I can still hear the music spilling from storefront churches on Sunday mornings, smoke billowing from the Caribbean restaurants cooking their jerk chicken and the consistent chaos of jumping on and off subway trains.
Woven into our culture is a consistent grind that fits well with the NYC nickname, “The City That Never Sleeps.”
Brooklynites in particular have a uniquely prideful ego—feelings of invincibility, constantly busy, always going somewhere, always working or hustling for the next job, and always in search of the next big event.
If you would’ve told me a month ago that Brooklyn would be brought to a screeching halt, I could never have believed it!
Here are a few especially unpreferred conditions for young New Yorkers, many of whom make up our church population: a city in panic, financial insecurities, and logistical limitations. Coincidentally, all of these have filled recent broadcasts as the COVID-19 crisis set up its pandemic epicenter in the cultural capital that is New York City.
The updates came quickly and often without warning or clarity, leaving many pastors and churches (including mine) scrambling, trying to figure out how to adjust to the nationally suggested guidelines and local directives—it’s been like building and flying the plane at the same time.
With these thoughts consuming our staff and elder meetings, beacons of hope have begun to emerge from the darkness; we’ve stopped merely looking at the problems and started looking at opportunities ahead.
Opportunities for individuals to serve their neighbors in a much more tangible way, for families to create healthier rhythms of rest and devotion, and for the church to digitally enter into homes previously outside our reach.
One deficiency exposed by the COVID-19 crisis has been the need for community in our neighborhoods—in a city where residents squeeze as tightly into apartment buildings as we do into subway cars, this period of social distancing has allowed us the opportunity to become neighbors again.
In order to serve those who are most vulnerable, our local church put out a challenge called “The Love Is Real,” which encourages our membership towards imaginative ways of serving those in need. This could be food shopping for the elderly or sick, or supporting local businesses online that have had to close their physical locations. For us, this is walking out Jeremiah 29:7 which says, “Seek the welfare of the city, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Since mid-March, a majority of New Yorkers have become shut in with perhaps a spouse and possibly children. With apartments averaging 866 square feet, this can present unique challenges! As a church, we have tried to help families process the opportunities that these challenges present.
With no commute times to work and no extra activities outside of the house, we have more time to connect as families, spend time doing family devotions and even get ahead on spring cleaning.
Our church also has a lot of singles which are shut in alone. To combat loneliness, my wife and I have done what we call “family check-ins” where we have hosted live social media chats to interact with people who have been stuck in the house all week.
As a church, we are also producing daily devotionals to help people in their walk with the Lord as another avenue to help everyone find healthier rhythms of rest.
Brooklyn is a section of New York City so saturated with churches it holds the nickname “Borough of Churches,” with congregations seemingly on almost every block. This, however, is another unfortunate example that being close in proximity doesn’t equate to unity.
The gap in generational, ethnic, and theological differences has always existed as somewhat of a deterrence, but one bright light in this stormy season has been the opportunity for a unified church to show strength in mutual learning.
The blessing of pastoring a young church is witnessing its innovation with technology, and circumstances like these highlight multigenerational teachable moments. Most older churches in our neighborhood are suffering due to lack of technological savviness, and with no capability of engaging their membership, they’ve had to close.
Churches like ours should be willing to humbly help older churches set up online ways to give financially, teach ways to stream services to members who are home, and encourage the use of social media to engage younger generations.
We’ve had to make our own unprecedented changes in the past month as we’ve moved all meetings, small groups, and Sunday gatherings online, so we can empathize in the experience of navigating through uncharted territory. The methods have changed but the goal still remains: to reach lost people—now, however, we can do it in ways that make Jesus even more accessible.
In challenging times like these, there is also wisdom for our young congregation to gain from the experience, endurance, and longevity of churches that have persevered through things like slavery, segregation, and civil rights.
We can learn from institutions like the Bridge Street AME Church, which was organized in 1766 and documented as the oldest continuing black congregation in the Brooklyn-Long Island area, and sits just blocks away from our church.
There is no government-mandated or scientifically-proven end date to this crisis. Varying forecasts say there could be many months ahead of us, and as local churches that are prayerfully considering our roles in this season, Jesus continues to bless his bride with endurance, innovation, and sustainability.
The realization that our church may not be able to meet every need doesn’t stop us from meeting some needs, but it takes prayer, discernment, and swift action.
I’d encourage all my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to consider the creative possibilities we have in this season to reignite our sense of community, learn to embrace this break from our daily routines, and to engage lost people with the good news via technology. We have opportunities in front of us to be salt and light in the midst of darkness, and the darker the season, the brighter the light of Christ can shine.
Brandon Watts is Lead Pastor of Epiphany Church Brooklyn.