PITTSBURGH (BP) – Alongside the centrality of the Gospel, a church’s sense of community ranks high in priority for those involved or searching for a place of worship. So how do you maintain that when your people don’t share the same physical space?
Renaissance Church in Pittsburgh faced that situation last year alongside other congregations when COVID concerns led to remote gathering. As others rejoined for in-person worship, though, a combination of governmental restrictions, space availability and safety concerns forced Renaissance into somewhat of a holding pattern. For 52 straight Sundays, the seven-year-old congregation essentially became multi-site with small groups scattered among homes, joining together virtually.
“Community” just means more in this city, said Rob Maine, Renaissance Church’s founding pastor.
“It’s very neighborhood-driven,” he said. The current 20-minute drive for many church members to their temporary home – the North American Mission Board Send Relief ministry center in Pittsburgh – takes them from their neighborhood. A church’s physical presence is crucial in this region that reflects a heavily Catholic culture.
“When everything shut down, we were averaging around 220 on Sundays,” Maine said. “Then just like that, we had nowhere to gather.”
When the church began to meet again, the scramble to maintain some continuity placed attendees in a handful of homes throughout the city. A separate house served as a “staging area” for those leading the service. Zoom served as the platform for them to sing songs, listen to the sermon and retain a sense of connection.
“Our gatherings are highly participatory,” Maine said. As such, the liturgy and songs always reflect his message. A passage on Matthew 6:1-9, for example, would focus on themes such as prayer, the attributes of God and His kingdom. Other segments include a call to worship, corporate as well as individual confession and an assurance of peace as told through a Scripture passage.
The confession and assurance time precedes the Passing of the Peace – a welcome time when members and guests greet each other. “Now that we have peace with God, we’re able to have peace with each other,” Maine said.
On March 8, Renaissance found another place to gather, but only 50 people could be there at a time. Not long after that, a sister church invited them to use space in its building. That’s where they meet now. Plans are for Renaissance to be able to re-enter its pre-COVID meeting space in March 2022.
In the meantime, Maine and church leaders have learned to find the growth within the grind. Renaissance hasn’t been immune to the discussion points other churches have faced over the last year, whether that be politics, vaccines or masks. However, there have been examples of those finding a purpose within their community.
“While some experiences weren’t enjoyable, they made us healthier in our relationship with the Lord,” Maine said. “Growth doesn’t come without suffering. It’s part of sanctification.
“God has given us great hope for the future. We’ve installed more deacons during COVID than any of the months before and seen others rise as elders. People want to grow in the Gospel, to disciple and evangelize others. When I look around at who has remained, I see a deeper desire to know Jesus and to love others.”
Leadership has been able to provide clarity – where to meet, what that would look like, general plans for during the shutdown and beyond. However, certainty had to come from somewhere else. And it started with those giving themselves in service.
“Keep equipping the saints,” Maine encouraged other pastors. “That’s what we’re called to do.”
At Renaissance Church, giving toward benevolence has increased. New ministries have popped up that elders support, but didn’t create. The laity did. Many things may be familiar when the church regathers at its old location in March, but many will be different.
Community may refer to a neighborhood. But in actuality, it means a whole lot more.