Month: March 2020

Church will never be the same

Social distancing and shelter-in-place ordinances that have arisen from this COVID-19 pandemic are challenging the shape of church as we know it. Not the message, not the importance, not the mission. Just the shape—the how behind the what and the why. This is temporary (prayerfully), but its impact is, and will be, further reaching than you might think. We need to start asking the right questions today, if we expect to have the right answers tomorrow.

Regarding the “temporary” reshaping of church life in this season, here are several emerging observations of which church leaders need to be aware. Each is followed by a question church leaders need to be asking. 

1. Digital, online spaces for worshipping and connecting are catching on. Like it or not, your people (and the people you are hoping to reach in your community) are getting used to the ease and accessibility of distance-based church life. The church of yesterday could get by with a completely on-campus experience, but the church of tomorrow will not. The physical gathering of the covenant community is still of utmost importance. Our hearts should long for the gathered fellowship of the redeemed. But if the church of tomorrow is to thrive, it must utilize digital, online tools to keep connected with people, and to drive them to the regular gathering experience(s). The question you need to be asking now: How are we planning to continue using digital, online tools for worship and small group connection?

2. Your people are getting used to having multiple options for faithful, sacrificial, worshipful giving to/through their local church. Faithful, sacrificial giving to and through the local church is no less worshipful behind a smartphone than it is while sitting in a pew. But there are still those in your congregation who feel more connected to their worshipful giving when they tangibly release the check or cash inside the church facilities during a gathered worship setting. This season of social distancing is teaching some people that from this point forward, they can give effectively and worshipfully remotely. It is teaching others how much they long to let go of that gift in person. If your church’s funding mechanism is reliant upon only one method of collection, from this point forward, expect a serious budget shortfall this year and serious budget reductions in the years to come. The question you need to be asking now: How are we planning to continue offering and celebrating multiple giving platforms for tithes and offerings?

3. Your community is being inundated with your church’s online presence. Through the “highly-targeted advertising” and connection matrices of social media platforms, people in your community are being bombarded with your church’s online presence right now. The good news is that just about everyone your church wants to reach is online. The bad news is that just about everyone your church wants to reach is online. Yes, you read that right. Your church office is sharing more online than ever before. Your church’s staff are creating and posting digital resources and devotions. Your church members are tagging your church, each other, and your city’s page(s) in their shares and posts. This is good in that your church is getting more online exposure than ever before. Just make sure that what your community is being exposed to embodies your church’s identity and message well. Take care to produce excellent resources that represent Jesus and your church best. Make sure information is concise and standardized regarding services, ministry opportunities, etc. You don’t want competing or conflicting information from your church circulating online. Also, don’t oversaturate the market. The more unchurched people see from your church on their social feeds, the more likely they will be to ignore it. Share uniform, concise, excellent, well-thought-out information, and circulate it wisely. The question you need to be asking now: What is our plan for creating and circulating uniform, concise, excellent digital tools and information now and in the future?

4. Personal, physical interaction is being avoided, and that will not be changed overnight. The “distancing” part of social distancing will fade very slowly (if at all, for some people) in this generation. People who do end up in close proximity, for one reason or another, are becoming more comfortable with not shaking hands, bumping fists, and giving hugs. They are also becoming more comfortable resisting an outreached hand or an attempted hug, whereas previously they may have embraced such an expression even if reluctantly. Face-to-face interaction in your church gatherings will never be the same—at least not in this generation. There will be church people and guests in every gathering who resist, or at least are hesitant toward, physical expressions of greeting for the rest of their lives. I have no intention to label this as either good or bad in itself. My intent is simply to call it out as a new reality. If your church gatherings have a large group hand-shaking time or a circle-and-hold-hands time during worship gatherings, now is a really good time to reconsider those things. If it is essential to your church’s mission and vision, keep it. If not, kill it. Now’s the time. The question you need to be asking now: When we do gather together again in close proximity, how are we going to accommodate, and to what level will we accommodate, the hesitancy of worshippers’ physical interaction with one another?

5. Small groups in your church are beginning to see value in meeting as a group at less traditional times and from the comfort of their own homes. They are using a number of digital meeting platforms like ZOOM, Google Hangout, RingCentral, and more. Some of them are able to join the group more frequently because their scheduled calls are on Tuesday nights or Saturday mornings. I am not saying these digital platforms need to take the place of your regular, weekly small-group meeting times. But I am saying that if you don’t capture this moment by making plans to continue using videoconferencing platforms as supplemental meeting tools for small groups, you will miss a huge opportunity and you may miss some people, too. The question you need to be asking now: How might we continue to use videoconference platforms to keep our small groups connected in the future?

