In the space of a few weeks, everything has changed. Across the world, churches of all denominations scramble to adapt to a new reality, one in which the traditional concepts of church are often not possible at all, as governments institute social distancing in the fight to save lives from COVID-19. On March 25-27, the North American Division (NAD) of the Adventist Church held an online conference: “Ministry in a Pandemic,” during which faith leaders from across the territory shared information and strategies with one another. As the NAD has done with other recent conferences, the meetings were held both in English and Spanish.
“This is a conference born out of necessity, unfortunately,” said Ivan Williams, NAD ministerial director. “We’ve called this conference together and we did it in a very fast manner, because of the need of the field: To be able to gather resources, to hear best practices, to talk about how we can continue ministering in these times.”
Williams spoke through Zoom, the popular online conferencing service used by many organizations. Simultaneously, the feed live-streamed through Facebook, where anyone — not just pastors — could follow along and make real-time comments.
“The fact is, this is a moral and ethical issue,” NAD President Dan Jackson said in his introductory remarks. “If we truly are in the world and want to be the salt of the world, then we will do everything we can to protect people.” Jackson explained that the actions of governments to control the pandemic should not be seen as violations of religious liberty; restrictions on in-person gatherings are not directed at Adventists, after all. But amid the changes in routine and lifestyle, church itself also must change. “We believe that it doesn't exercise common sense when we put people’s health and life at risk, including the medical community that is working so hard to preserve life,” Jackson said.
During an initial two-hour session, presenters gave snapshots from their differing perspectives, providing a broad, if somewhat dizzying, overview of the frantic dash to move entire churches online. Later, an hour was given to each of four categories: worship and preaching, evangelism, technology, and pastoral care — with more time to discuss and take questions.
The breadth of information shared over the three days highlights both the difficulties and the opportunities now emerging. There will be no one size fits all solution. What works — or is needed — for a large congregation might well be different from that which a small, single pastor church can try to do. There is one similarity for all churches, however: The stakes have likely never been higher.
Aiming bigger or focusing in?
In the move to remote operations, churches must decide whether to use technology to extend their reach or maximize connections between existing members.
Matt Stockdale is the leader of the Triad Adventist Fellowship church plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We've made that transition to everything virtual, and it's actually been a pretty amazing shift,” he said. The congregation used to split evenly with around 180 people in person and another 180 online. “But this past week we had 10 in person and then we had 605 online,” Stockdale explained. “So we've actually increased what we're able to do.”
As more churches begin to broadcast their services — or expand what they send out — there is the potential to reach more people. On the other hand, there’s also the potential to be lost in the noise.
“We are trying to get away from big numbers and get to meaningful engagement,” said Alexander Voigt, lead pastor of the LifeSpring Adventist Church in Wesley Chapel, Florida. LifeSpring noticed large numbers of views on their online church services, but with many lasting for mere seconds. Going forward, LifeSpring plans to broadcast simultaneously on multiple platforms to connect with as many people as possible, but then encourage members to engage in the Church Online Platform, a service that provides features like a live chat.
Large churches may already have a robust audio-visual system in place, allowing them to broadcast a service as rich as what they had before. Small churches have to be realistic, though there may also be advantages to being nimble. “Often the simplest way for you could be the best solution,” said Neil Chelliah, pastor of the Living Water church plant in College Park, Maryland. Chelliah recommended that other small congregations use Zoom to get up and running, since it is inexpensive and simple to use. Zoom is also an ideal tool for sabbath schools or small groups, Chelliah added.
Dave Gemmell, associate director of the NAD Ministerial Department, told all the listening pastors to get in contact if they wished to use Zoom, as the Division has a contract with the service and can help churches get up and running.
Creative thinking in difficult times
Even before the current crisis, some churches were experimenting with different formats. The Crosswalk Church is based in Redlands, California, but has several satellite campuses across the United States that for some time have received sermons via video link. “I've been preaching to an empty room for about a year and a half now,” said Tim Gillespie, lead pastor. Even so, Crosswalk has changed the formula now that the entire service is delivered online.
“We have decided to prerecord our services,” explained Isai Moran, the worship pastor at Crosswalk. Making prerecorded video allows the pastoral team to craft a more intentional program. “It’s more of a storytelling approach than to just simply capture what’s right in front of us,” Moran said. Then, the pastoral team logs onto Facebook and YouTube while the service broadcasts, responding to comments and interacting with church members in real time.
On the other side of the country, one church took an opposite approach, creating a service as live as possible given the circumstances. Patmos Chapel Adventist Church in Apopka, Florida, noticed that another church in the state had revived an old and seldom used concept. Lead Pastor James Doggette and Associate Pastor Rupert Bushner then noted the large parking lot next to Patmos’ building, along with a stairway that had a good-sized landing part way up. In short order, they acquired a short-range FM radio transmitter that would connect to their audio equipment.
“We sent out word to our members that there would be Patmos Chapel drive-in worship service,” Doggette said. On Saturday morning, car after car pulled into the lot, and parked facing the stairway. Doggette climbed the stairs and preached his sermon from the landing, the congregation listening through their car radios. The deacons kept watch, making sure that no one broke social distancing guidelines. Even from their cars, people were able to interact with the service in front of them. “We had people beeping their horns,” Doggette said. “That was their Amen.”
When an offering was taken, people flashed the lights of their cars if they wanted to give. A deacon then approached, holding a container attached to a pole so that people could drop in an offering without leaving their seats.
“The offering was a good one, I'll just say,” Doggette admitted. “More than we normally receive.”
“The folks didn’t want to leave,” Bushner said, “We had to tell them the service was over.”
When there are no easy answers.
During this time of change, some churches will find innovation and even thrive, with the renewed focus that only an intense reimagining from the ground up can bring. Others likely will struggle. As often is the case during this pandemic, already vulnerable demographics face the greatest challenges. While online church and Zoom small groups might be a natural fit into the lives of many, there could be elderly church members who are unable to access any digital tools at all. The North American Division is endeavoring to provide resources to its pastors, but implementation will vary widely from one context to another.
Pastors will also be stretched thin trying to serve their congregations. During last week’s conference, several recounted going through lists of all their elderly members, calling each to ensure that their needs were being met. The financial implications of the crisis loom large as well — both for individuals and churches.
“I got a text message from one of our church members, an elder, who lost his grandmother this week,” Pastor Jan White, from the Simi Valley Church in California, said. “[He] also lost his job yesterday.” White asked if they could pray for him on their group Zoom meeting that evening. Connected through their computer screens, they prayed together.
Resiliency amid uncertainty
In the days leading up to this past weekend, the local government in the Patmos Chapel’s area issued a shelter in place order. However, the church received clearance from the police that their drive-in service could still go on.
This Saturday, it was Pastor Rupert Bushner who climbed the steps and stood on the landing under the hot Florida sun, to preach to a sea of windshields. “I’m lit, locked, and loaded, and just praising God for all his blessings,” he said. “Last week we were blessed by the service. Were you blessed? Let me hear you say, ‘Honk, honk.’” A chorus of car horns sounded.
“Amen!” Bushner said.
Alex Aamodt is the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum.
Image courtesy of NAD Ministerial.
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