The church is closed.
The words I never thought I’d have to say outside of an act of God. Well, we’re in the middle of one and I’ve had to tell my people that the way we’ve been doing church for the past 15 years has to change.
Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of confusion, concern, and even anger. What do you mean church is closed? Don’t you have faith?! Yes. But the church is greater than filling our buildings, and as many have said, the greatest way we can serve out neighbor is to close.
In the intervening days I’ve seen a lot of language around the church in crisis. How is the church going to endure through this crisis? How will this crisis change the church?
Instead, at Salem Chapel, we’ve been trying to change the way we look at this season. As the church works to understand and engage the gravity of the suffering and loss around the globe, I’d argue that we are best served by seeing this season as a catalyst. By catalyst, I simply mean change; the process by which some event substantively and irrevocably changes reality.
This experience has and is going to change us. We are going to be different on the other side, and so the church needs to think critically about how to respond proactively and productively. We need to keep our eyes fixed on the gospel mission, even as the world around us turns inward and self-protection.
In this spirit, I want to offer three catalyst question we are asking at Salem Chapel and how we have answered those questions in this new environment. This is not comprehensive by any stretch. Many people in our churches are taking the lead in projects I will only hear about afterward but are having significant kingdom impact today. But these are a few of our initiatives that I’d encourage you and your organization to consider as you think through these questions.
Catalyst Question #1: How are we gathering together for church service?
This is the most significant question most churches are grappling with this week. Some will be hosting online services for the first time in their history, others have streamed live services but never really given thought to tailoring their messages and delivery to an online audience.
At Salem, we are part of this move to online church and in thinking through this catalyst question we had four critical responses:
- Developing a new platform
One thing this pandemic has taught us is how we can take for granted our buildings and services as platforms to proclaim the gospel and minister to people. No longer able to gather, we’re left trying to figure out how to cobble together new platforms online. But the immediate question is what to use? Facebook? Zoom? Skype? Carrier Pigeons? The choices are overwhelming and pastors don’t want to make a mistake out of the gate and alienate their people against the transition.
In response, we’ve turned to churchonlineplatform.com. It’s a free online program that allows viewers to comment, ask for prayer, and indicate they desire to trust Christ as their Savior. You can establish hosts that are able to monitor this engagement and reach out to people during the service while others focus on the content.
- Adapting a new method
While technology has changed some aspects of church, the bulk of our ministries have largely remained unchanged in generations. Welcome, Worship, Message, Worship, Farwell—all within a span of roughly 75 minutes. Small groups and various other ministries each take days or nights throughout the week to round out the majority of how we engage. Now we have to rethink this method in terms of time,
So, while many of the elements of our online gatherings are similar to the traditional methods, we are adapting wherever possible to take advantage of the online medium. We are scaling down production to emphasize the intimacy of worship, focusing familiar songs that will remind our people that God’s church has and will endure.
We are emphasizing interactive scripture reading, having people post in chat verses that have meant a lot to them with the video leader reading out a few as time allows. We set out intentional guided prayer times and invite leaders to pray over the church from their homes. Finally, we have shortened the preaching to 20 minutes, recognizing that attention spans for digital content are shorter.
In all, we’ve shortened the meetings to no longer than 45 minutes while offering more meetings throughout the week for people to take breaks and check in. While I anticipate some might scoff at this, we want to emphasize adaptation with the aim of seeing greater overall impact in and for the people God throughout the week.
- Modeling a new setting
While our people are regularly accustomed to high quality production in our Sunday morning services and various weekly ministries, we have decided to intentionally scale down these efforts. Our thought process has been to reflect the context in which many of our people are engaging us: their living rooms. Through mimicking the environments of our average people, we want to model to them this experience of “doing” church in quarantine. Small, intimate, and networked.
While for some churches continuing in regular production quality is the right move, we have found our people are responding to this move and engaging enthusiastically in worship, prayer, and time in the Word.
Moreover, by modeling it to them, we have shown that they can take the initiative in reaching out their friends and family to likewise prayer and read scripture on their own time. In doing so, we’ve been able to encourage people to invite those who aren’t Christian and the de-churched to join not only our primary gatherings but their own.
In essence, we have strived to create a service that is replicable across our community.
- Embracing a spirit of new
A critical piece for leaders and laity alike to remember in this time is to have grace as you find what works best for you and your church. Not all churches are the same and we shouldn’t expect to nail everything on the first try. If something doesn’t work make, learn what you can and try something new.
In this spirit, be ready to mix up the platforms, methods, and settings as you try to find new ways to keep your people connected. Only a few days in and we are already talking about the “rut of redundancy,” throwing the same thing at our people and pushing our people to fatigue.