6. Families are being forced to worship and have devotions together in their own homes—and it’s about time. This is a good thing!!! Husbands and wives are reading Scripture and praying together. Fathers and mothers are leading devotions with their children. Grandchildren are sitting in the laps of their grandparents and hearing stories of God’s faithfulness and glory through the years. There’s nothing novel about this. It is the biblical model. In fact, perhaps there is grace in this whole social distancing episode in that God is forcing us back to a biblical model of prioritizing home-based discipleship. If you miss the opportunity here to cultivate and resource the regular practice of your people taking responsibility for discipleship in their homes, you will miss a timely gift from God. The question you need to be asking now: What plans do we need to make in order to continue celebrating, resourcing and equipping home-based discipleship?

7.  The gospel is reaching further and stronger than ever. Through seasons of unprecedented struggle, the message of the gospel has always brought timeless hope to troubled souls. Through your church’s online tools/resources, the digital reproduction and re-sharing of the gospel message is reaching further and stronger right now than it ever has before. Challenge has forced us into this. But as always, the church has come out shining like stars. The creative and techno-savvy individuals in your church are proving their value today, that the name and fame of Jesus Christ might reach the ends of the earth. We have spent decades trying to get people out of their homes and into the church building. And in only a couple of weeks, every church in America has figured out how to get out of its building and into people’s homes. There are lost and unchurched people watching your services right now who would never have stepped foot in your church. Some of them are halfway around the world. It’s time to stop scorning the Internet as a tool of the devil, and start redeeming it as a tool for the gospel. The question you need to be asking now: How are we using, and how will we continue to use, digital follow-up processes so that those who hear the message of the gospel through our content have an opportunity to respond in faith?

The hard truth is that this pandemic is a generation-shaping crisis. Its affects will be far-reaching and long-standing. In other words, the way we “do” church will never be the same. That’s not altogether a bad thing. Neither is it new to us as God’s people. Being the church never changes, but the way we do church has changed to meet the needs and challenges of every generation. This crisis presents great opportunity for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for his church who carries that good news from generation to generation. Let’s be sure to ask the right questions now, during the crisis, so that we are prepared to effectively capture every Great Commission opportunity this challenge affords us in the days ahead.

My new generation

We’ve all heard plenty about the distinctives of those in their 70s, 50s and 30s, seeking to explain flashpoints and misunderstandings. I think it’s always been this way though our era has made this generational transition more obvious, even louder. But I wonder if our current extraordinary context is going to make us more unified in the face of a crisis. 

In a smaller way, compare this with a world war. Political, racial, regional and generational differences remain but they are muted in the face of a common threat. If we are all refined in the same crucible, we’ll have some new things in common for the rest of our lives. Here are a couple of things that seem to be softening those distinctives. 

Technology-An oft-cited characteristic of younger generations is that they are mind-melded with their devices. Right now, nearly all of us are using our phones and computers to keep us joined to our families, jobs, restaurants and churches. I sit here now writing on my laptop, listening to music from my tablet, waiting for a virtual meeting with my staff. This is different for me, more like the lives of my children.

Solitude and limits-Someone told me this quarantine was a good trial run for retirement. I argued with that idea because I don’t think retirement will be a time when I can’t go to church or sit in a room with people, but I also have more in common now with my shut-in elders than ever before. I feel their loneliness in a small way. Will it make us generally more sympathetic, more likely to call on them when we are able to do so? 

Creativity-Old(er) dogs are having to learn new tricks. There are things we need to do in order to be the people of God but we can’t do them in the same old ways. A couple of weeks into our isolation and social distancing directives we find new limits put on us every few days—another place we can’t go or thing we can’t do in the old way. How do we do what we need to do in the face of a relentlessly fluid context?

Consider the World War 2 generation. My grandfathers were definitely part of that generation as they served in the army in one case and a government post in the other. But my parents, children in those years, were also marked by those days as they experienced rationing, fear and the loss of friends or family. Those young men had parents as well–my great-grandparents—who shared the travails of the home front as well as anxiety for their kids. I’ve always considered them all part of that great generation that weathered xx, fought for and rebuilt America. The lines between them were smudged by extraordinary years. For me, a Cold War baby, WWII and the change it made to the world was as close to my childhood as 9/11 is to my grandchildren; none of them could remember it but each of them will live with the changes it made to our world. By my reckoning then, a major world event can easily impact four distinct generations. They can speak to each other about that event and their common experience of it. 

Again, we don’t yet have any reason to think the duration of this crisis will compare with that. Perhaps the death toll in our nation will be similar and the number who get sick much larger. But whether the duration is months or years our nation is marked for a generation. Some have suggested that friends will be less likely to hug, men less likely to shake hands, from now on. Future generations may not recall why a wave or a fist bump is the new expression of trust or affection if that’s the case. You who are younger now may be those “okay Boomer” people who explain it to tomorrow’s kids while they roll their eyes. Social distancing may, in some ways, become a permanent fixture in our culture. Remember old standard that said that a church auditorium is effectively full when it’s at 80 percent capacity? Maybe people will stop coming when the percentage is much lower from now on. 

For now, we all, my parents and my grandchildren, share the experience of waiting for the other shoe—a wave of tragedy that some predict—to drop into our disrupted lives. Perhaps the various friction points in our society will smooth out for a while. Maybe we’ll grant each other a little mercy as we pray for God’s mercy during the storm. 

