By Sharon Mager
“You are not alone” was the prevailing theme of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s (BCM/D) virtual Town Hall meeting on April 2, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 80 participants joined a Zoom call for resources and encouragement, and the opportunity to ask questions of BCM/D staff and other professionals.
BCM/D Executive Director Kevin Smith encouraged participants, “You are not alone in the sense that the BCM/D is willing and able and desires to walk beside you, but (also), in a broader sense, I want you to understand you are not alone in the history of God’s people. Things like pandemics, things like health challenges, things like wars, things like the fall of the Roman Empire — God’s people have always had to negotiate how they interact in a societal setting when other things are affecting them. Whether it be military challenges, health challenges, economic challenges, all types of things … if there’s anything I pray would steady you during this time, it is the simple truth that God’s people have always dealt with challenges, and God has always guided His people and been in the midst of his people through those challenges.”
BCM/D State Director of Evangelism Mark Dooley, who moderated the Town Hall, said, “These are difficult days.” He added that the Town Hall was a way of helping and encouraging one another “as iron sharpens iron.”
Loving your community
BCM/D Community Engagement Consultant Ellen Udovich told participants, “I’m encouraging you to think about networks–about people connecting to people—and, at the center of that network, the core of that network, I want you to picture God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I want you to think about Jesus Christ who holds the world together and the Holy Spirit who brings us wisdom, clarity, and truth.” Udovich urged those on the call to lean into the triune God, the core of our strength.
She encouraged participants to think of the church as another network of people, and each member has their own network. “Work your networks. Encourage your people to be connecting with the people in their neighborhood,” she said. Opportunities abound, including prayer walking or driving, offering to pick up groceries or prescriptions for the elderly or people who are at high risk, using online tools to help families who need aid with technology for teaching their children or just offering to be available for a chat on the phone. She also suggested that churches to reach out to organizations with whom they have already formed partnerships, such as schools, homeless shelters, and food pantries.
“Think in terms of networks,” she concluded. “How can we begin to use the very best resource God has given us — which is our people — to love and serve the community?”
BCM/D Creative Director Reggie Davis shared about digital strategies. He emphasized that this is a vital time for churches to consider and take inventory of their online presence.
Davis also encouraged churches to discover how to “reach past the screen to engage online users.” Regarding worship services, pastors could upload sermon notes and questions to help viewers reflect individually and also use for family discussions and devotions.
“Many churches offer childcare during the worship time, so some families are adjusting to worshiping with their children,” Davis said. His suggestions included the provision of downloadable materials or videos specifically designed for children’s ministry.
Turning to the subject of offerings, Davis said online giving is a big concern for many churches and he encouraged pastors and church leaders to evaluate the image of their online giving sites. “What does it look like?” he questioned. “Is it merely a transactional experience? What’s the language on that page? Remember your giving page is now your offering plate; remind people that this, too, is an act of worship.”
As churches evaluate their social media, Davis encouraged them to consider their target audience and decide on the best platform. For example, if the average age of a congregation is about 50, the church should have a solid presence on Facebook. For a younger group, Instagram may be the best platform.
Davis also suggested that churches should make sure their online presence is a good experience for users. “How many clicks does it take for them to land where you’re trying to direct them?” he asked. The goal is to reduce it to as few clicks as possible.
Finally, and very importantly, Davis said church leaders should make sure their contact information is always available.
Local Pastors’ Experiences
C.J. Matthews, senior pastor at Bethany Church, a young church plant in Columbia, Maryland, shared that they are not live streaming. Instead, they pre-record on Saturday and his wife, Katie, who is the children’s ministry director at Bethany, creates upbeat kids’ videos. The church is also delivering communion to members in self-contained packets. Additionally, they’re delivering in-home egg hunt kits to families with children. Each family that receives a kit will also receive two extra kits to give to neighbors with children, in an effort to reach out while maintaining social distance.
“We have medical professionals leading that effort to make sure everything is handled according to CDC standards and data,” Matthews said. Only staff will deliver.
