As the Centers for Disease Control has suspended large gatherings to stop the spread of Covid-19 and flatten the Coronavirus Curve, church and ministry leaders have scrambled to online formats, finding creative ways to meet needs and cultivating community online while maintaining physical distance.
Although large multi-site churches have been livestreaming their services for some time, Rachel Feuerborn, a spokesperson for YouVersion’s The Bible App, said their free Church Online Platform saw record-breaking attendance for the weekend of March 14-15, helping churches in countries around the world stream church services to 4.7 million unique devices, which is four times the average total attendance for one weekend. That number rose to 7 million people attending church services online the weekend of March 21-22. And with 15,000 new churches signing up for the tool in the last couple of weeks, they expect weekend attendance to continue to climb.
Individually, more than 417 million people utilize YouVersion’s The Bible App, and Feuerborn said they are also seeing an increase in the number of Bible verse text shares, with the following scriptures among the Top 5: Hebrews 13:16, Psalms 91, 2 Chronicles 7:14, 2 Timothy 1:7, and Philippians 4:6-7.
“With everything going on in the world, we believe it’s vitally important for the Church to continue to meet online and spread messages of hope,” said Bobby Gruenewald, Life.Church Pastor, Innovation Leader. “In the same way that hospital doors will remain open to meet the physical needs of people during this time, we’re encouraged to see so many churches leveraging online technology to remain open and help meet their spiritual and emotional needs.”
The local church unites
Locally, the pandemic brought together close to 400 church leaders from the Treasure Coast to Miami Dade on a Zoom call to learn and pray in unity. Organized by Church United, City to City Miami and Explore Miami, the Covid-19 Pastors Prayer Call on March 19 featured input from medical professionals at Baptist Health Network and input from Erik Dellenback, director of the Governor’s Faith and Community-Based Initiative, designed to enlist, enable, empower and expand the work of volunteer faith-based and community-based organizations. Representatives from Barna and Gloo also shared digital resources that allow pastors to check in with their staff and congregations during this time of physical distancing. These resources are all available at churchunitedfl.com/coronavirus.
Finally pastors broke out into smaller rooms via Zoom where they were able to meet and pray with other pastors from the region in a digital small group setting. Jesse Carbo, executive director, City to City Miami, began the prayer with this quote from Matthew McConaughey: “We’re more dependent on each other than we’ve ever been. And we’re looking at an enemy that is faceless, raceless, sexless, nondenominational and bipartisan, and it’s an enemy that we all want to beat.”
Carbo said, “When I heard him say that, I thought perhaps for the first time in a long time, the call for unity as the body of Christ is not only desirable, but it’s actually possible. And I can’t think of a better way for us to walk toward unity together than to pray.”
James Welch, lead pastor of First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, said, “Church United has done a great job bringing churches, church leaders and government officials together in this time of health crisis… so we can make educated choices regarding how to minister to our congregations and the community.”
Having moved to an entirely online platform, Welch said their biggest challenge has been social distancing. “We are a BIG church that truly feels small. Everyone is missing seeing one another and hugging one another,” but he encourages “prayer is a powerful means to connect to a glorious God.” First Baptist Fort Lauderdale has also mobilized staff and lay leaders to call everyone 65 years old and above in their congregation, as well as anyone who falls in to the most vulnerable category, to meet needs.
At Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach County, Zachary Ingram, associate director to the senior pastor, said, “The biggest challenges we are seeing in our community are financial challenges for people that have lost jobs or income as their places of work are closed. We are seeing challenges in the elderly, not able to go out shopping for basic needs. We are seeing lots of requests for prayer over fear, anxiety and worry.”
Besides providing online services and prayer at noon daily, they are delivering supplies to the elderly and those who are immune compromised, delivering care kits to medical professionals and single moms and delivering groceries though their partnership with Convoy of Hope. “We are also creating additional content for our congregation to use to grow closer to Christ in this season, including worship playlists on Apple Music & Spotify. We believe that social distancing doesn’t have to lead to spiritual distancing,” said Ingram.
Rob Pacienza, lead pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, said the three biggest needs of their congregation are community, discipleship and parenting. They’ve responded by hosting an online parenting class with Dr. Bob Barnes and Torrey Roberts, of Sheridan House Family Ministries, to minister to parents who are struggling in this new normal. They are also targeting health care workers and first responders by praying for them daily and seeking ways to meet the felt needs of these two groups. Their high school students have developed a Pen Pal Letter Writing effort, connecting with Senior Adults, and the church is providing Care Bag donations to local retirement communities.
How can the body of Christ help? “Stay hopeful!” said Pacienza. “Paul says that our afflictions are light and momentary compared to the future glory that awaits. This is an incredible opportunity for the Church to shine bright in the darkness. They need to see Christians who are careful but extremely hopeful… The Church also must provide real solutions to the needs of our community. Let’s show the world that we are the most gracious, most sacrificial, most hopeful, and most innovative people in the world!”
When it comes to ministry, innovation abounds
With support from their partners, Heart2Heart Outreach, a ministry that mobilizes volunteers to build meaningful, sustainable and life-changing relationships with the elderly, joined with Church United to deliver Amazon Fire Tablets to care centers in South Florida. While visitors are not allowed entry into the area’s elder care facilities, the tablets allow seniors to communicate with loved ones and volunteers to avoid isolation, explained Juan Gallo, executive director of Heart2Heart. In some cases Heart2Hearts is utilizing online methods to coordinate social activities for these communities. Volunteers are also encouraged to send cards.
“The biggest thing the elderly face is isolation, so if you call someone and spend half an hour with them, it makes their whole day,” said Gallo.
While schools are closed and students are learning online, Chris Lane, executive director of First Priority, a ministry that connects the church to reach the campus for Christ, has moved all of their middle school and high school clubs to Virtual Clubs via Zoom. “The biggest challenge has been not being face to face, and for students to invite their friends is tough. So, we’ve made our social media platforms more engaging by doing more videos and interaction with students, creating content for them to pass along,” said Lane.
Live the Life, a ministry designed to strengthen marriages and families, is now offering their Adventures in Marriage classes online. In a video message, Lisa May, executive director of Live the Life South Florida, explained that through a partnership with Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, they are offering their marriage class for free via Zoom beginning on Wednesday, April 15 from 6:30 – 8 p.m., and continuing for seven consecutive Wednesday nights. Participants must register online at bit.ly/AdventuresInMarriage by April 10.
Can anything good come out of this pandemic?
Rob Pacineza thinks it is very possible. “In Matthew 5 Jesus calls Christians to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He also compares the Church to a City on a Hill. Through acts of love and service we bring heaven to earth. This is a moment for the Church to run towards the darkness with the light of the Gospel and give our communities real hope. There is no institution in the world better positioned to meet felt needs like the Church. I pray that God would use this to bring many to Himself and through it spark a second Reformation!”