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Memphis church thrives during COVID-19, eyes 2021 for onsite worship

Impact Baptist Church & Ministries Pastor Michael Ellis Sr., far right, hosted the church’s 2020 annual Best in Blue program in appreciation of law enforcement officials weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Submitted photo

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP) — Impact Baptist Church & Ministries of Memphis has so thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic that Pastor Michael Ellis Sr. sees no reason to resume onsite worship before 2021.

“I get this call from pastors all the time asking me what we’re going to do, and I say, ‘Hey look, our attendance is up and our offering is up. You tell me what you think we’re going to do,’” he said. “My word to everybody is we’re going back when it’s safe for our people, and it’s not safe for them now.

Impact Baptist Church & Ministries of Memphis, Tenn., distributes two weeks’ worth of groceries twice a month to families in need. Submitted photo

“I don’t think we’re going to go back before the new year. I really don’t. I think we’re going to continue to worship online.”

Impact Baptist, which drew about 200 people to Sunday worship before the pandemic, has received as many as 2,300 or more Facebook views of individual worship services and an additional $600 a month in offerings, has launched three new outreaches and has continued established ministries, Ellis told Baptist Press. Ellis finds the changes impactful for the church of about 325 members he planted in 2006 through Bellevue Baptist Church.

The only downside he has experienced is the inability to fellowship in person with members and guests.

“The building that we worship in is just the building where the church worships. We’re the church. So no matter where we are, we’re worshiping,” Ellis said. “I think worship is a spiritual thing and not a physical thing.

“… The downside obviously is [not] being able to have personal fellowship with the new people that you come in contact with. It’s just something that’s special about that fellowship time with them, because you just get to know one another. So we have to improvise with that.”

Ellis uses what he calls “Zoom opportunities” to reclaim some of the benefits of fellowship lost. Meetings, small groups, Bible studies, panel discussions and worship services utilize livestreamed Zoom sessions to include more participants on screen, in an attempt to discourage a sense of isolation. Sunday school classes are Zoom livestreamed on Wednesday evenings. Members participate in Sunday morning worship from their individual homes through a variety of input including solos, Scripture reading, leading prayer and performing liturgical dances with household members.

“And then myself or one of our ministers will preach the message, with everybody watching on Facebook and the participants in the Zoom room livestreamed to Facebook,” he said.

In a July 26 Table Talk panel discussion, Impact Baptist Church & Ministries Outreach Pastor Charles Caswell, upper left, leads a discussion of community programs available to help families during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Submitted photo

Several new ministries have been launched during the pandemic, including weekly Facebook “Table Talk” panel discussions and interviews on pertinent topics, onsite psychological counseling offered in partnership with the University of Tennessee, and onsite childhood immunizations provided in partnership with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Established ministries continue with adjustments to prevent the spread of COVID-19, all housed from the Impact Ministry Center adjacent to the church’s worship center. A thrift store and currency-free baby store are open by appointment. Instead of cash, mothers “buy” baby supplies with points accumulated by keeping doctors’ appointments.

Two Saturdays each month, 18-wheelers deliver food that is placed on pallets in the church parking lot, bagged and loaded into car trunks as recipients remain in their cars. In partnership with a healthcare group, the church delivers food to elderly residents sheltered in their homes. By appointment, bags of food are left at elderly residents’ front doors for residents to retrieve.

“All of that is tied together,” Ellis said. “All of that is like a continuum of care that, if somebody comes for food, they may need something for a baby, or they may need some clothes. They may need some counseling. It’s all a sense of continual care.”

Social distancing, hand sanitizing, masks and gloves are utilized. Families provide information allowing the church to follow up and share the Gospel. Thrift and baby store shoppers are asked to connect with a local church.

Ellis members of Impact Baptist have responded well to the adjustments. While there have been positive cases of COVID-19 among church members, he said no cases are believed linked to church activities. Also, some members have lost jobs during the related economic downturn.

“They appreciate us not rushing back, and they’ve verbally told us that. ‘We thank you Pastor Mike, we thank you church for thinking of our health, and not thinking of collecting offerings and having numbers and filling the building up. But we thank you for thinking of us,'” Ellis said. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

He’s waiting for COVID-19 treatment therapies to improve and for a vaccine to be developed, approved and widely used. Impact Baptist makes many decisions through a church board comprising all Impact ministry directors, but Ellis said he is expected to lead the church in choosing when to resume onsite worship.

“I feel strongly that it’s not going to happen until the beginning of the year,” Ellis said Tuesday (Aug. 11). “In terms of going back, that’s something that the church has put on me as a senior pastor to lead the way in that decision-making.

“I know every church doesn’t function like that, and I understand that. But that’s what’s so wonderful about our churches in Southern Baptist [life]; every church is fully autonomous. We function how it’s best for us to accomplish the mission that our individual church needs to accomplish.”