By Rev. Dr. Al Fletcher, Executive Minister, ABC of Maine
Recently, the Office of the General Secretary called for a study task force to look at the effects of Covid-19 on our churches. While I am no expert on Covid in American Baptist churches across the country, I am familiar with the effects of Covid on American Baptist Churches in Maine.
Here are several things that I’ve noticed which may create opportunities for our churches to reinvigorate their mission and ministries, especially in the area of discipleship and evangelism.
1. Covid forced churches to rethink the purpose of gathering on Sunday mornings. Pre-Covid gatherings in our churches were often a result of habit. Church attendance on Sunday mornings was something that happened. Most folks just “did” it. Post-Covid there was a noticeable drop-off in church attendance and even to today about two-thirds of the pre-Covid attendees are back in worship, but one-third is noticeably missing.
There are several reasons for this decline:
a. Many churches said good-bye to faithful church members. The circumstances of Covid left many congregations deeply grieving. Old friends died and there was no way to mourn their death. This disruption made attending church for some “too difficult”, “too painful.” There remains a lot of grief that affects local churches today.
b. Many folks got out of the habit. There was an “excuse” and once the habit was broken other venues filled the gap. The need filled by church attendance was replaced with something considered more valuable.
c. Many local churches went through leadership changes that affected the dynamics of the congregation. Willing folks stepped forward and filled spaces vacated by those who traditionally held them. As always, a change in leadership does have consequences.
d. Many folks questioned where God was during the crisis. Cultural expectations about God are current in congregations and while many folks would not outright state their concerns, disappointment remains prevalent for some.
2. Covid invited politics into the congregation. While politics is a reality with which we all live, the dynamics of Covid continue to exacerbate an already politically charged culture to further divide. Many churches felt that they had to decide which political voice to follow. Several churches grew during the pandemic by capitalizing on their choice of voice. Their rallying cry was, “We aren’t like those churches.”
3. Covid provided an opportunity for the church to move beyond program and back to a relationship-based ministry. Pastoral care and presence were cherished by congregations during Covid. The need to be together, even if that meant only by computer, was important and valued. When congregations could gather again, the dynamics of care and presence also impacted the preaching of the Word and the climate of worship.
4. Covid brought prayer back into our churches. Every congregation was impacted by Covid. While not all deaths or sickness were Covid-based, the climate made our congregation members assume the culprit was Covid and where fear dictates, prayer dominates, congregations during Covid, renewed their prayer life.
5. Covid brought people back to church who were searching for answers and longing for relationships. Evangelism became invitational again. Evangelism is inviting someone who is isolated into a caring community where that individual might come to experience the love and grace of God in Christ. The personal touch of neighbors and friends became heightened by a congregation that willingly embraced the stranger. Covid made it easier to penetrate the “holy huddle”.
6. Covid provided a renewed emphasis on relational discipleship. Content-based discipleship often dominated our churches pre-Covid. People wanting to grow in their faith and faith practice were often handed books and sent away hopefully blessed. Covid didn’t take the books away but provided a relationship context which helped guide those seeking to grow through personal investment among others. Folks felt free to be in the presence of others who were asking the same questions and seeking to find answers together.
7. While this list is by no means exhaustive, local churches that made crucial relationship with God, with congregation members, and with their community began to see a renewed emphasis on worship, fellowship, and personal devotion. Loneliness, isolation, and depression are a result of Covid’s ongoing effect which many folks deal with daily in our local communities. Churches that have renewed their relational “capital” have much to offer to hurting neighbors.
8. The importance of regional ministries that encouraged relationships, supported pastoral ministry of presence and care, and opportunities for people to share, gather, and wrestle with the dynamics of Covid were provided by mission support given through United Mission. United Mission is the American Baptist Churches way of supporting the whole family through times of plenty and times of crisis. Be sure that your local church supports the work of United Giving. For more information, your regional office can help you serve others through supporting United Mission.