I wouldn’t suggest that a tragedy is worth this little cease fire in our various cultural clashes, or even that these clashes are nothing important, but it is a comfort to be reminded that some things are bigger than our opinions and tribal traits. If we’re going to suffer the privations of a worldwide pandemic in any case, let’s embrace (metaphorically) our fellow sufferers as neighbors for next few weeks.  

Amid COVID-19, churches with debt urged to be proactive

GRAPEVINE—As the COVID-19 pandemic creates economic volatility, churches struggling to stay current on their loan payments are being advised to contact their lenders and not panic.

Of the more than 300,000 churches in the United States, thousands carry debt. Finances may well be tightening at those congregations as the coronavirus drives down offerings. The Barna Group reported on its ChurchPulse podcast that 62 percent of U.S. pastors surveyed in mid-March said giving was down at their churches. Thirty-four percent said it was at the same level as before the COVID-19 pandemic, and just 2 percent said offerings had increased.

Bart McDonald, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Foundation (SBTF), said churches struggling to pay their debts still have time to head off financial disaster. But they must act soon.

“There’s going to be relief in the short term,” McDonald said. Especially if a church was current on its loan payments at the outset of the pandemic, “there’s going to be flexibility” from lenders.

McDonald and other Southern Baptists of Texas Convention leaders hope they can disseminate counsel to struggling churches while the window of opportunity to work with lenders remains open. They are especially eager to help churches with both debt and minimal cash reserves.

According to an analysis by the SBTC staff, approximately 125 Texas Southern Baptist churches are at risk of not being able to pay their pastors because of the coronavirus downturn. If the pandemic keeps church facilities shuttered through May 10, the number could rise to 175—slightly more if the crisis stretches into June. The financial stress on those churches could be magnified by any outstanding debt, according to the analysis.

Small churches with debt may be in greatest danger. They have been impacted by the coronavirus more than large and medium-sized congregations, Barna reported. In mid-March, churches with 250 or more attendees reported better attendance than their smaller counterparts, while medium-sized churches “did pretty well.”

McDonald recommended several action steps for churches with debt. First, create a contingency budget reforecasting income during the pandemic and allocating funds for loan payments. Then, call the lender if your church still can’t make its payments, he said.

A Mar. 22 memo from the federal government to federally insured lenders authorized financial institutions—including those serving churches—to “mitigate adverse effects on borrowers due to COVID-19” by modifying repayment plans in the short term. Practically, that could mean “payment deferrals, fee waivers, [and] extensions of repayment terms.”

SBTC chief financial officer Joe Davis urged churches with debt to “communicate early and often with their lender.”

“Financial institutions are working to understand and respond to the uncertain position that their borrowers face,” he said.

The SBTF sent a Mar. 26 notice to its approximately 50 borrowing clients notifying them of options during the pandemic. Among them:

  • Borrowers may convert their loans to interest-only payments for six months.
  • Borrowers may access funds they were required to deposit with the Foundation and use them for debt payments. Those funds must be redeposited after the crisis.
  • Borrowers may receive free consulting from the Foundation as they seek to restructure budgets.

McDonald expects similar options from other lenders, including Baptist foundations. The SBTF is among five state Baptist foundations that lend to churches out of 34 total state foundations.

For churches that need more capital to weather the crisis, securing an additional loan is another possibility, McDonald said, though he cautioned churches to keep some cash reserves on hand.

Cash-strapped churches will have access to federally guaranteed loans authorized under the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress and signed into law Mar. 27 by President Trump. The bill allows the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help guarantee loans at participating banks for organizations with up to 500 employees. The loans may be used to cover payroll, health insurance, mortgage or rent payments and other specified expenses. The loans can be forgiven if used for payroll within specified parameters.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast in 2017, some affected SBTC churches secured SBA loans through a similar program, McDonald said. “Those loans were priced well below market, had flexible periods of interest only and in some cases deferrals before the churches had to begin repaying the amounts borrowed,” he said.

For churches, the effects of the present economic downturn will increase the longer it lasts, McDonald said, and it may “fundamentally change the American economic system.” Davis noted “the financial impact of the COVID-19 epidemic is still unfolding but is certain to be remarkable.”

Though economic forecasts vary, a slow recovery could begin the second half of 2020 and gain momentum in 2021, according to USA Today. Until then, McDonald said, the SBTC and the SBTF will seek “to get our churches to the other side of the pandemic.”

Chocolate factory now making medical face shields

MOUNT PLEASANT—A chocolate factory owned by a couple of Southern Baptists is among the factories that have converted to make medical face shields to supply hospitals with personal protective equipment needed in the COVID-19 fight. 

Michael and Angie Moss own Sweet Shop USA, the largest handmade chocolate manufacturer in the country, in Mount Pleasant, Texas. The company was founded in Fort Worth nearly 50 years ago before relocating to northeast Texas, and they supply thousands of retailers nationwide, including Nordstrom.

