Engagement outside the church: Beating the pandemic by trying things new
Despite financial pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, several of the area’s largest churches have developed new or improved ministries, shared messages of hope, and served their communities well over the last six months.
In March, churches in Missouri began to cancel in-person services to abide by Gov. Mike Parson's Stay Home Missouri Order. Almost overnight, the primary vehicle to continue worship services was online streaming.
Pastor David Urzi, communications director at Cape First Church, said online church engagement across the country soared early on during the pandemic. Urzi, who administers a Facebook group with more than 2,000 online pastors around the United States, said engagement peaked on Easter Sunday. But in the weeks following, fewer people regularly engaged in weekly services.
Barna Group, a Christian polling operation, confirmed this trend. As of early June, 53% of practicing Christians streamed their home church's services online within the previous four weeks. About 34% said they streamed an online service from another church. And about one-third of practicing Christians said they had done neither.
"There was no gradual upswing, it just shot up," Urzi told B Magazine about the initial reaction to online church when the pandemic began. "And the first four weeks numbers were just climbing, climbing, climbing. Then Easter hit, and Easter was really the climax. A lot of people watched service on Easter Sunday. They found a church that was streaming near them. They still felt that pull to go to church on Easter. And then since Easter it's the same thing that we've been seeing with devices, with TVs, with iPads. The fatigue is setting in and the honeymoon season is wearing off. People are tired of being on their device. They're tired of getting everything on their phone. They're tired of watching so much stuff on TV."
After a surge in online engagement during March and April, Connection Point Church senior pastor Dr. Chris Vaught said his church's online attendance has returned to pre-pandemic levels -- which he said are good, just not "extreme" like they were in the early weeks.
As of an interview for this story in mid-July, Connection Point was planning to launch more online initiatives in the late summer, including a smart TV app with multiple channels to distribute new content.
Christians have traditionally segregated God to Sundays and Wednesdays when church services were held, Vaught said, but that's over -- a positive byproduct of the pandemic.
"We're putting out spiritual content every day of the week," Vaught said. "And we're challenging our people to seek out God and grow in their faith and live out their Christian principles on a daily basis."
Lynwood Baptist Church pastor Mark Anderson said when his church's services went online-only, he was concerned about whether people would actually sit down and watch. But he was pleasantly surprised with the engagement -- even after in-person services resumed.
"We had more people watching us then attending, because I think there were some people who wanted to see who we are, what we're doing," Anderson said. "We know that there are other churches who don't have an online presence or watching as well. But then when we started having people come back we saw that we had those who were attending, as well as those who are watching. And we really didn't miss a beat."
Pastor Ron Watts said LaCroix Church has followed much of the national trends regarding online church engagement. However, after the Fourth of July weekend LaCroix began to see an uptick in online engagement, and Watts said numbers continue to be higher for online attendance than they were for in-person attendance before the pandemic.
Along with streaming the church's online service four times each weekend between Saturday and Monday, Watts is also sharing out a mid-week video message through email and social media.
"It's really just my way of trying to stay in touch with the people of our church, and I've been delighted to see such engagement from people outside of our church. And that's awesome," he said. "And from other Christians and even people who don't go to church, people are sharing it. We're getting lots of views. And so that's really encouraging."
Some churches returned to in-person services earlier than others following the expiration of Missouri's statewide order.
Cape First was online-only from March 22 through May 3, returning to in-person services on Mother's Day. Lynwood Baptist Church resumed in-person services on May 24. Connection Point Church in Jackson didn't return until June 7. And LaCroix Church, the largest United Methodist Church in Missouri with local ones in Cape Girardeau and Benton, is still not meeting for normal in-person worship services inside the sanctuary -- though in recent weeks nearly 300 people have gathered on Sunday nights in the church's parking lot for an outdoor service.
Urzi said Cape First, which has locations in Cape, Sikeston and Marble Hill, is averaging about 75% of pre-pandemic attendance with some members still choosing to watch online.
When Connection Point resumed in-person services in June, they initially asked attendees to pre-register in advance to allow for social distancing. Three services were offered initially instead of the normal two. A few weeks in, however, they returned to two services and stopped requiring pre-registration when regular in-person attendance settled at about 45% of pre-pandemic levels.
Vaught said the church can maintain current configurations at their new location as long as attendance is no more than 55% of pre-pandemic levels -- approximately 700 people between the two services. Once attendance goes beyond that point, the church will either return to pre-registration or add a third service. At the time of publication, LaCroix said they planned to resume in person services in the Church Sanctuary on the weekend of September 12-13.
While some of the regular attendees haven't been ready to return to in-person services, Vaught said an increasing number of attendees are new visitors.
"We're seeing a huge influx of first time guests every Sunday since we reopened," he said. "And the comment we've heard has been these are people that began watching us online during the COVID time period. And after they started watching us online during COVID, during the quarantine, now they're wanting to try out the actual campus."
