after they resume gathering in person.

“I don’t want anyone to ever feel pressured to return to the building if they aren’t comfortable,” Bishop Huggins says. “When there is a vaccine, we will re-open the building but we want members to follow their own best judgment about when to return.

Berean Fellowship Church resumed in-person worship near the end of June, when the state moved into phase three. “We are a small-enough congregation in a large-enough space that we can have social distancing, but we’ll continue our online ministry,” says Pastor Roberson. “If we go back to phase two, we’ll adjust.”

Dr. Wolford adds, “We are a very warm church family that likes to hug and hold hands. When the CDC, area health departments and my own prayerful discernment say it’s time to re-open, we’ll be ready.” But as a person in a high-risk group herself, she’s in no rush.

“Some members are actually more engaged through our conference calls because they can listen while driving or at work. We also have listeners on our calls from Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa … as far as California and Maryland,” she says, chuckling at the irony. “The devil thought he was striking a mighty blow against churches with COVID-19. But instead, sanctuaries are popping up in homes, cars and offices everywhere.”

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