Congregations seeing outreach opportunities in midst of COVID-19 pandemic
Across denominations, there’s a common idiom that goes something like this:
Church is not a building.
Or perhaps this:
Don’t go to church. Be the Church.
For any Christians who hadn’t gotten that message, perhaps it’s coming through loud and clear in the COVID-19 pandemic, with its associated social distancing.
It’s a challenging time for organizations that, regardless of going to or being, have always been predicated on the gathering together of believers.
For a number of local ministers and congregations, though, this has not been a time of hand-wringing, but a time of adjusting on the fly, rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to serve the community.
“We believe we are going to grow through this,” said Tommy Sandefer, lead pastor of Lifespring Church.
If any minister couldn’t be blamed for worrying, it’s Sandefer, on the job at the church just east of the U.S. 36/U.S. 231 junction for about two months. But he’s had plenty of help from his congregation.
“I’ve really been leaning on the people. I’m so new that I don’t know everybody that goes to our church,” Sandefer said. “They’re probably doing better than I could have done if I had been here 10 years.”
Additionally, the inability to meet in person is only reinforcing something Sandefer had been telling his congregation.
“It has caused us to get outside our building,” Sandefer said. “In my time here, I’ve said we need to get outside our church walls to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Never did I know that we would HAVE to do that.”
Getting outside the church walls has different meanings for different congregations, but Sandefer isn’t the only local pastor looking around at the community in these times.
For Bethel Baptist Church, which in normal times has services at both the church building east of Fillmore and at Deer Meadow Primary School in Greencastle, took tangible form in last week’s offering.
“How do we help the church love others in the community in the context of a quarantine?” Bethel Senior Pastor Nathan Couch asked. “We decided pretty quickly that all of the offering that we brought in from last week, we are going to use to help organizations in the community. The economic impact of this is going to be pretty substantial. We were able to raise $10,000 last week.”
Other pastors and congregations have taken notice, such as Rev. Wes Kendall at Greencastle Presbyterian, who acknowledged Bethel’s generous giving in speaking of the challenge to all congregations at these times.
“The church should always be seeking to reach beyond itself to help others,” Kendall said. “Now, we’ve been jolted back to seeing this clearly. We have this great line in our Presbyterian tradition that we are here to help the world outside of our doors, ‘even at the expense of losing our own life.’”
Bethel and Greencastle Presbyterian both have good track records locally of finding ways of reaching beyond the church walls.
Another church with a similar reputation is Gobin Church in Greencastle, most notably with its Transformers program. However, Rev. Bryan Langdoc explained that the quarantine is a challenge for Transformers programming.
“Transformers and its affiliate programs Circles, TALKS Mentoring, Kids Hope USA, and Pay it Forward all include a person-to-person connection,” Langdoc said. “So we have had to adjust and postpone some ministries, while working quickly to identify others, particularly those related to immediate areas of need.”
As more community members find themselves falling on hard times economically, the need for Transformers’ programming will only grow.
So, too, will the needs of those who rely on partnerships Gobin has already forged outside the church walls.
“I am reminded frequently that it’s not the job of the church to somehow bring God to the community,” Langdoc said. “Rather, it’s our task to find where God is already at work, and get busy partnering. I tend to think that if you want to know what Jesus is up to around Greencastle, it’s a good idea to check in with J.D. Grove.”
While Grove owns the downtown business Conspire, she can often be found using her time and energy to help those less fortunate in the community, through initiatives such as the Little Free Pantry effort. Now in a time of need, Grove is again at work.
“J.D. almost immediately stepped in to accommodate the need left by the change in availability of the non-food pantry and Rescued Treasures,” Langdoc said. “One way Gobin Church has partnered with J.D. is by setting up a Community Table outside our Simpson Street entrance. Community members are invited to take or leave items as needed. Gobin is just one of several sites in the community where such a table is available.
“With help from RWH Property Solutions, Gobin has also installed an outdoor Little Free Pantry -- one among several in our community.”
Gobin also continues to partner with 360 Coalition, Beyond Homeless the Putnam County Emergency Food Pantry and has taken part in community response teleconferences hosted by Putnam County Hospital, the Putnam County Health Department and DePauw University.
Bethel has also looked at ways to come alongside such community leaders and see what the church community can do to be of assistance, even if it’s as simple as just reminding church members to abide by state and local mandates.
Couch is also encouraged by the partnerships forming between congregation and pastors, regardless of denomination.
