Nashville, TN (TN Tribune)–When the coronavirus pandemic protocols forced local churches to alter regular in-person services beginning last spring, pastors had to think outside of the box to meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of their congregations.
Kenneth Hill, pastor at Shorter Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said that it was — and still is — hard to counsel and console congregants without being with them. That is especially so for those stricken with illnesses, including the virus, or those mourning the death of a loved one or facing addiction, imprisonment or other trials.
“It’s hard to commiserate and help them,” Hill added. “Some have a family member in a nursing home and can’t visit or even talk to (him or her). It’s a difficult situation when we don’t have access to the people.”
By its very nature, Christianity is all about relationships.
“It’s been a challenge for us to keep going throughout this year,” said Timothy Gaines, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church. “With the church out of sight, we’ve been forced to explore alternative ways to keep the congregation engaged and the flock from scattering.”
Before the lockdown, many predominantly Black local churches had little or no technological footprint. When lockdown hit, pastors jumped into the digital world head first.
Rick Morgan became the new pastor for Church of Christ at Cummins Street on July 1, right in the thick of the pandemic. He quickly found out, as did many other clerics, that technology was a key to keeping everything together.
“We literally hit the ground running,” Morgan said.
The first item was to find a way to worship. With the support of a congregation, Morgan invested in the technology needed to reinvent their ministry all the way down to meeting the minister.
He sent cards out and made phone calls to introduce himself. Then he began drive-in Sunday services in an effort to make contact with at least some of the congregation and provide some sense of normalcy.
With the new equipment, Morgan live streamed the weekly drive-in services until November, when cold weather hit. He then moved the live streaming inside the church. He plans to restart drive-in services in March.
“During this pandemic, we have been forced to take inventory and experiment,” Hill said. “Churches will never be the same again. We’ve been forced to evaluate what we’ve been doing and discovered some things we didn’t need to do.”
Pastors in churches all over the county have now become familiar with using the internet to keep congregations informed and feed their spiritual hunger. Members who weren’t on Facebook and knew nothing about Zoom or YouTube, also rose to the challenge. Adapting to distractions in the congregants’ homes, some clerics realigned the length of their services to under 45 minutes.
As everyone became comfortable with the new arrangements, church leaders noticed some unanticipated developments. More were participating via the internet than during normal services before the pandemic.
The web was reaching congregants who rarely attended services. They could tune in for Sunday morning worship at their convenience. The same was happening with weekly Bible studies.
Gaines said that he’s reaching people he never imagined reaching. Along with people from Williamson and Davidson counties, he has viewers from Alabama, Illinois and other places tuning in.
“I believe God is getting us out of the four walls of the church and stretching us with a global ministry,” he said.
Gaines says that he had 75-100 people in his congregation in March of 2020. Now, 300 or more typically watch his sermons, and many of those also participate in Bible studies during the week — all on the internet.
Hill has had a similar experience.
“Who’d have thought I’d now be a ‘televangelist?’” he said.
Black churches tend to be small, community churches and most aren’t resource rich. Since their doors closed, contributions have declined significantly.
Once again, pastors had to find ways to continue their ministries on a shorter string. Feeding the poor was a ministry that was hit hard, but churches found a way by coordinating with people and organizations outside church walls.
“I can’t imagine our church not being changed by this,” Gaines said. “I don’t know what it’ll look like when we go back. I can’t imagine doing some of the same (old) things the same way,”
Now that technology has found a deeper niche in their churches, pastors say they face another challenge: keeping the church relevant.
They simply can’t let people sit at home and become complacent about their church and their church community.
“Churches are not just physical buildings,” Morgan said. “(God) is reminding us to stay close and build better relationships.”
When they return to in-person services, more reassessing will occur and new possibilities will very likely emerge. Some are already considering adding additional services to the Sunday schedule and continuing online services.
“We’re planning ahead that we can prayerfully come together and not let the virus win,” Morgan said. “We’re not going to let (evil) divide us.”
This story was first reported in the Williamson Herald