“We’re excited to see how God works in this season,” he added. “Our online engagements are up. Our people are staying connected. Our life groups and youth are going strong. I’m ready for this to be over, but I’m excited about what’s happening in the midst of it.”
Chris McCombs, the senior pastor of Lexington Park Baptist Church, an established church in Maryland, said his church had already been in the process of moving systems online prior to the coronavirus. He said that the church was able to quickly and smoothly make the online transition because the systems were set up.
“Our entire coronavirus plan is on our website,” said McCombs. “We have embraced the idea of Peter being a “fisher of men” … that was physical … now we have to transition to becoming fishers of men digitally.”
He added, “If Jesus was walking around now online, He’d say ‘come follow me and I’ll make you a digital disciple’.”
He explained that the church is using digital discipleship to facilitate spiritual growth in members’ homes. They use an app to provide materials for kids involved in GA (Girls in Action) and RA (Royal Ambassadors) clubs, they have Bible projects online, and they are beginning a “Hearth and Home” study for families.
“We’re not doing a traditional Bible study; rather, we’re putting out five Scripture verses and extra information online which families can use to do their own Bible studies together,” said McCombs.
He also added that the church will show a “Christ in the Passover” presentation, sponsored by Jews for Jesus. They will encourage families to use bread and juice at home to observe the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.
“We’re teaching people to love God and love each other from a distance,” he said. “Our community as a church is growing closer together than it was before. Our staff calls every single member every week. It’s showing people they’re cared for.”
He said his leadership team is talking about life after the coronavirus and asking, “how can we reach people after this?”
BCM/D Associate Executive Director Tom Stolle shared Jeremiah 32:27, “Look, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too difficult for Me?
He went on to say that “although financial and legal challenges — as well as challenges with compliance in an ever-changing world where the government seems to be adding new rules or interpretive guidance every day — can feel overwhelming, God’s people must remember that He is in control and there is nothing too hard for Him.”
Stolle announced a BCM/D COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Grant Program, which could allow up to $1,000 each for up to 30 churches. This assistance is meant for churches that are “really hurting” — those who have little in the bank and cannot pay their pastor or make rent payments. Applications are on the BCM/D website and churches can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 15. The Strengthening Churches Grant Committee will make the decisions about who will be awarded those funds.
Additionally, the Baptist Foundation of Maryland/Delaware is making emergency loans up to $5,000 available to churches that have “intense need.” These can be repaid over five years at a very low-interest rate. The BCM/D must receive loan applications by April 30.
Stolle also discussed the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) payroll protection program, which provides nearly $350 billion in forgivable loans. Churches are eligible for the program and it is a way to get resources to maintain staff and benefits. For some of those churches, some or all of the funds may be forgiven. The BCM/D encourages churches to talk to their banks about this program. The application process begins on April 3.
“Every day, the state of Maryland puts new interpretive guidance on what churches can and cannot do. For example, some churches who are interested in hosting drive-in services will now be able to have them under certain conditions,” Stolle said.
Look at the BCM/D Coronavirus Resource page, Stolle said. “Don’t go to the resource page once — visit it daily, as it is being updated daily,” he said
Cheryl Brown, of the law firm of Davis, Agnor, Rappaport, and Skalney, shared regarding the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which became effective on April 1. The act requires employers with 500 employees or less to provide emergency paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave (EFML) to eligible employees.
Dr. Bergina Isbell, a psychiatrist in Glenarden, Maryland and a member of Maryland City Baptist Church (MCBC) in Laurel, shared how COVID-19 has affected her practice. Dr. Isbell usually has a lot of “no-shows” in her practice —people who make appointments but do not keep them — but in the last two weeks, she has had zero no-shows because people are scared. She said many people who may have a stigma about seeking mental health services will seek out pastors and church leadership for help and direction during this time.
She discussed the importance of sharing “stories of hope” with Christians who are worried and anxious, as well as with lost people who are struggling with knowing what to believe and who are looking to the church for answers. She discussed some medical advances, including the recent practice of extracting plasma from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 (which contains antibodies to fight the virus) and using that plasma to treat people who are currently suffering from the condition. She said it’s a great opportunity to talk about “power in the blood.”
