This time last month, life was pretty normal. Yes, we were hearing about a global pandemic. But most of us didn’t think it would affect us. I just glanced at my calendar for the second week of March. I attended the Birmingham Metro Baptist Association Pastor’s Conference. We had staff meetings at church. A committee meeting. Prayer meeting on Wednesday. And then things started to happen. First the NBA shut down. Then college basketball shut down at the pinnacle of its season. We all started paying attention.
The first case of COVID-19 was announced in Alabama on Friday, March 13. In just a few days the worldwide pandemic had become a very local concern. As the pastor of a revitalizing church, I realized the decisions we were making would have significant consequences. As I talked to other pastors in similar situations, they echoed my concerns.
The past month has been a whirlwind. We’ve learned new terms like social distancing. We’ve discovered new celebrities who happen to be some really smart physicians and scientists. We have learned how to get along without live sports. Parents have learned that their children’s teachers were telling the truth! And I have made what should have been some not-so-surprising discoveries about the Church.
1. God’s Providence
While many of us found ourselves making last-minute preparations to pivot our churches, God was already working. I talked to one pastor whose church launched their first website in November. Little did they know at the time that the website would become their new church “building.” They didn’t know. But God did!
2. Technological Adaptability
This was a significant concern for me one month ago. We have a lot of senior adults at our church. Would they connect online? And the answer is “Yes, they will.” I have septuagenarians who are active on Facebook. Joining Zoom meetings. People are more open to technology than many thought. As one pastor said, “Their desire for the word has overcome their fear of technology.”
3. Ministry Focus
We may not have our sophisticated programs right now, but we do have the ministry of prayer and the Word. And our churches are discovering that is enough. Pastors are rediscovering this as their primary calling. God has a way of bringing us back to what is truly important.
4. Community Engagement
This is closely related to discovery number three. As one pastor said, “God got us out of the building pretty quickly.” Now we are discovering how to be the church, rather than just going to church. We are engaging our communities. Huffman Baptist Church, where I serve, is the home of a ministry that sews clothing that is distributed through missionaries all over the world. During this pandemic, the ladies of We Sew Love have been providing our local health department with face masks for healthcare providers throughout the county.
As I wrote in a previous article, this very well could be the church’s finest hour. We have been given a box of things and have been told to make it work. Figure it out. And so far it looks like we are. I am hearing from pastors whose church members are stepping up to the creative plate. As one pastor said, “This pandemic is forcing us to think outside of the box.”
6. Increased Ministry Contact
This has been a priority with every pastor I have heard from. Making sure that we are caring and praying for church members. We can not visit with members in person. But we can call. Email. Zoom. FaceTime. One of our church members told me recently, that he and his wife had received four phone calls and ten emails… In one day! I don’t think that happened before the pandemic broke out!
7. Higher Attendance
One pastor shared that a Sunday School class is averaging more Zoom participants than actual participants prior to the pandemic. At our church, we have started having an online prayer service on Wednesday nights. We use Zoom and Facebook Live. On a normal Wednesday night prior to this current crisis, we would have around thirty in attendance. This past Wednesday we topped forty during the event. And the video has a total of 195 views in the past three days. Now, I am aware that all Facebook views are not alike, but still…
8. Less Church Squabbling
Another pastor, who has experienced a significant amount of criticism over the past year, told me that his church has never been more together. Even our associational executive director commented on social media that it seems that conflict is down in our churches. Here’s to that continuing when all of this passes!
9. Leadership Development
In my work with churches I get a lot of behind-the-scenes looks at leadership. And what I have seen in the past month is incredibly encouraging. Leaders who seemed lost before the second week of March have emerged as incredible shepherds. Unfortunately, I have also observed as some leaders have done the opposite. The fires of adversity really do reveal what is inside of us!
Beyond my concerns for my own flock, my greatest concern at the start of this crisis was the health and viability of churches that were already in decline. They tell us that COVID-19 is more deadly for people who have underlying conditions. I have been concerned that it may also be more deadly for churches with underlying conditions. It may be years before we know the full extent of long-term damage, but I am seeing amazing resiliency from so many churches. And I am praying that they may experience revival that leads to revitalization because of this pandemic!
I would love to know what you think. What other discoveries have you made as we walk this path?
Rob Paul is a church revitalization strategist with over three decades of experience serving established Southern Baptist churches in pastoral ministry. He has helped churches in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for His glory. He is currently serving as the senior pastor of Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. To find out more about Rob Paul Ministries and the work of church revitalization, visit http://robpaul.net