WATERTOWN, N.Y. — “Intensive, pastoral, strategic thinking” is necessary to lead during the COVID-19 pandemic, said pastor Mahlon Smith of New Hope Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y.
But he doesn’t have to think about the church’s giving 10 percent of its offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program, the way Southern Baptists work together in local regions and throughout the world.
“That has become part of our DNA. Giving through the Cooperative Program is just part of who we are,” said Smith, who noted the church has several members who have served as missionaries with Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board. “The Cooperative Program is the single most effective and efficient way of doing missions. By our giving, we have a part in the overall missionary enterprise of God’s Kingdom. I tell the people it’s the way our missionaries are able to focus on God’s work rather than their own financial needs.”
Lately Smith also has been telling the New Hope Watertown congregation about the seasons of a tree’s life.
“In the spring you see buds, leaves coming on, a lot of life,” Smith said. “In the winter, the trees are bare. To the untrained eye, there is no life. But the tree’s roots are seeping deeper into the ground, finding nourishment and getting stronger, because in spring the wind will come.
“In this time of our church’s life when we can’t gather together in person, we’re experiencing a deeper growth. God is rooting us into Himself.”
Situated 30 miles south of the Canadian border, Watertown is 317 miles removed from the trauma of New York City, where more than 13,500 have died of COVID-19 as of May 2. Yet the potential weighs on most people, the pastor said.
“The people have really pulled together,” Smith said. “People are more cognizant of one another. With the busyness of life suspended, they are taking more time to come together via the telephone, notes and cards.
“It’s like the church is getting the chance to be the church. It’s the impulse — the calling — God gives us to be the church. I think that’s what’s making our church and many churches stronger. We’re getting back to being more purely focused on the things of God, being a community of followers of Christ, and getting the Gospel into the world that needs the hope of Christ.”
The church has selected a group of 17 who are responsible for keeping in touch each week with their portion of the 200 regular attenders. The pastor posts a five-minute “Morning Hope” devotional message six days a week on the church’s Facebook page, and online Sunday morning sermons have become more creative, with visuals and short videos to engage the audience that has nearly tripled since the pandemic started.
“It’s quite a challenge to pastor a church completely online,” Smith said. “I’ve learned how to conduct meetings by Zoom. It’s been a great experience, how we’ve seen God working in ways we had not expected.”
Sunday school classes and other small group gatherings also take place in a Zoom setting, and the pastor said he expects New Hope Watertown will continue to use Zoom regularly after social distancing requirements are lifted.
“We’re doing a lot of first-time things, doing a lot of already out-of-the-box thinking,” Smith said. “Our youth pastor has been very helpful with social media. There’s a lot of things I’ve had to learn to get up to speed on things.
“I’ve found myself more busy than ever before. I’m having to intensify my pastoral focus, being much more not only intentional but specific. So much of ministry is keeping in contact with people. And preaching to an empty auditorium has been a new experience.”
About half the congregation is affiliated in some way with nearby Fort Drum, the U.S. Army base which is home to the famed 10th Mountain Division.
“When I came in, four years ago, five to six main families already had been there three to four years, and soon they transferred to their next assignment,” Smith said. “Gradually those leadership spots were replenished.”
As a result of the pandemic, New Hope Baptist started recording its membership classes and offering a virtual membership invitation. Through its military connections, the church now has deployed soldiers requesting membership.
“Now I realize this is by design,” the pastor continued. “God has taught this church to depend completely on Him, and it’s modeled to the local congregation to have flexibility. The local congregation, in turn, has provided a home church environment for military personnel and their families who attend or join the church. God has woven together flexibility and stability to make New Hope Baptist Church what it is today.”
One of the church’s ministries on hold during the pandemic is the “Monday Crew,” which involves mostly senior adults on Mondays cleaning, repairing and maintaining the building, with time built in for a mid-morning fellowship.
Another ministry, the church’s “Conservatory,” — individual classes in piano, guitar and drums — has moved to an online setting. This semester was to include vocal music, but it was postponed because of the pandemic.
During this interval when the worship center is not being used, the chairs have been repositioned into spacious groupings of three or four, with wide aisles between each small section.
“I think people will be nervous about, ‘Will it be safe?’ but people are eager to get back to church,” Smith said. “I think this is a watershed moment for this current generation.
“We’re not going to go back to the ways things were. It’s going to be better. We’ve all been forced to get out of our comfort zone and include God in our daily lives.”
Smith said as the pandemic has prevented typical programming and jumpstarted new ways of ministering to each other, the church has become more like the First Century church.
“This was needed. There needed to be a total recalibration of the church at large,” Smith said. “God expanded our comfort zone and whenever God expands our comfort zone, we become content with God and are willing to put up with a larger amount of discomfort because that means we are closer to God and what He wants for us.
“There is really no place in all existence where God is not present. But when God invades our comfort zones, He retrains us to see how much discomfort we are willing to tolerate to achieve the goals He has for us.”
When New Hope Watertown is able to get back full-force into its ongoing ministries — Child Evangelism Fellowship, Urban Missions, Care-Net Pregnancy Center and an orphanage in Haiti — there will be a new spirit of excitement for doing God’s work, the pastor said.
“It’s really the Spirit of God that keeps the church going, and the reliance on Christ,” Smith said. “It’s been inconvenient but what’s going to be the net result? We are becoming quite eager to accept a large measure of discomfort for a greater measure of His presence.”