Byrd’s advice for these pastors is to be encouraged, “we are a world church...and with that we must look through that lens and so with the point made earlier, it doesn't matter whether you have a thousand views or a hundred views, praise God for the views and the wonderful message”. This past year, we have felt kinship with the Isrealites, and their struggle in hardship. Yet, like the Isrealites, we as God’s people are called to go through the pandemic, and continue to use it to move His kingdom agenda up front.
It has been a little over a year since the world flipped upside down. In its wake, church conferences have been flooded with discussions about how to adapt the church to a new format. In this episode of InDepth, we return to the beginning of the pandemic and see the original conversations with pastors and ministry leaders such as Dwight Nelson, the senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University, Carlton Byrd, speaker and director of Breath of Life Ministries, and Jerry Page, Ministerial Director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.Through their discussions we can see where we hoped to go, and whether we were able to succeed, a year later.
It is no surprise that, for a church that has a traditional practice of in person services, the idea of having to change everything in the wake of a pandemic seemed rare. Yet, there were some infrastructures in place that made the transition possible. Byrd spoke to how his ministry, Breath Of Life, provided ample equipment to jump on the technological track. Partnered with social media and live streaming, it has provided a major increase in accessibility. The shift also opened doors for involvement around the world. “We began a virtual choir,” says Byrd, “ and we got 1.1 million views”. People from every corner of the US, Europe, and the Bahamas, were able to participate in the choir, a feat that would have been impossible if the pandemic did not provide a technological push.
Pioneer Memorial Church (PMC), a bedrock of the Lake Union Conference, has also risen to the challenge. Many congregants know that each PMC service ends with a call to fill out a connect card, a paper slip that allows you to give your information and how you wish to connect to the church, be it through seeking baptism, further study, or membership. PMC has since launched digital connect cards, allowing individuals watching through live stream to maintain the connect card opportunities in the comfort of their home. This has widened the scope of reach to those who may never have attended the services and has doubled the responses. Nelson elaborates on the phenomenon by pointing out how people are asking questions they never thought to ask, expanding the church experience to mean more than physical attendance. “Here are two realities:” observes Nelson, “one, the entire planet in one split second essentially is put on the same agenda. And two, everyone is facing a common enemy which tells us the world can mobilize in a split second and there may be another common enemy and the world can mobilize against it”.
Many pastors can agree that the pandemic has been a wake up call. Churches and ministries had to engage in technology in ways that had seemed divorced from the church experience yet opened the door for new means of connection. “I’d say the most creative things happening are the prayer chains, the zoom meetings, and bible studies.” said Page. The observations made in the interview (given around one month into lockdown in April 2019), spotlight the churches’ quick turnaround time and show the launching point of new platforms that have only grown in the past year. We have seen the united front of movements that not only expand the churches impact but revolutionize old systems. The pandemic has chartered a spiritual renaissance in the modern age.
It must be noted that, for all its reach, there are still churches and congregants that are slow to adapt, but instead are merely waiting for things to return to “normal”. However, even with the benefits of technology, it cannot substitute for certain forms of fellowship. Byrd speaks to the elderly who do not have technology or are not confident in its operation. The ministry director shared that visitation was still done, but adapted to fit social distancing: leaving groceries outside the door, greeting for 6ft apart, communicating over the phone, etc.
Page further addresses this gap by noting similar outreach ministries overseas “You can’t replace [these ministries] with technology, when technology isn't there”.
Page’s observation opens the conversation to the global effects of the pandemic. If cloistered in the western world, the scope of the pandemics impact can be limited. Yet as a world church, there are deeper needs than simply ensuring all congregants maintain a church experience. Churches around the world have been struck with a major economic crisis where poverty, hunger, and unemployment have inflicted a greater impact on congregants. For churches in Italy, Bangladesh and others utilizing technology to stay relevant is secondary to staying alive. Now a year in, these churches have been able to create some aid for their congregants, but the financial stress, threat of the virus, and in some parts of the world, overflowing graveyards, it is still an uphill battle.