With the slowdown of sales at retail stores because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sweet Shop USA wasn’t receiving as many orders and had to lay off about 10 of their 80 employees. The Mosses, members of New Beginnings Baptist Church in Longview, were praying about what to do to when they heard President Trump mention the Defense Production Act.

“My husband remembers his grandparents talking about World War II and how companies did other things during that time to meet needs in the supply chain,” Angie Moss told the TEXAN. 

On March 20, Michael Moss woke up with an idea to make medical face shields. He contacted a vendor in New York who usually supplies the chocolate factory with packaging and asked if he could cut plastic shields with a die cut machine. The vendor told Moss he was planning to close his doors the following Monday because of a lack of orders, and he was delighted to have something to make, Angie Moss said.  

Sweet Shop USA started spreading the word that they would be able to supply face shields, and within hours hospitals in New York, Chicago and Seattle were interested, said Moss, who also serves as vice president of sales.

Six days after Michael Moss looked into the idea, the first face shields rolled off the converted assembly line. The Mosses’ college-age son planned to personally deliver 14 cases to a hospital in Tyler the next day “just to get them to them faster because they need them urgently,” Moss said.

“We presold in the first three days almost 300,000 facial shields,” she said, adding that many hospitals usually order from manufacturers overseas, such as in China, but the pandemic has severely disrupted those supply chains.

The face shields now produced at the chocolate factory are called “Waymaker,” Moss said, because Isaiah 43:16-19 has been important to them in recent days. The passage says in part, “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the desert.” 

To make the shields, Sweet Shop USA converted its packing area – 20,000 square feet of the 80,000 square feet facility. They set up tables “sort of like stations, and we’re trying to practice social distancing. They’ve got masks on too, trying to keep everybody safe,” Moss said. 

“We’re basically assembling them. We’re getting the plastic that’s cut, and we’re gluing the foam on the inside of the shields. Foam is something we have a lot of because we use it sometimes to pack things in,” she said. 

“Then we have the elastic that goes around the back, and we’re attaching that to the side of the mask. Everything is very manual. The only thing that the machine is really helping us do is seal the plastic. We put each shield in a plastic sheath, and we have a glue thing that seals that for us and we hand put it into the boxes.”

Many of the company’s production workers are accustomed to cutting chocolate and decorating intricate pieces, so they are able to delicately work with their hands, she said. “They’re doing a fantastic job.”

As long as they’re able to get the plastic, which is in short supply, Moss said Sweet Shop USA can make up to 40,000 shields per day. Meanwhile, the factory is still making chocolate. 

“We’re not looking to get into another business at all,” Moss said. “We love chocolate, but the Lord has made this possible for us. He gave us the idea, and He has provided the tools. We have the connections, and we have the labor and the staff to do it.”

Moss said they’ve been “blown away” by the response from hospitals in desperate need of something they can provide. 

“We’re just very humbled and grateful to the Lord that we can help our health care workers that are on the front lines so they can be confident. Plus, we have work for our employees during this slow time,” she said. 

Todd Kaunitz, lead pastor of New Beginnings Baptist Church in Longview, told the TEXAN it’s “overwhelming to see how God is using the Moss family during this time of crisis.”

“I truly believe that the greatest way followers of Jesus can advance God’s mission is by leveraging their vocation,” Kaunitz said. “Michael and Angie have taken this to another level. Through this effort, not only are they able to meet a definitive need within the medical community, they are displaying the love of Jesus in a tangible way.”

Whom shall I fear?

Are you a little nervous these days? Being of a certain age, I’m anxious to see the stock market in free fall today. It’s unlikely I’ll get sick—it’s unlikely you’ll get sick—but it is already probable that a lot of things will be disrupted. Any list of cancellations and closures I offer in evidence will be out of date by the time you read this; things are shifting daily. You know this. Are you afraid? 

This is a test, sisters and brothers, something that proves our aspirations regarding what we love, and where our hearts might be. If your treasure is here, watching your retirement account burn is a catastrophe. If your life is here, your future, the threat of getting sick because of where you shop, is terrifying. Reverse that. A panic in your heart over the stock market may indicate that you love the wrong things. This is not the worst thing that’s happened and this is not the only upset the world is facing, but it does seem to be the challenge of 2020. If you are over 60 you may look at this with more anxiety than you looked at the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It threatens to impact you in ways the attacks on the East Coast did not. So maybe this test is more personal for you, but it is a test of what you love and fear.

As is often the case, guarding your heart in the midst of troubled times begins with guarding your ears and eyes. I learned years ago that some people are negative or hysterical in a way that makes me think dark thoughts; I avoid them. Some publications tempt me to despair; I’ve started reading them selectively. Public figures who seem to only talk in hyperbole, in all capital letters, have lost their ability to bless my life these days. These filters have not hindered my ability to stay up on things but it has made it less likely that I believe anything a person or nation can do will make the sky fall. 