This is critical: beware of over-saturation! We don’t know how long it will be before we can gather in person again so we do not want to push too much content out at once and overload the church to where it becomes ‘white noise.’
Instead, try elevating others in your church as a change in voice. Use testimonies of God at work among your people, invite experts in different fields to share how they live out their faith, and give platforms for medical works to share insights into how to prepare and to pray. In each, remember that your people are being bombarded with information so don’t be afraid to intentionally encourage a break.
It was in one our meetings thinking about shaking up the regular online gathering that we discussed the idea of a “drive-in” format for Easter. We are now putting plans into place for people to drive to the church parking lot and for us to conduct the service on our roof. While plans might change as we listen to medical experts, it marked an important step in embracing the spirit of new and thinking creatively.
Catalyst Question #2: How are we caring for people in the church?
One of the most important ways we can care for people in our church is to focus on equipping parents. Often taken for granted, teachers and youth pastors have seen their stock go through the roof in the past week as parents grapple with homeschooling and round the clock care.
We care deeply about the children in our church and the community as seen through the emphasis we place on children and youth ministry. This care needs to translate now to equipping parents to do the work of ministry and daily care.
To help facilitate this, we are helping parents understand our children’s curriculum and how to use it throughout the week. The old routines of daily school or youth nights are gone, and just like we have to adapt our Sunday morning schedules, we need to help parents adapt their family routines.
Thinking through this catalyst question, we created a Facebook group for families with children to tell us what they need and to share ideas of what worked and didn’t work. Our pastor and ministry leaders are jumping into this discussion with suggestions and to help construct new routines that fit the flow of the new reality for quarantined families.
Oftentimes, providing a space to voice frustration and find commonality with others is a critical first step.
We have also worked to develop a routine around new events for families to gather and engage from their homes. Whether it’s a worship night or a family-oriented devotional led by an elder or pastor, we’re hoping that even after these precautions are over, that some of these tools will endure.
Outside of families, we’ve also worked to move our ministries to online formats. Our small groups have moved to zoom and we’ve intentionally reached out to those in our church not connected to small groups to try and help them make a connection in what otherwise might be a very disconnected season.
What we’ve found is that some who may shrink at the idea of joining a small group in person are ready to take the step of logging onto a zoom call.
Our counseling director is hosting Wednesday night question and answers to help those with questions or concerns. Whether it’s struggling about God’s presence in the midst of uncertainty or suffering or finding tools for coping with social isolation, he has been able to bring a biblical perspective to the frustrations and fears of our people through interactive discussion.
Finally, we’ve set up a care fund where our people can either donate or ask for supplies. At this time, the church needs to step in to coordinate not only for their people but the surrounding community.
While we’ve found that people have a desire to serve and give, they can feel powerless in not knowing where the need is most pressing. At the same time, there are many who are scared to go to the grocery store or doctor’s office, and often it is the simple and easy task of dropping of supplies that makes the difference. Churches should be active in using their websites and meetings to facilitate this need.
Catalyst Question #3: How are we reaching out to the community?
In the midst of uncertainty and confusion, it is natural for people to focus on themselves and their families. However, Jesus commands us to go out into the world with the good news of salvation. We are an evangelistic people.
In other words, a significant piece of our identity is in the proclamation and modeling of the power of the gospel. This identity means that when others are fleeing and isolating, we are entering into the sufferings of others and bearing their burdens.
A critical first step here is getting our own people to focus less on their own anxieties and instead on the needs of others. We must recognize that this season is, as Paul prayed for in Colossians 4, a door for the word to declare the mystery of Christ.
Already, this crisis has softened people’s hearts to hear the gospel, forcing people to confront their morality. Moreover, there is a tangible need in our community for supplies and care that we cannot ignore or downplay.
So in considering this catalyst question, we have focused on how we can directly engage the most vulnerable or neglected portions of our community.
Even as we carefully abide by the necessary restrictions put into place by the government, we looked for partnerships we could forge across the community. We reached out to Meals-on-Wheels and found they needed drivers to deliver hot meals to seniors who are not comfortable leaving.
We also engaged H.O.P.E. (Help Our People Eat) and Forsyth Backpack Program, two services that have traditionally helped produce and deliver meals to families on the weekend that otherwise depend on the school system for meals. With schools closing, there was a greater need for support than ever and both enthusiastically responded.
Through each partnership as well as reorienting our own ministries, we have found many ‘doors’ for sharing the gospel. God is building his church in the midst of this crisis for those who have the faith and courage. We are taught in scripture that the gates of hell cannot stand against God’s church. It should be no surprising then that a virus stands no chance in slowing the message of life in Jesus Christ.
Johnny Pereira is the Senior Pastor at Salem Chapel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.