It is late April, 2020. and in North America we’ve been grappling with the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus and its impact on all aspects of our society. Schools are closed, many business as well, and churches in most states are not able to carry out corporate worship or Bible study in person. We are under “shelter in place” restrictions and “social distancing” regulations that keep us physically apart and drive many of us to online interaction for work and to connect with family and friends. It is an unprecedented experience for us all, and it is radically impacting the fields of both education and church ministry. We’re all using social media technology like never before.
As someone concerned about and involved in the church’s teaching ministries, I want to offer a few observations on discipleship efforts during a time of pandemic. We are still in the midst of the challenges at this time, with churches scrambling to adjust their ministry efforts to changing needs around them and changing opportunities and regulations on what we can and cannot do. Within a month or two it is likely that much will have changed and there may be new challenges that we face. But, before the scene shifts too much, I find it helpful to take time to think about what we are seeing happen, and the ministry implications of what we are experiencing. Here are a few simple observations I wanted to share, in no particular order.
1. The necessity of training in media technology for ministry leaders.
As the pandemic has gone on, and “shelter in place” has been the rule of the day, online social media has been used in ministry like never before. Churches around the world are holding virtual worship services online, either videoed ahead of time or live-streamed. Adult Bible studies and small groups are being held on Zoom and other video-conference software apps. Ministry team meetings are done online, prayer services likewise. Children’s educational programs are using materials available online to teach Scripture and engage children in a range of learning activities done on their home computer, tablet or smartphone. Youth groups are gathering students online for Bible studies, prayer and sharing games together. We have been forced to think outside the box, outside the physical gathering of our people, and ask, “How can we continue to encourage the discipleship of our people when we cannot be together in the same room?” It will be essential that those preparing to lead in educational ministry, whatever the age group, to become familiar with ways of teaching and fostering supportive fellowship through media technology.
2. The impact of ongoing “virtual” personal connection with those we teach.
I help lead an adult Bible study group at our church. We call them “ABCs,” Adult Bible Communities. My group is mostly people in their 50s and 60s, sometimes called the “sandwich generation,” due to being caught in the middle of concerns and care for children, grandchildren, and aging parents. What this means is that on a given Sunday morning, up to half of our regular attendees may be absent due to family responsibilities of one kind or another, often out of town or out of state. I wondered what the impact of the COVID-19 virus would have on our group attendance and if we might need to cancel our group meetings. Much to my surprise, I have seen a significant increase in attendance as we moved our study group online and shifted focus to be more of a time for sharing and prayer and sermon discussion. An added blessing is that some of our church’s missionaries have joined us for some sessions, allowing us time to hear an update from them and pray for them. On Easter Sunday, we typically don’t have our class meet, assuming everyone will want to attend the worship service and then head home for time celebrating with their families. However, when we discussed this, everyone wanted to meet on Easter as well and we had near record attendance that day. The next Sunday we did have record attendance. Everyone has been eager to see and hear from each other, share and pray together, and connect with someone outside their own home. My wife, Patty, and I have also been calling everyone in the group once a week to check on health and needs, and this has been deeply appreciated as well.
3. The potential of sermon discussion for deeper learning and application together.
When the “shelter in place” orders were given in our county and state, many of our Bible study leaders weren’t ready to shift their teaching or leading Bible studies online. However, with the opportunity to have everyone view and participate in the online worship and then immediately gather as a class through Zoom, it did make it possible to take some time to reflect further on the sermon and discuss it, review the Scripture passage(s) together, and consider the challenges of the passages for our lives. Many churches have had sermon discussion in small groups as part of their ministry strategy for years. With some advanced preparation help from the pastor, shifting to online services and study groups seems like a powerful opportunity to deepen the impact of the sermons.
4. The power of small groups for mutual support and ministry.
My wife, Patty, and I belong to a “Life Group” where normally we meet twice a month for a meal, sermon discussion, sharing and prayer. What has been interesting during this pandemic has been how eager people in our church have been to gather weekly instead of only twice a month, even on Easter evening. With the supportive relationships that had already been built during our months of meeting together, when we shifted to online interaction, the desire to gather became stronger, and the sharing and prayer support deeply appreciated. We’ve also played online games together for a bit of fun in the midst of being cooped up in our homes. Group members have also reached out with meaningful service and encouragement, with one person making masks for whoever wanted one, another dropping off bunches of lavender and encouragement cards to our doorsteps. It is during these times of isolation that the power of small groups becomes clearer to us.
5. The opportunities of inviting others to virtual church services.
With everyone confined to home, it has actually become easier to invite others to join our church’s worship services. Everyone knows that churches are putting their services online, and it is easier to connect online in your pjs than to get dressed up and go to a church you’ve never been to before and where you don’t know most of the people. During this time of uncertainty and greater awareness of our mortality, more people may be willing to listen in and see what the church has to say. Follow up conversations are easy to do personally with Zoom or simply messaging each other. It’s an easier way for people to explore what the Christian church is all about, potentially leading to greater openness to go in person when the social-distancing restrictions are lifted.
6. The importance of finding and using engaging children’s study materials.
What some families have quickly found out is that for children, sitting and listening to a sermon on the computer screen can quickly loose its appeal. Along with caring for the needs of the adults in the congregation, it is important to also provide engaging resources for children and youth. Creating and sending out creative worship activity sheets to go along with the theme of the worship service, the Scriptures, and the sermon, is one way to engage older children and youth with the online service. Sending families links to a variety of Bible study activity websites for children, online videos that related to important aspects of following Christ, and devotional materials to use at home are all important opportunities to include children in the church’s ministry in this time of isolation, and help parents become more comfortable interacting with their children on spiritual issues.
7. The creative potential of a crisis – with caution.
Finally, it is when all of our usual, comfortable, typical ways of ministry have been taken away that we find ourselves asking, “Now what?” This is not a bad place to be, for it turns our attention back to God and forces us to reconsider the standard ways of doing things. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” While it is tempting to simply see how clever and creative we can be, it is critical that we use this time as an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions about ministry and prayerfully seek God’s direction together with others in our ministries regarding what is most important to pursue, and how we might pursue it best. New ways of doing ministry will emerge, but we want to ensure that what we develop is fruitful in God’s hands, not just productive in terms of mobilizing lots of people in activities.
What else have you been reflecting on and learning in this time of radical change in how congregations interact when they cannot gather?