“I’m seeing a lot more of an effort between churches to work together, especially leadership,” Couch said. “I’ve had more conversations with other church leaders in the last three weeks than in the last year.”
One such partnership that already existed was between Harvest House Church, on State Road 240 East, Coatesville, and Gobin.
Harvest House Pastor Joel Everson and Langdoc had been partnering on a Thursday night series called “Presence and Practice,” an exploration of various prayer practices throughout the history of the Christian church.
What might have originally been an in-person gathering is now a Facebook Live Service at 6 p.m. each Thursday, cross-posted on the pages of Gobin, Harvest House and Pub Theology.
“That’s an interesting thing to teach a little bit to an empty room or to a screen,” Everson said. “To do that through that medium is a little bit interesting, but I feel that now more than ever we need that practice.”
This is far from the only way believers are gathering together throughout the week. Everson is posting nightly meditations through the Harvest House Facebook page. Sandefer is using the Lifespring page to post sermons each day from fellow pastors he knows around the country.
Peace Lutheran Church is expanding its weekly devotional email to be a daily prayer guide, as well as increasing the number of calls to parishioners to see how they are holding up.
Peace Lutheran Pastor Matthew Schneider is also leaning on the wisdom of Martin Luther, the reformer who lends the Lutheran tradition its name.
“We even get to hear occasionally from Pastor Luther, the church reformer who served Germany through the Black Death in the 16th century,” Schneider said, “and share the hope he preached in Jesus Christ throughout that plague.”
Pastor Donnie Watson of New Hope Fellowship, located on U.S. 231 north of Greencastle, said his church is looking to meet the challenge of staying active in members’ lives in these times of isolation.
That means online Bible studies, youth groups meeting by videoconference, children’s leaders reaching out to parents and kids digitally and looking for new opportunities.
“We’re contemplating doing a daily devotion type thing too,” Watson said. “We’re going to try and utilize as much of the internet as we can and keep it to the face of the people because if you don’t keep it to the face of the people, they’ll disappear.”
Of course, all of the ways of connecting midweek leave out the most obvious times church communities gather together: On Sunday morning.
Last Sunday was an experiment for many churches, as some tried streaming their Sunday services for only the first or second time. Even those with past streaming experience saw unprecedented numbers of online viewers, all while competing with other churches for the existing bandwidth.
About mid-morning on Sunday, trying to stream became a bit of a challenge.
“There are so many churches just starting doing this that we basically crashed Facebook last Sunday,” Sandefer said, encouraged by the problem.
To avoid some such problems, Canaan Community Church near Heritage Lake is using the week to put the various feature of a normal service together
“Through the week we gather our church interviews for special people features, record our worship music and sermon,” Pastor Kevin Thompson said. “The features are then processed into a single program which is uploaded on YouTube and embedded in the church website.”
In this way, folks can then take part at their own convenience, though they are instructed to hit play at 10:45 a.m. to take part with the bulk of the congregation.
Folks can still interact in real time, though, as those streaming together at 10:45 can use a live chat feature.
Additionally, this week, the church will add a livestream at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. At this time, church leaders will be able to address questions that came up as a result of the morning message as well as addressing other aspects of the week’s theme.
The same livestreaming format will be used for the 6:30 p.m. Wednesday small group sessions.
With Easter just a couple of weeks away, the church also has a way to interact on that holy day.
“We plan to have a large cross at the church entrance with a drop box for prayers, praises and questions,” Thompson said. “Easter Sunday evening we will address the drop-off submissions on the livestream show.”
Lifespring Church is also going the pre-recorded route and posting the service on YouTube and Facebook.
Sandefer is already happy with the results, with the numbers showing similar “attendance” to in-person church.
The church is also using technology to ensure “face-to-face” interaction for Bible studies, children’s ministry and Wednesday evening services
“They’re able to see each other, say hi,” Sandefer said. “Our greeters got to welcome everybody like they’re used to.
“We haven’t canceled a single service -- our prayer night, our Bible studies -- we’ve just moved them online.
The church also has something special up its sleeve for Easter Sunday, planning a drive-in service in which worshippers stay in their cars and “tune in” to a radio transmission of the service.
Greencastle Church of the Nazarene has adopted a similar approach on a weekly basis. (See story on page 1A.)
Couch is also happy with Bethel’s position, having already done some livestreaming. He sees this as a season for folks to turn to the church.