Filling my eyes and ears more and more with Scripture has given me a greater heavenly perspective on even the truly bad things that happen in the world. The Bible doesn’t speak to how to treat the coronavirus, does it? But the larger issue for Christians is always how we live as believers in the God who never changes though we are in an always-changing world. The Bible does tell us who the eternal God is and how we should live before him, regardless of our immediate context. The Bible also tells the stories of those in horrible affliction—war, slavery, exile and martyrdom—who still found God faithful for this life and the next. Economic upheaval and disruption of my plans are not yet on par with being dragged to Babylon and being ordered to worship an idol. Scripture gives me a little perspective on current events as well. 

I also find it helpful to focus on the things I’ve been given to do today rather than on what might happen months or years from now. That’s a biblical precept as well if you think of Matthew 6:33 and Jesus’ command to stop worrying about things beyond our power. Living in the moment is a matter of faith. It is a statement of trust in the God who knows the future on the part of a servant who does not. 

Certainly there are matters of prudence and planning appropriate to any day. There are experts who can tell us how to limit our risk in the midst of a global health crisis. These are usually pretty mundane suggestions that have to do with how we live our daily lives since we can’t control how someone else lives his. Taking care and good advice is not a lack of faith. But I do believe worry and stress can indicate that we are afraid of things that can only threaten us for a limited time. 

The promises of God are forever and sure, and not of this world. It seems to be a fine balance to look intently at the daily work we’ve been given and to at the same time do it with a mind toward eternal things, looking over the temporal things that threaten and tempt. That’s the nature of the race we run, one step at a time but with the victor’s crown as our focus. 

My anxiety is often about money and normalcy and long life. God doesn’t promise us these things. And we can’t do anything to ensure that we’ll get them. So join me in asking each morning, and maybe several times a day, “What do I have to fear?” and “What do I love more than anything else?” You’ll either be calmer or convicted as you consider these things. 

In lockdown, pastors across Europe prepare church members to face grief, share hope

EUROPE — Tim Melton said the coronavirus hasn’t made it into the living room of his family’s two-bedroom apartment yet or inside the virtual walls of his church.

But as the congregation of International Baptist Church in Madrid is spread out all over the city in lockdown, he watches the numbers climb, and he knows it could happen soon.

“It’s getting really bad in the hospitals,” said Melton, originally from Wharton, Texas. “I don’t feel that in my house right now, but we have a church member working in medical care who is in the middle of it every day.”

So right now, Melton is focusing on helping his church find creative ways to meet practical needs and share hope in the midst of lockdown—and prepare spiritually for even harder times.

They’re upbeat right now, but “a month from now, if people in the church have died, or if people we know have died, there will be a different feel to the conversation,” he said.

Parker Windle, pastor of Emmanuel International Church in Paris, said he has the same burdens, and they’re getting heavier by the minute—some members of his congregation already have the virus.

“I’ve been calling my church members, and it’s given me an opportunity to connect in a different way,” said Windle, an Alabama native whose church, like Melton’s, is part of the International Baptist Convention (IBC). “I think in general people are more open right now to talk about difficult things. They want to debrief and talk through Scriptural implications of this.”

As the numbers rise, Windle said he knows it’s very possible some people in his church will be touched by grief.

“We’ll have to be thinking about the people impacted in that way and help them get ready to face that,” he said.

In Italy, which has one of the largest shares of coronavirus cases and deaths so far, Pastor Loren Holland said he also has that on his mind.

“Looking at 1 Peter 1:13, we as a church are thinking of this idea of preparing,” said Holland, pastor of Rome International Church. “What does it look like to prepare for bad news? What does it look like to be prepared to share hope with people who are awakened during this time to their need for a Savior?”

Most members of the church—which is also part of the IBC—are immigrants from other countries and for many of them the church is their family, said Holland, a missionary kid and graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“That’s what my heart beats for the most right now,” he said. “A lot of them are scared and anxious about what’s going to happen.”

In all three churches—and many others—those fears range from losing loved ones to losing their livelihood.

Melton said one of his church’s biggest challenges has been figuring out how to get money and food to people who are out of work.

“One of our big questions has been how do you bear one another’s burdens when you can’t leave your house? We bought groceries in bulk to get ahead of the curve, but now we’re having to figure out how to distribute them,” he said.

That may involve renting a van, if they can get police permission. Or it may mean they have to start navigating a way of helping each other that involves sending money to the bank accounts of members in need, Melton said.

“Traditionally, we don’t give cash, but if sending them the money to walk to the store on the corner is better than them having to take public transportation across the city to get a box of food and bring it back, then we might have to start figuring out how to do that well,” he said.

Windle said for his church, another concern on his mind is the divorce rate—he read that China saw a spike in its divorce rate after quarantine restrictions were lifted.

