It has been a year and a half since the world was flipped on its head. In that time, we have grown weary of the repeated phrases plaguing headlines, sermons, news outlets and articles: “In these unprecedented times”, “During isolation we are challenged with new life”, “the new normal” etc. Yet in the midst of it all, we as the church were given an opportunity. Discussions on how the church would meet this “new normal” began, forcing us to see how we would adapt. ANN InDepth has hosted many conversations on how the church will confront shifting circumstances, proposing theoreticals on new forms of ministry, worship, and fellowship. Just shy of two years in, how have we fared? Did we meet expectations, or did we fall short? Did we exceed our wildest prayers, or did we stay stagnant, waiting for the end of a world crisis so that tradition may resume? Looking back on conversations with ANN InDepth from the beginning of the pandemic, comparisons can be made to see how the church has risen to the challenge.
We serve an amazing God. This truth is the foundation of our belief as Christians, and the anchor in times of change. Armed with this truth, many pastors, bible teachers and congregants chose to act in faith and adapt the church methods to these (forgive me) uncertain times. In an interview in April 2020, Pastor Dwight Nelson of Pioneer Memorial Church, Carlton Byrd, the Director of Breath of Life, and Jerry Page, Ministerial Director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, recognized the early need for worship evolution. Both Nelson and Byrd spoke about how technology would now be a central core to worship in order to broadcast services to the congregants during lockdown and how their churches jumped on the bandwagon early on to conduct live streaming and digital connect cards that would widen engagement. Nearly two years later, engagement had almost tripled, reaching millions in outreach. In the original interview, Page got to the heart of the spiritual perspective behind the pandemic, saying how “God has a purpose in permitting these calamities to occur.” The understanding that God’s choice in “permitting, not bringing” as Page clarifies is a crucial detail that morphs the pandemic from a crisis, to a call to action.
Churches are now engaging in methods of outreach that would have taken far longer to launch had the pandemic not pushed the necessity for new means of ministry. Small local churches were hit hardest by the pandemic, yet have truly been a litmus test for a sink or swim adaptability. Those who have survived lockdown are the ones willing to shift their methods, such as going from house calls to phone calls, in person sabbath school to virtual, and shifting engagement to more Covid friendly methods. These grassroots efforts have forced us to think outside the box, getting to the heart of what needs to be done in order to maintain church life. For those members without the internet, some churches have sent care packages, phone calls and other means of connection. In spite of initial trial and error, and now with the benefit of less restrictions, churches have found new pockets of ministry that have become more convenient for many.
On a global church scale, the Adventist Church recognized that we can no longer afford to catch the tail end of the trends out of fear, but must be the forerunners of the new wave of the technological revolution. As Daryl Gungadoo the Adventist Review Media Lab Director, states, even AI and innovative technology can be used for the church if harnessed correctly and being willing to engage in “the fourth industrial revolution [which] is characterized by the fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, the digital and the biological sphere”. As a response to self-isolation, Chatbots are now used on church forums to maintain conversation and 24/7 availability for believers around the world with questions and prayer requests. Another result of the pandemic is that it has forced us to enter the final mission field many in the church have avoided as the devil's playground: the internet.
Though not absent from the internet, the church often treated it as a peripheral ministry, using it mainly as a public archive for seminars, sermons, and sessions that took precedence in pre-pandemic life. After lockdown it became abundantly clear that our presence on social platforms would have to be reimagined. Now, the General Conference and local churches have YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even TikTok. World Conferences like Britain and Australia, as well as Adventist broadcasting networks, like AWR, Hope Channel, have launched podcasts that provide engaging content on accessible platforms like Spotify. Apps are being developed to connect to a deeper network of believers, the biblical video game Heroes, was created, and dozens of more programs and projects have been done to answer the call for adaptation.
Digital evangelist Jasper Ivan Iturriaga, spoke at the beginning of the pandemic of his dream “that this will open doors for church to become a creative hub for young people to be trained and could use the talent to advance the cause through their talents and social media... I pray that their church becomes a place of refuge for people.” Almost two years later, his dream has come true. With the need to adopt new methods, the conversations on when and how to integrate young people into active ministry have been put into practice, allowing millennials and gen z to take a front row seat in navigating a new mission outreach to create a productive pocket of christianity in the ever growing movement of social media. Not only this, but thinking outside the box in church ministry has led to intergenerational and interorganizational communication that has brought us closer to unity.
The pandemic broke the foundation of the church methods we all knew and depended on. It has also exposed what is truly important to believers. There are many churches that have resisted this change, preferring to wait out the pandemic in apathetic silence rather than surrender their traditions for the sake of the gospel. By rocking at the core of our church methods, pandemic has begun to sift through the church, beginning the divide of those who will cling to the Gospel or their comfort, revealing the beginning of the remnant church. Constant movement forces us to hold on to the only thing that matters, allowing the holy spirit to cut bone from marrow, divorcing us from any dependence on the method, rather than the message. Kaleb Eisele, founder of Humans of Adventism said it best: “Are you more tied to the mission or the method? Because if you're more tied to the mission the method will always change”. When reflecting on ANN InDepth’s conversations of pastors, visionaries, and experts on how the church can meet this global wake-up call, and the acts of faith in stepping outside our comfort zone into an engagement that has exceeded anything we could ask or imagine, it is safe to say the church has risen to the challenge.