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FIRST-PERSON: One church’s COVID-19 story

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NASHVILLE (BP) – Over the past several months I have been repeatedly asked, “Are you guys (the church) meeting in person? And, how are you guys doing?” My answer is always the same. Yes, we are meeting for in-person worship. And yes, by God’s grace, we are doing remarkably well. These questions caused me to rethink our story as we approach the one-year anniversary of what I call “the year of our discontent.” Here’s our story.

With the onset of COVID-19 our last in-person worship service was Sunday, March 8, 2020. We began online worship Sunday, March 15. The first three weeks had just preaching/teaching, with our able tech team assisting in broadcasting these sessions on our YouTube and Facebook pages. We added music on April 5, provided by our excellent worship team, who joined me in an empty room every Sunday morning for weeks of faithful leadership to an online church family. We held at this pattern for 12 weeks.

Then, beginning Sunday, May 31, 2020, we moved to two identical in-person worship services with music and preaching – 9:30 and 10:45. We remained at two services for 23 weeks. In the meantime, we added ministry to children on July 12, offered during the 10:45 worship time. We combined all children into one space and allowed for social distancing by clearing out the fellowship hall. It was a sort of “one room school house” for grades pre-K through sixth. This allowed us to control spacing and cleaning protocols. Nursery ministries were added as well. Later we divided the school-age children into two age-graded groups and have remained in this arrangement since.

To date we have remained simple and streamlined by offering Sunday morning worship only. We have yet to offer small group Bible studies or Wednesday night activities. We have intentionally avoided putting people into small groups in isolated class rooms where social distancing is a challenge. We believe this is why we have not had any super-spreader events. We have resisted creating the conditions for a super-spreader event.

We have always aired our Sunday morning worship services on our YouTube Channel and our Facebook page, so that aspect of ministry was not new. However, it became critically important to those who did not feel comfortable in returning for in-person worship. We made it clear from the outset that there was no pressure to attend when we relaunched in-person worship. We repeatedly encouraged people to stay home if they were sick or thought they may have been exposed to the virus, or if they simply were not comfortable coming. No harm, no foul, no guilt.

We remained at two services until Nov. 8, when we moved to one in-person worship service at 10:15. Ministry to students returned Jan. 1, 2021, with in-person Bible study at 9 a.m., made possible by their large, safe meeting place.

Each week, prior to in-person worship services, all surfaces, door handles, and pews are wiped down. We purchased a fogger and the entire building is fogged with an anti-virus mist on Saturdays just before our maintenance man leaves for the day. The church often smells like a hospital. This process is repeated on Monday morning after a weekend of in-person worship. From the very first in-person meeting after the shutdown, we provided baggies with masks and gloves at each entrance, along with hand sanitizer.

Did we have any members contract COVID-19? Yes. But though we can’t be certain, we believe that no one has caught it at church. Fewer than 20 of our members have contracted the virus thus far, most with mild cases. A few have had serious cases but are recovering.

We are thankful that because of the attendance patterns of the individuals who contracted the virus, we never had to cease in-person worship. In fact, we hope very soon to slowly add more study, fellowship and ministry opportunities as the COVID-19 numbers in our city continue to improve.

Have we been able to do ministry during this season? Yes! We have continued to hand out food boxes to hundreds of people through the good work of a small, but faithful group of individuals who faithfully and safely pick up food and set up a “drive-by” food pick-up system. The drive-by event happens once a month, while we also continue to hand out food boxes during the week on an as needed basis.

We also were able to gather enough materials to send out 833 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. We have baptized a few new believers, shared the Lord’s Supper together multiple times, collected 55 winter coats for the homeless, ordained a man to the Gospel ministry and exceeded our $10,000 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions by nearly $2,000. We even had Vacation Bible School, conducted on five consecutive Sunday mornings beginning the first week of June 2020. We will repeat VBS in this fashion for 2021.

While in-person attendance has hovered around 40 percent of normal, online viewership of our Sunday morning services and Wednesday night Facebook Live episodes has increased dramatically.

Financially, it has been a remarkable year. We not only exceeded our missions giving goal, but we did not have to slash our budget. Our people gave 90-plus percent of our 2020 budget goal.

Most important, the sweetness and intensity of our worship services has been remarkable. And the church’s prayer ministry is at an all-time high. In other words, we have been the church during this pandemic year. We hope to very soon add back only those things that are essential to the life of the body of Christ.

What have we learned?

  1. That God is good, sovereign, and in control. Not even the smallest molecule is out from under His control, including this deadly virus.
  2. That less can be more when done with excellence.
  3. That the Word is enough (Matthew 4:1-4).
  4. That prayer is essential and primary (Acts 4:31).
  5. That much of the busy work we were doing as a church prior to COVID-19 is good, but not essential. What God requires is essential – the Word, worship, prayer, ministry and intentional fellowship (Acts 2:42).
  6. That God’s people, the faithful people of God, will rise to the occasion when challenged.
  7. That if by “getting back to normal” after the virus subsides you mean that we go back to the humdrum, go-along-to-get-along attitude that marked much of church life prior to the advent of the virus – if that’s what you mean by normal – then we don’t want to go back to that. We want to take what we have learned and put more effort into the mission of the church than into the comfort of our habits, routines or “churchy” schedules (Revelation 2:1-7).
  8. That we gather for teaching, worship, and fellowship; we scatter for ministry in our neighborhoods (Acts 8:4-8).

Ultimately, we have learned that COVID-19 has been God’s way of getting our attention, of making us more dependent on Him, and of reminding us that true ministry is not in the “church house” but in the mission field. We have learned that God will use whatever it takes to get us out of the salt shaker and into the world (Matthew 9:35-38).

Kevin Shrum is pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville.

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  • Kevin Shrum