Lynwood senior pastor Mark Anderson said he wanted to wait a couple weeks after the statewide order was lifted to see how resuming in-person services would work and better understand if resuming these services would cause a spike in COVID-19 cases. After seeing good results at other churches, Anderson said Lynwood felt it was time to resume their in-person gatherings.
"We felt like that there was the spiritual need to come back together, but there was also the emotional and social need to get our people back together," he said. "The church is designed as a community. The church is designed not to experience God in isolated places. You're able to do that, and you have your own personal time with God. But the church is designed -- God gave us the church for the family experience, the corporate community experience. So the longer you're not able to do that, especially with children and students, the more it's going to have an effect in a negative way on them -- which is true of adults as well. What we're seeing is that it's played out all across the country."
Anderson said Lynwood's in-person church attendance is about 35% to 40% of pre-pandemic levels.
LaCroix Church planned to resume normal services on July 12. But in the days leading up to reopening, cases in Cape Girardeau began to spike and the church put its reopening on hold.
"It's been a very difficult decision and a lot of factors to weigh," Watts said. "And all churches have really struggled with the right timing. Because of our size, we realize that with 2,200 people in average attendance [each weekend], that if our numbers are larger, and even if we get, like a lot of churches seem to be getting about 35% of their people, for us, that's a little over 700 people gathering. And that's a pretty big gathering by today's standards in the COVID era."
Watts added that some of the most devoted attendees are also the ones most vulnerable to the virus.
Connection Point has added a tent to its courtyard area where church volunteers greet attendees, answer questions and provide masks to those who don't have one.
"If someone has a medical condition and can't wear the mask, they can notify the elder at that point, so that we at least have some communication there," Vaught said. According to the CDC rules, we're not allowed to ask them to prove their medical condition. So we have to take them at face value. But at least because a conversation has happened with a church elder, then if someone has a question about it, we at least can say there's been a conversation with one [member] of our leadership team."
Even with these precautions, the church had two attendees at their July 12 service test positive for COVID-19. It's a challenge all entities, big and small, will have to deal with until the virus goes away or a vaccine is released.
After learning of the positive cases, Connection Point began contact tracing to let those who were within six feet of the infected individuals know and ask them to self-quarantine.
Vaught said the individuals who tested positive didn't experience severe symptoms and those who were around them had not shown symptoms at the time of this interview.
During the online-only period, Cape First was pre-recording the service and releasing it during normal Sunday worship times. Doing so made for a shorter service. Since resuming in-person services, they moved some of the worship music that was previously at the beginning of the service to the end. During that time, attendees can receive prayer from a pastor and members can drop off their offering to a nearby collection box -- a change that prevents the spread of germs when passing the collection plates.
"It's kind of this holy moment where there's a lot of different ways in which you can worship," Urzi said.
One thing Cape First started before the pandemic was using individualized elements for communion. That's continued during the pandemic. When people arrive, a greeter, wearing a mask and gloves, distributes the elements along with a mask if the guest is not already wearing one. And as much of the in-person experience as possible is touchless, with doors already open.
Churches that have re-opened also upped their cleaning services, even having crews disinfect areas in between services when multiple gatherings are held on the same day.
The natural expectation is that with fewer people attending church in-person, donations would suffer. And for some churches, particularly smaller churches, that's been the reality. But Urzi said Cape First Church budgets 90% of its revenue from the previous year so if challenges arise, they have margin. Additionally, they've communicated to members about the opportunity to help struggling ministries through this pandemic.
"Our thought from the start of this has been we're going to be generous throughout all of this," Urzi said. "We're not going to be stingy, we're not going to be afraid of what's happening in the world. We're not going to be worried about where our next meal comes from, so to speak. But we are going to continue to be generous."
Early on during the pandemic, Connection Point was becoming more conservative in their expenses with the level of future donations unknown. But instead of a drop in donations, the opposite happened.
"Not knowing what the effect would be, our people did the direct opposite," Vaught said. "They stayed faithful, and at one point we were 18% over budgeted revenue through the quarantine period."
The last Sunday of in-person worship before services went entirely online for more than two months, the church held its annual MAD offering. Most of the funds are used to help retire debt on the new facility. But a portion is used to fund other ministries locally and around the world. With a goal of $250,000, the church ended up raising more than $278,000.
Anderson said Lynwood hasn't experienced a decrease in giving.
"I will say from a financial standpoint that we haven't missed a beat. The church has been very faithful in giving and providing the resources that we need to continue our ministries," he said. "That's one of the big things I'll remember about COVID and our church's experience with it."
The church announced earlier this year it would launch a new Christian school, absorbing Cape Christian Community School, a non-denominational Christian school of more than 40 years. Despite the unknowns around the virus, including the financial impact, the church launched Lynwood Christian Academy in August.
Anderson said providing a high quality educational experience for students centered on a biblical worldview is the driving force behind why the church is offering the school.