“These young married couples are all of a sudden confined in an apartment together and they’ve never spent that much time together. They’re suddenly in very confined spaces, and that can bring a lot of challenges,” he said. “I addressed that in my sermon online this past week, and I had church members who told me later, ‘You know, we looked at each other when you said that, because we had just been fighting right before church.’”

Melton said his church is trying to think outside the box on ways to speak into difficult situations with hope, both inside and outside the church.

“We’re trying to think through how to ride this wave evangelistically,” he said, noting that they were brainstorming ways to create online content that church members could share.

Holland said he’s also trying to ready his church to share the gospel when opportunities present themselves in conversations over the coming days.

“When people come to us looking for hope, we want to be ready to share it,” he said. “At first, everyone thought this was just going to blow over, and over the last week it has been a lot more solemn here in Rome. We live in an area that needs the gospel, and we need prayer for us to have divine creativity in this moment.”

Rain, coronavirus threat doesn’t stop Texas church’s “drive-in movie style” service

MONTGOMERY— The rain and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t keep members of First Montgomery Baptist Church from gathering on Sunday for a drive-in style worship service.

Amid the crisis, Pastor Chris Gober decided the outdoor approach, with the help of an FM transmitter, was the safest and most unified way to bring the Texas congregation together for their 10:45 a.m. Sunday service on Mar. 22, the TEXAN reported. While this approach to worship isn’t anything new—televangelist Robert Schuller built his ministry with the idea—more and more churches across the country are deciding it’s the best way to go for now. 

“We had 187 people come to the drive-in church,” said Gober, whose church typically runs around 300 in attendance. But he noted, “with the livestream added in, we were back to full attendance numbers, which is remarkable during this time.”

“It went very well,” he noted. “Due to excessive rain, we moved to our paved parking lots instead of the field, but it worked great!”

The congregation needed some hope, Gober said.

 “I saw several church members crying because of the joy of being at church together. Stress and anxiety are so high right now,” he said. “I think it’s crucial for the church to bring the message of peace to the world. We don’t need to be anxious, be afraid or be worried. We just need to be prepared by accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior and trusting him during sunshine and storms.”

Gober hopes other pastors will be inspired to develop creative approaches to ministry during this challenging time that is stretching pastors and ministry staff with the challenge of staying connected to their congregations. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center on Mar. 23, Texas had confirmed 758 cases and 9 deaths. And most states have requested that groups stay to less than 10.

 “We feel like this is within those guidelines if you can maintain the isolation within your car,” Gober said, “Because you won’t actually come into contact with anyone except the people in your car, which were in your home to begin with.”

Katy’s First Baptist Church announced on Sunday that they planned to host a drive-in style service on Mar. 29.

“We’re super excited,” Pastor Coleman Philley told the congregation while standing in an empty sanctuary during the church’s livestream service this past Sunday. “It’s a unique opportunity to get out of the house, still honor our local authority instructions of social distancing, keeping safe and healthy.”

“Although the way church looks has changed recently, the needs are still great,” said Philley, reminding the congregation of the importance of continuing to give faithfully.

Outside of Texas, David Fork Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, held its first drive-in style service Mar. 15, WKYT reported. Most of the congregation is made up of senior adults, said Pastor Micky Hyder. And according to healthcare professionals, adults above the age of 60 are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“We still want to spread the Word without spreading the virus,” said the pastor, who noted the church hardly ever cancels services even in times inclement weather.

And for church member Sarah Rose, who pulled up in their vehicle for the 11 a.m. service, the outdoor service was an opportunity to experience the community of a church service without being exposed to the virus.

“I love the fact that even with everything that’s going around that we are still able to come together and worship,” she told WKYT, “and we can do this safely and its definitely very fun, interesting and unique.”

Hyder hopes the church will be worshiping back in the building by Easter. 

Pastor Gober of First Montgomery acknowledges the outdoor approach isn’t perfect, but it was a positive step forward.

“At First Montgomery, we are a hugging, welcoming family, so I heard several times how hard it was not to hug people, but we were so glad to see each other, wave, talk and have a bit of normalcy back.”

Gober focused his message on how God, not man, is control. Most people live “under the illusion of control,” he said.

 “We feel like we’re in control of our lives and often that results in us drifting from God,” he said. “But times like this are often the times where we see the reality that we’re not in control. And it’s the perfect time to lean into God, not to lean away from God.”

COVID-19 forces cancellation of SBC annual meeting, third time in convention history

For the first time since World War II the Southern Baptist Convention will not hold its annual meeting, the SBC Executive Committee announced earlier today. The announcement regarding the meeting, which was to be held in Orlando June 9-10, was published by Baptist Press and was shared throughout the convention’s social media channels.

“We know it is the right thing to do,” SBC Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd told Baptist Press. “We are extremely disappointed in having to make this decision, but God will see us through and give us a way until we are able to meet in person together again. 

“We know our churches need to focus on ministering to their communities and to those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” he said.