“As much as it is a difficult season, we feel like we’re leveraged for it,” Couch said. We also see it as an opportunity. We often are more willing to hear things when life is turned upside down.”
Langdoc also feels Gobin was as well prepared for the technology as it could be.
“I am thankful for my own background in video editing and production that has allowed us to incorporate recorded video of our church participants throughout the live service,” he said. “While we stream our live service to our website, we’ve found that crossposting the stream to Facebook Live allows for more live interaction in the comment section. We are also now offering a radio version of our service at 9 a.m. on Sundays on WREB 94.3.
Pastoring a small congregation has perhaps simplified the process for Everson. Harvest House worshippers tune in Sunday morning to find Joel and wife Tosh on their couch.
“I felt like there was a sense of solidarity in that -- we’re in our home and you’re in your home,” Everson said. “Especially if this order becomes more stringent.”
The solidarity becomes even more apparent when the Eversons’ dog interrupts the service.
Coming from a tradition where the sacrament doesn’t necessarily need to be blessed, Harvest House has also changed how it does communion -- inviting worshippers to simply partake in their morning coffee and bagel together.
They are even trying to incorporate their normal “Question and Response” session at the end through the use of live chatting.
Everson also sees this as an opportunity for people looking for a church, but intimidated by the process.
“This is a great time for people who are maybe intimidated to walk into a church building,” he said. “You’re not going to get the full experience of course, but it’s a great way to get the tone and the feel of different services.”
Even with the importance of the high-tech part of the Sunday services, Kendall reflects that the changes have made Greencastle Presbyterian “both highly-innovative and super-old-school at the same time.”
“Probably the best part of my last Sunday was doing fellowship time after the service on Zoom and watching a young couple holding their little girl as we laughed and smiled,” Kendall said. “But not everyone has the luxury of digitally connecting. So, I’m also sending out a printed worship sheet to my whole congregation by mail and including a pastoral letter just so everyone has the chance to pick up something from their mailbox and join us in worship even if they don’t have access to the internet.”
In recent weeks, New Hope had been getting together to have the worship team perform and Watson deliver the message. With new regulations from the state, he isn’t sure they can even assemble to that degree.
“So it’s probably going to be just me on our Facebook page,” Watson said.
Not all churches are interpreting state orders in the same way, though, as Peace Lutheran demonstrates. They offer streaming service, but also an alternative.
“We first urge that everyone who can make use of the remote resources do so,” Schneider said, “but we will also keep our doors open for Sunday morning worship,carefully observing CDC social distancing guidelines and doing everything we can to keep the experience safer than your average trip to the grocery store.
Whatever the approach, across the various churches, the pastors seem energized, strong in their faith and ready to see what comes next.
“I’ve said the same thing for years and years,” Sandefer said. “I put it up on our sign this week: ‘God’s got this.’ He wasn’t surprised by any of this.”
Now it’s about answering the call.
“I truly think the churches that emerge best from this will be the ones who put the focus on being there for this community,” Kendall said. “We’ve got to keep pushing out to embrace this community, even if we can’t physically do so right now.”
What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of Sunday worship options in Putnam County. Worshippers at other locations may contact the Banner Graphic for inclusion in an upcoming edition.
Bethel Baptist Church
Worship: 10:30 a.m.
Go to bethel.us or visit their Facebook page.
Canaan Community Church
Worship: 10:45 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church
Worship: 10:30 a.m.
Visit gobinchurch.org/live or tune in on WGRE 91.5 FM.
Greencastle Christian Church
Worship: 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 4 p.m.
Visit Facebook.com/greencastlecc or greencastlecc.org
Greencastle Church of the Nazarene
Worship: 10:30 a.m.
Drive-in service at 580 S. CR 100 East, Greencastle. Tune in to 97.7 FM.
Greencastle Presbyterian Church
Worship: 10:30 a.m.
YouTube: Search “Greencastle Presbyterian Church.”
Worship: 10 a.m.
Go to the Harvest House Church page on Facebook.
Worship: 10:30 a.m.
Youtube: Search “Lifespring Church Bainbridge”
New Hope Fellowship
Worship: 10:30 a.m.
Northview Church - North Putnam Micro Site
Worship: 5 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday
Peace Lutheran Church
Worship: 10:15 a.m.
On Facebook, search “peace lutheran church and school-lcms” or visit in person, with social distancing observed.