"I think it's important for children that whatever they're learning they're able to learn that through the lens of Scripture," Anderson said. "Our responsibility is to help prepare them as they go out into the world so that whatever they're doing in their career, we want them to be the best academically in what they're doing but [also] be the best Christian they can be."
While people can certainly mail in donations, LaCroix has made a push to increase online giving. Prior to the pandemic, Watts said, 37% to 40% of the church's giving was being done online.
"Now that's low for churches our size, and so what we've done is really make that push," Watts said, adding the number of families giving online has significantly increased during the pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, Urzi said Cape First has sent thousands of dollars to churches in the U.S. and around the world that would otherwise struggle to continue. Locally, the church has hosted three mobile food banks, including a recent one where 30,000 pounds of food was distributed to people in the area.
Urzi said churches in the area in need of support are welcome to contact him at the church office.
"We would love to partner, even if it's not financially," he said. "Is there an area in which you're struggling that we can provide resources, manpower, whatever?"
Urzi said Cape First wanted to keep as much of the worship experience as normal as possible.
"Because there was so much change. There was so much unknown in people's lives, we said, 'We want to create the most amount of normalcy.' That's why we didn't make major changes to our worship experience. We wanted it to look the same. We wanted it to feel the same. We wanted to offer the same programming for kids to keep that sense of normalcy, that when they woke up on a Sunday morning, Monday through Friday may have been completely unknown and different with their job. We wanted them to wake up on Sunday and feel a sense of normalcy."
In early August, the church hosted its annual Family Day. Normally an event that draws thousands for food and a demolition derby, among other events free and open to the public, this year the church switched gears to a more service-focused outreach. There were free bike and tire checks, health checks and the distribution of more than 100 beds. Plus, the free food continued.
There has been coordinated outreach at Connection Point Church, including 16 ladies working 14 hours a day early on during the pandemic to make face masks. But overall, the church has taken a decentralized approach to ministry. When an individual or small group sees a need, they are challenged to help meet it. This has ranged from providing food to families in need, to building ramps for the elderly who couldn't get in and out to go to the hospital.
Connection Point, Vaught said, is also doing more biblical teaching than ever before in an effort to encourage people with messages of hope.
"We're trying to help educate and mature our people," he said. "How do we handle the stresses, and do so in a way that we fulfill Jesus' command to be salt and light. As a follower of Christ, in the midst of a pandemic, when everything seems dark, that's when we should rise up and show the hope, the peace, the grace that Jesus would show right now."
Watts said much of his leadership during the pandemic has focused on how LaCroix can do ministry outside the walls of the church.
One of the early ideas was to provide grocery shopping and delivery service to those most at-risk for the virus. The church had plenty of volunteers, but there were not many people signing up for the ministry.
"Most of them either didn't want to give up that opportunity to go shopping for themselves or they had family already doing it for them," he said.
But the church continues to experiment and innovate.
"I think we should use this time wisely instead of just desperately trying to get back to the way things were," Watts said, "I'm afraid that's going to be a long time from now. What can we do to be the body of Christ?"
LaCroix held a leadership event earlier this year called Vision 2020, but once the pandemic hit most of what was discussed was set aside, Watts said.
But ministry continues. A new group of Stephen Ministers, lay congregation members who provide care to those in difficult situations, are finishing their training. And Watts noted that experts are saying mental health issues are on the rise during the pandemic with depression rates soaring.
"So we've got to step into that as the church now," Watts said. "Problem right now is a lot of it is kind of underground, we're not aware of it. But it's there. And so ministering to people and figuring out where the needs are is where we've got to be."
Safety in (small) groups
While service delivery and some ministries excelled on screens, some small groups did not function as well in the tech format. Audio issues and people trying to talk at the same time on Zoom calls made these virtual gatherings difficult.
Online small groups served a purpose, but they left a need still not met just because "you still lose that sense of community," Vaught said.
Meanwhile, Vaught said Connection Point's kids ministry made great strides using the digital format.
"We were hearing testimonies from families of their children receiving Christ through watching videos," he said. "People [who] have never been to our church before. That's been very encouraging."
As of mid-July, Connection Point Church was restarting adult small groups while still adhering to safety precautions.
Allowing for some sense of normalcy has been a priority for Vaught and the church staff. He said not only are adults feeling the affects, but so are children and teenagers.
Vaught said the church can provide a sense of normalcy, community and hope by staying creative with content, keeping communication lines open and fostering community in a socially distanced world.
Watts said the American church has been building-centric for many years, but some of the fastest growing areas for Christianity, Iran and China, for example, are in places where public worship is not allowed or frowned upon. So people are meeting in their homes.
LaCroix, Watts said, is using this as a time of experimentation and innovation -- particularly with house groups where people can meet in small gatherings, share a meal, watch the weekend service and have discussion in community. This model is having some success, Watts said, noting the church is now at the point where they need more leaders for these gatherings.
"We know God is in control," he said. "We know that this didn't catch God by surprise, and we're trying to use this season for experimentation and innovation."
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