The COVID-19 virus has forced the world to reevaluate the wisdom of social interaction in not only work, sports, entertainment and dining, but also for church and associational gatherings like the SBC’s annual meeting. Many states and localities have shelter-in-place orders, and because of the nature of the virus there is no way to know when a mass gathering such as the SBC might be viable.

According to Baptist Press, the cancellation was in the interest of public health and in keeping with guidelines on social gatherings from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House. 

The decision follows a number of other cancellations for large gatherings, the most recent of which is the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics scheduled for Tokyo, Japan in July.

Article XI Section 4 of the SBC Constitution contains a provision allowing for the cancellation of an annual meeting “in case of grave emergency.” The power to make such a decision, according to the constitution, is vested with “the Convention officers, the Executive Committee, and the executive heads of the Convention’s boards and institutions acting in a body.”

The decision to cancel was unanimous, with 77 members of the Executive Committee, the 12 members of the Great Commission Council and all elected officers voting in favor.

“While the constitutional process of voting to cancel is a simple one that involves around 100 leaders,” EC chairman Mike Stone said, “the information needed to actually make the wisest decision is quite involved. The EC staff, officers and legal counsel worked diligently to consider the various results of cancellation.”

In his capacity as president of the SBC, JD Greear, pastor of the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, was a part of the group that ultimately made the decision to cancel.

“We are a people committed to keeping the gospel above all,” Greear told Baptist Press, “and our sole purpose in coming together is to support one another in that mission, catalyzing our collective mission efforts. This year, our unusual circumstances mean we can best meet that goal by not meeting together.”

According to the convention’s governing documents, no convention business which can only be conducted with a quorum of registered messengers will be able to take place in 2020. Among other things, such business would include voting on resolutions and motions, filling vacant trustee positions and electing new convention officers.

Each entity’s charter will dictate how they move forward with expiring trustee terms. Some trustees may be asked to continue through 2021, while some boards may function with vacancies in the interim. 

Elected officers will remain in their positions until 2021, when new elections can be held at the annual meeting in Nashville. This is in keeping with Article V of the SBC Constitution, which states that officers “shall hold office until their successors are elected and qualified.”

The Cooperative Program Allocation Budget and the Executive Committee and SBC Operating Budget, which run from Oct. 1 through Sep. 30, may be adopted by the Executive Committee, which has ad interim authority according to Baptist Press.

Because another Committee on Nominations cannot be established, this year’s Committee on Nominations will at next year’s annual meeting put forth trustees to fill vacancies arising from terms expiring in both 2020 and 2021. The resolutions committee appointed by Greear earlier this year will carry over and preside over the resolutions process in Nashville as well.

The pastors’ conference, which was scheduled to be held during the two days prior to the annual meeting, is also being cancelled. David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Orlando and 2020 pastors’ conference president, expressed hope in the midst of uncertainty and changed plans.

“Who would have ever dreamed we would be in this kind of situation? I’m overwhelmed at all that’s happening around us that’s resulted in the cancelling of a meeting I’ve been to for over forty years,” Uth said. “At the same time, these times demand that we be like the men of Issachar, who discerned the times and understood the will of the Lord. And I really believe that, in spite of the fact that we would love to be meeting, what we must be doing is ministering to communities and cities that are going through this crisis and the aftermath and need hope.”

The pastors’ conference speaker lineup had been a source of criticism in February, sparking a move from the Executive Committee stipulating that adjustments be made to the program. Uth had asked for a 40-day season of prayer and fasting, set to end on March 29, before responding to the EC’s action. 

Several other issues have been sources of friction in the convention over the last year, including Resolution 9, “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” passed at the 2019 annual meeting in Birmingham; the recently announced Executive Committee investigation into the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s effect on Cooperative Program giving; and issues related to the role of women in ministry.

Jared Wellman, pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church and Executive Committee member, served on the Resolutions Committee in 2019 and had been selected to do so again this year.

“To me there’s a tension,” Wellman said. “The gathering of the SBC 2020—which was already shaping up to be a heated one—has been cancelled by something that has caused us to forget about our differences and come together over what unites us.

“This new climate has stripped away a lot of idols and unnecessary things,” he said, “and caused us to come together.”

In an email announcing the cancellation, Floyd challenged Southern Baptists not to “shrink back in timidity and fearfulness or be paralyzed with uncertainty.”

“This is not the time to retreat,” he wrote. “This is a time for us to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in every town, every city, every state and every nation.”

Jesus is alive

April 12th is Easter Sunday! Everything changed on that day nearly 2,000 years ago. Jesus, the God-man, had died on the cross. His lifeless body had been in the tomb for three days and nights. But on Sunday morning, Jesus came out of the grave never to die again. He guarantees anyone who comes to him in repentance and faith the forgiveness of sin and eternal life. 

When the apostle Paul spoke of the “hope of the resurrection” (Acts 23:6) he was not using the word “hope” as we do in our common vernacular. If I say that I “hope” the Rangers will win the World Series that might be wishful thinking. Biblical “hope” is a confident expectation. Biblical hope is a factual reality that has not been realized yet.