“I love when medical science catches up to the Bible,” she added.
“I do believe we are living in the end times, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope,” she concluded. “There’s hope from Genesis to Revelation. We’re living in a day and age of hope.”
Dr. Tom Rodgerson, a counselor of CentrePointe Counseling, considered the idea of “breath” in relation to COVID-19 and how this relates to the Christian and the society. He said that stepping back sometimes gives you a framework by which you can hear people’s stories and help them make meaning of the stories.
Rodgerson said that since trauma usually freezes our ability to make meaning of our environment,
“it is worth pondering the meaning of the worldwide emergence of the COVID-19 virus, which attacks the respiratory system and leaves one unable to breathe, at a time when we have grown used to schedules that leave us rushed and out of breath; when the “lungs of the earth” are
being removed through deforestation and the earth is unable to cleanse itself from pollution; when justice issues are symbolized in the cry of a man on the streets of New York when forcibly restrained saying, “I can’t breathe’…; when politics become nothing more than those of different parties breathing hotly down each other’s necks? The Hebrew word for ‘anger’ has the meaning of the flaring of the nostrils as one breathes hotly. What does COVID-19 mean when, in the whole world, we’re having difficulty breathing?”
Rodgerson went on to remind believers that we are twice “breathed into”—once in creation (Gen. 2:7), when God breathed the breath of life into all mankind, and one in our re-creation (John 20:22), when Jesus breathed on the disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit. Rodgerson suggested that we should daily allow for this twice-breathing in our lives, and a helpful way to do this is by using “breath prayers,” which are short prayers that involve breathing in and out the words of Scripture or certain words that help us feel connected to God.
When we tie our breathing to our praying in our everyday life (in the awareness of our breathing as we repeat a simple phrase or verse of Scripture), we not only continue the physical and spiritual “breathed into” life but, also, we enhance our immune system and build a resistance to any invading virus or any deadly way of life.
Stolle, BCM/D Evangelism and Pastoral Connection Consultant John Gauger, and Mitch Young, pastor of MCBC, closed the meeting in prayer. Stolle prayed, “Father we’ve been reminded over and over again this morning that we are not alone. And Father, we know we’re not alone. Even if we’re physically alone, You are with us. Even if we feel alone, we’re not; You’re with us. Father, no matter what we walk through, what the circumstances are, no matter how challenging, You are with us. You sustain us, You carry us, You love us … You’re with us. You’ll get us through this.”
Gauger prayed, “We come together because of You, because of this virus and because of the church. I pray, Lord God, for the health of each person here. Each one is a church leader; most are pastors. I pray protection upon them and their families, that the virus will not touch them, and if it does come into their lives, that it would not be terminal. We pray that You will give them success in fighting it off. We thank You for Your promise that our eternity is assured no matter what.
“We pray that you keep us faithful right now as things have changed amazingly. There are deep downsides relating to the church and yet there are amazing upsides to the openness of people … thank You for the creativity of your church. May your church come out of this closer to You…”
Young prayed, “Father God, I pray that You will bring revival to your church today. I pray that your church will draw near to You, that we will run to your word and proclaim your glory to a lost and dying world. I pray that You would bless your church right now. Lord, at times it seems like there are different kingdoms being built. I pray that now at this time that we would be unified, that we would truly desire your will, that we would truly desire to come together, that we would truly desire to bring resources together and have a desire to help and minister and love one another in a way that truly speaks of your spirit at work in your church … we ask right now, Lord, that You will provide what we need to carry the Gospel out in the communities you’ve placed us in. Even though we can’t actually come together, Lord, I pray that You would lead us and direct us, that, Lord, we would not be fearful … Lord God, I pray for your presence right now, and, Lord, that we would not just rely on human wisdom, but instead that we would fall on our face before Almighty God and cry out for divine wisdom, that You would lead us, that You would direct us and that You would be glorified.”