By Sharon Mager
COLUMBIA, Md. — The recent COVID-19 quarantine impacted church plants both positively and negatively and the churches are striving to prayerfully find their way through this unprecedented season and are learning from it all. Several planters report a renewed thirst for fellowship among their members and a willingness to step up and help. Others are trying to determine when and where they’ll be able to physically meet. All are finding ways to move forward.
Increase in Volunteers
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Matt Robinson, the pastor of Bethlehem Church in Middle River, Maryland. “This is uncharted territory for sure. Here be dragons,” he chuckled. But Bethlehem Church, along with other plants, is learning to navigate the new waters.
Robinson noted that one benefit of the quarantine is that isolation has rallied members to value their time together. “Everyone sees the need for gathering and it intensifies the need for volunteers to step up and do what they need to do,” he said.
Now the church is buzzing with those wanting to help — multiple people are checking registrations, taking temperatures, sanitizing and distributing children’s activity boxes, cleaning the church and sanitizing pews, in addition to the normal duties of ongoing church life.
“We’ve tripled our volunteer staff and that to me is absolutely priceless. I think we’ll see a new surge in growth because we have so many volunteers,” Robinson projected.
The church has been open for several weeks and has seen a slow but steady return. In preparation, they hired a professional cleaning company to deep clean and sanitize the facility. Now, volunteers take time after each service to wipe down common areas. The church has also utilized every-other-pew seating and a room just for seniors with planned early dismissal.
Jeff Belcher, the pastor of The Church of the Harbor, in Essex, Maryland, said, “We’ve seen the same thing with (having more) volunteers. Some (members) were loosely affiliated and I think COIVD-19 forced them to evaluate some things in their lives.”
The Church of the Harbor utilized many extra hands to not only provide service for re-opening but also to serve food to local families.
Knowing that many people in the community around the church no longer had access to school breakfasts and lunches, the church contacted the local food bank and became established as an emergency food pantry. It receives up to 6,000 pounds of food each week.
Belcher said many in the neighborhood lack transportation, so leadership decided to offer delivery. “We’ve had a good number of volunteers deliver literally tons of food to families,” he observed.
When the church did open with an allowance of ten people, they used five different rooms with ten people each, at five different times for two services. One room had the live service and the other rooms provided streaming, allowing for a small group to fellowship and accommodating a total of 100 people.
As restrictions lifted, the church began having three gatherings with a capacity of 60 in each service and used café tables with four seats each to allow adequate distancing. Belcher said the church is careful to follow protocols with masks, registration, cleaning, and disinfecting.
Creatively Finding Space
LifeHouse Church in Smyrna, Delaware, normally meets in a school and hasn’t been able to return for corporate worship.
Pastor Drue Matthews said he doesn’t anticipate getting into the school before Labor Day and that the progression of the situation will affect when that door will open again. Meanwhile, the church began praying and looking for alternative space.
“Thankfully, we have a relationship with a local funeral home that has a chapel and they will allow us to meet starting on July 5,” Matthews said. “We’re thankful that they’re opening the facility for us and that we will have place to meet.”
LifeHouse has continued to use Zoom and Facebook Live for worship and discipleship and recently had a live small group meeting
A Time of Joy
Iglesia Bautista Faro de Gracia in Milford, Delaware, meets in the pavilion facilities behind an Anglo church where they regularly meet indoors.
“It has been a time of joy for us. Almost 70% of our current members have attended our services,” said Pastor Jorge Altieri. “We have also had a lot of volunteer help over the past two weeks.”
They are still streaming services for those who can’t attend or do not feel comfortable attending physically.
Altieri said the church has had the opportunity to reach more people in the community through live streaming and weekly Zoom meetings for prayer and Bible study, creating opportunities for evangelism and discipleship.
Members are also faithfully supporting the church financially. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were planning on adjusting our budget due to the possible job losses we expected within our church family, but, to our surprise, we have been able to manage our church finances and keep a good outcome for our yearly budget,” Altieri said.
Two families contracted the coronavirus but were able to recover quickly and are back to work.
“Praise Tour” in the parks
“The pandemic has been a challenge for our church,” said Austin O’Donald, the pastor of The Gates Church in East Baltimore, Maryland. “We’ve been doing things on Zoom and creating online content and I think people have been growing. We’ve met a few extra people, but as a church plant we really rely on filtering ourselves through people who we meet in a variety of different ways, so we’ve really had to rethink a lot of what we’re doing.”
The church is looking forward to kicking off a “Five Week Park Praise Tour” on June 21. “It’s basically our church having worship services with small cookouts following in five different locations over the next five weeks,” O’Donald explained. The first “tour” will be at 4 p.m. at Colgate Park near the 7600 block of East Baltimore Street.
“Our prayers are that we meet new people and get to share the Gospel out in public parks and then we want to try to solidify some of our systems and gatherings as things start to open up more,” he said.
Please note that church activities vary according to continually changing geographical restrictions.