OWENSBORO, Ky. (BP) – Pleasant Grove Baptist Church stared down COVID-19 and never blinked.
Oh, they respected the disease that has put a stranglehold on the world, wearing masks and keeping a proper distance from each other. But they didn’t let COVID define them or even slow them down.
They made the adjustments and let God do the rest, according to new pastor Jonathan Bonar.
“I feel like it’s just a move of God really,” he said.
The Owensboro church has finished building a new $2.5 million sanctuary, hired a pastor, nearly doubled weekly giving and added dozens of new members – all during the past six months when “COVID” became the most frightening word in the world.
Sunday morning attendance has grown from 320 in June to 477 Sept. 13. Two months ago, Bonar became the church’s first pastor in nearly two years, and his leadership came at a critical time as COVID-19 made decisions for churches more difficult by the day.
The confirmation from God that he received was eye-opening, too, making it obvious to him that he was sent for such a time as this.
On the day he delivered his trial sermon, Bonar received 100 percent of the vote after the morning session. His wife Cathryn was so sure the call from the church was coming that she made a call to a realtor – from the front row pew in the church – to put a bid on a home that was perfect for their family even before her husband spoke a second time. He received 100 percent of that vote too.
That hasn’t happened ever in the church’s 185-year history.
As for how the church has attacked COVID-19, the new pastor said they have done it with extreme caution but not fear.
“I think we’ve tried to be respectful of COVID sensitivities but not allowed it to keep us from pushing aggressively for the Great Commission and reaching people,” he said. “It’s been a delicate ballet of being careful and doing some of the things we’ve done in the past.”
The pastor said it was a “Genesis 50 thing, when Joseph told his brothers, ‘What the enemy meant for evil, God meant for good.’”
Rather than cancel them, the church made adjustments to longtime outreaches like a t-ball baseball league that normally reaches about 500 families.
“We weren’t able to have as many kids as we normally do,” Bonar said. But the outreach was effective.
“We gave them a taste of the children’s ministry for kids, led them into some crazy worship and said, ‘Hey! Come join us!’ We were able to reach many families through that program.”
The lesson, Bonar said, was that while it may not look exactly like it did before COVID, the programs that were successful can still be done with some creativity. That creativity was on display in the church’s handling of face masks.
“We ask everyone to wear masks,” he said. “At first, we had a little concern from people about it. We had a mask competition in church. Who could have the best masks? The leaders of the church began taking pictures and the deacons judged. We gave away a prize to a child and an adult with the best mask. We were trying to have fun with it. Those people who were upset about it or didn’t want to do it felt like they were missing out because everybody was having fun and laughing.”
The church also added services to allow social distancing in the sanctuary. Numbers have grown to the point that church leaders are considering adding an additional service.
“We’ve had a great balance of being careful and mindful of the pandemic, but at the same time we were motivated and aggressively pushing forward and not just waiting and sitting back,” Bonar said. “We’re doing some of the same things, just in a different way. …
“How do you make it very safe for people to feel comfortable in church? No handouts, open every door for them. And we have reinforced online giving, and our giving has gone through the roof too. We had it but we weren’t giving it any oxygen or talking about it.”
The weekly donations have nearly doubled, he said, adding: “God is doing something supernatural. It can’t be traced to men. He provides the wave; we just steward that momentum and ride that wave as long as we can.”