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Nebraska church endures ‘despite the painful losses of COVID’

LifeSpring Church has an ongoing relationship with a church in Honduras, which helps more than 100 children.

BELLEVUE, Neb. – “We’re just an ordinary church that wasn’t going to let COVID kill us,” Pastor Steve Holdaway says about LifeSpring Church in Metro Omaha. “COVID set me free from numbers.”

Despite weekly online services, the church lost two-thirds of its congregation during the four months it wasn’t able to meet in 2020. As a result, it shifted priorities, scrapped plans for a building program and examined everything the church was doing in order to maintain a clear focus on core purposes.

Adding to the church’s challenges, at any point in time, about half the congregation is rotating in and out from a two- to three-year stint at Offutt Air Force Base, the nation’s offensive Joint Armed Forces nuclear headquarters.

“Things are always going to look different from the past,” says Pastor Steve Holdaway. “Keep watching for God to open doors.”

“When we started back in July of 2020, we only had about one-third of our previous numbers overall, and our children’s ministry was decimated,” Holdaway told Baptist Press. “We went from two hours of kids’ Sunday School, to one, and our kids’ numbers plummeted from about 350 to 50. Parents did not want their kids in a classroom with COVID risk.

“I led the church to fight back and not have a COVID victim mentality,” the pastor continued. “We were not going to allow the COVID pandemic and the resulting low attendance and loss of members thwart what God wanted us to do locally and globally.”

Sunday morning worship pre-pandemic at LifeSpring was about 1,200 in two worship services. It dropped to 430 in 2021, 579 in 2022, and now is about 750 in person, plus 200 regular online attenders.

“What encourages me is that COVID did not win,” Holdaway said. “Even though the numbers still are not what they were, we are still building back and God is giving the increase.

“There are people who are just gone,” the pastor acknowledged. “It was a separating, a great cleansing that took place because of COVID. We had to reinvent ourselves and we’re still doing that, and God is honoring it.”

The church’s commitment to missions through the Cooperative Program never faltered, because “I believe in the Cooperative Program,” Holdaway said. “I think it’s a way of taking the offerings of God’s people that they know will go to Kingdom causes without having to micromanage the dollars. It’s so nice to know we don’t have to do that. We know it will be managed well.”

LifeSpring allocates 6 percent of its budget for the Cooperative Program, the way Southern Baptists work together globally, and 3 percent to its association, the Heartland Baptist Network. The church is the largest giver in the Kansas-Nebraska Southern Baptist Convention for Southern Baptists’ missions offerings.

The church over the years has added three satellite churches and started churches in three states as well as Zambia, in addition to several local ministry endeavors. When virtually every local outreach was curtailed during the pandemic, the church looked for new opportunities overseas. It funded the construction and equipping of a Christian primary school in South Sudan that today has 450 students, and a Honduran village church that provides for the needs of 111 youngsters.

Other community supports include a benevolence program, work in Habitat for Humanity’s repair projects in old town Bellevue, a food pantry, and Freeway Ministries, which reaches people on the streets, to get them get them freed from substance abuse and back to their families.

Located just three miles from Offutt’s main gate, the church supports the Air Force base’s chaplains and ministers to many of its 8,200 constantly transitioning military personnel and 18,000 dependents.

“Many of them come in as high-level leaders, officers and enlisted personnel,” Holdaway said. “Many know they are only going to be there two to three years. We invest in them, involve them in a Life Group, to be trained to disciple people and to serve.

“Military families have unique challenges we try to be sensitive to, such as deployments, three months at a time,” the pastor continued. “We try to cooperate with the base and help their chaplains, and we’ve done marriage and other seminars on the base.”

A $6.2 million expansion campaign to add 10,000 square feet to LifeSpring’s main campus was relaunched last December, with groundbreaking set for Sept. 3. The addition is to include a new children’s area and an expansive foyer, because, “Another result of COVID: People need space. They don’t want to be touching each other,” the pastor said. And, “Our children were crowded before COVID, and we believe God is going to build us back.”

“Things are always going to look different from the past,” Holdaway said. “Keep watching for God to open doors. Fight back for the Kingdom. Don’t give up. Keep trusting the process. God will honor that. Keep pressing on; don’t give up. Don’t compare to other churches. And the greatest thing for me: Free yourself from this fixation on numbers.

“Despite the painful losses of COVID – the deaths in our church family, the loss of members who just ‘disappeared,’ the harmful effect on children’s and student ministries, and the killing of some programs – God won! He continues to win. We are more flexible these days. We are focusing on what really matters most: making disciples, one person at a time. That’s freedom!”

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.