American Christianity is being put to the test. As I am writing this we are in the midst of a cataclysmic disaster facing this country. Yet we have been here before. In the Civil War there were over 600,000 deaths in a five-year span. The 1918 influenza epidemic killed almost 700,000 Americans. The Great Depression of 1929 devastated the U.S. economy. Half of all banks failed. Unemployment rose to 25 percent and homelessness increased. Housing prices plummeted 30 percent, international trade collapsed by 65 percent, and prices fell 10 percent per year. It took 25 years for the stock market to recover. This is not to minimize the seriousness of the current situation, but Americans have seen worse.

As believers, this should be a wakeup call for us. While there is nothing wrong with having nice things, we can now put them in perspective. We are to be good stewards of the possessions God has loaned to us. We are to take care of our health because our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This crisis also calls us back to sound doctrine. The false claims of the prosperity gospel preachers ring hollow today. I saw where one health and wealth church called off a “healing” service due to the coronavirus. The stark reality of living in a sin cursed world causes false teaching to collapse.

What are we to do if we lost our savings, business, health or even a loved one due to the coronavirus? As followers of Jesus we are to turn to the promise of God. Romans 15:13 says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Now is the time for our faith to go on the offensive.

Dive into God’s Word. Let it bring you comfort. Spend time in prayer as never before. Seek the Lord’s face—not just his hand of blessing. Share Good News. People are fearful. Depression paralyzes those without hope. We have the message of hope in Jesus. Even in social distancing we need each other. Reconnect with friends and family through electronic means. Make this a time of renewing old friendships and strengthening family ties. 

When all is taken away, we have the Lord. Remember everything changed 2,000 years ago. The hope of the resurrection is not wishful thinking. It is the confident expectation that our Risen Lord will be with us through this life and we will be with him in the life to come. 

Revitalization and revival

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is bigger than you think. It’s not in a frame hanging in a museum. In fact, it’s larger than life, measuring twenty-three feet tall and twenty-nine feet wide, painted on a wall in a convent in Milan, Italy. It’s not only bigger than you expect, it’s been a big challenge to maintain. 

When da Vinci painted what is now one of the world’s most recognizable masterpieces, he unwisely chose materials that generations have struggled to maintain. For instance, the plaster on the wall and the paint itself started chipping and fading during the painter’s lifetime. Multiple inadequate attempts at restoring the original color and beauty of the artwork, in most cases, made it worse. Then in 1999, about five hundred years after da Vinci completed the fresco, a multi-year restoration project was completed. Today, the latest attempt at maintaining the art, involving 21st century air filtration technology installed at the church, is currently underway. 

Why have so many people for so many centuries worked so hard and spent so much money to restore da Vinci’s work? Put simply, the value of the work demands it. It cannot be replaced, so it must be restored. 

The church of Jesus is like that in a way. It can never be replaced, but it can be revived when dying, restored when damaged and revitalized when declining. The value of the church is incalculable, so restoring it, reviving it and seeing it revitalized is worth our best effort. Today about 80 percent of our Southern Baptist churches are stalled or declining. It’s a staggering number. While the Southern Baptist Convention has properly focused a lot of training, money and effort on church planting, there is a renewed effort today at revitalizing existing churches. How important is church revitalization? The statistics tell the story. Of our 47,500 Southern Baptist churches, only slightly less than 700 of them were started last year. No matter how generous we are with the math, we quickly realize that at least more than 40,000 churches are existing churches, and 80 percent, or at least 32,000, of them are plateaued or are in decline. Church revitalization is an urgent concern.  

Many of our SBTC churches are existing churches that can benefit from what we’re learning today about church revitalization. Imagine hundreds of existing churches in Texas—currently in decline—experiencing a reversal of that trend. Imagine hundreds of our churches starting to grow again. The change could come if churches admit the need and seek the help. 

Fortunately, the SBTC is a leader in church revitalization. For instance, on our SBTC website you can find our SBTC Church Revitalization app. It contains videos, book reviews, forms and a lot of other material to help pastors lead their churches through a church revitalization process. Your own church prayer ministry, the preaching ministry, leadership, evangelism, discipleship and many other existing ministries, when properly focused and renewed, can help revitalize your church. The SBTC Church Revitalization resources can help.

Our churches can get healthy, and they can grow again. And like the famous restorations of da Vinci’s Last Supper, our churches are worth the investment it takes to revive them. Perhaps more importantly, our churches—revived and revitalized—are a gift to the communities where they exist. A revitalized, revived church is a brilliant testimony to the miracle-working power of our God and a bright light in the darkness for souls who will be saved through the ministries of our churches. Through the SBTC you can find numerous models of revitalization, including assistance with mergers, replanting, covenant revitalization, consultant lead, spiritual renewal and more. 

Pastors, don’t hesitate to get help. Let’s work together to see our churches revitalized. Contact the SBTC. The greatest restored masterpiece in your community won’t be a da Vinci painting; it will be the church awakened and alive again!