Annual meeting panel discussions address post-COVID ministry

AUSTINThe coronavirus pandemic has been a great leveler among SBTC churches. Virus mitigation protocols temporarily shuttered churches. Large, small, floundering or thriving pre-COVID, all SBTC congregations have all been forced to re-imagine how they will obey the Great Commission.

Once Texas churches were allowed to open in April, members gradually—some hesitantly—began meeting in-person for corporate worship and Bible study. By November, and still in the midst of a pandemic, SBTC leaders and pastors confessed failings and struggles over the months during three panel discussions. They offered encouragement and practical advice for similarly situated churches desiring to remain faithful to God’s call.

Re-Engaging the heart

“Stick to the basics,” said Gregg Matte, pastor of Houston’s First during the panel discussion “Re-Engaging the Heart: Keeping focused on the Mission—Acts 1:8.

Other panelists included Matt Queen, Southwestern associate dean of the Roy J. Fish School of Evangelism and Missions; Alex Traverston, IMB missionary; and Caleb Turner, Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church assistant pastor. Kenneth Priest, SBTC director of Convention Strategies, moderated.

Although the three panels addressed different topics a common admonition wove them together:  keeping a quiet time, praying and seeking God’s will are paramount for every pastor, especially during the upheaval caused by the pandemic.

“During this time, use this for a positive,” Matte said. “There’s a lot of positive change that can come out.”

While the lockdowns have stripped church activities down to the bare bones, Matte said they have also given churches an opportunity to re-evaluate the need for programs that have built up and remained like “sedimentary rock.” 

Christians who were not actively sharing the gospel prior to the pandemic probably weren’t doing that during the pandemic said Queen. But the new circumstances offer opportunities to change habits.

Current circumstances have spurred churches to revive ministries they had furloughed long before the virus outbreak, Queen said. For example, by addressing community needs with food and clothing pantries churches demonstrate the love of Christ and the gospel.

Priest asked Turner how Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church had been intentionally sharing the gospel during the pandemic.

“We haven’t. We haven’t. Transparency, I think, is best. We have not done a good job of that,” Turner confessed.

Perhaps other pastors have likewise taken their eyes off what is important, he said.

“We’ve been so inwardly [focused] during this time that we’ve forgotten our call from Christ. The commission from Christ,” Turner told the 400 messengers. “But when I leave from here some things are going to change. I am grateful to God for that.”

Shifting from state-side engagement, Priest asked Traverston how ministry “to the ends of the earth” has changed.

“Definitely the plans went out the window,” said Traverston.

The undisclosed region where he lives faced some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world. In order to remain faithful to the call to make disciples, Traverston said there almost had to be “a forced commissioning of lay people.” 

And the lay disciples began reaching their neighbors in the densely populated city.

“So, we’ve seen, almost, a new little army of ordinary people doing the will of God. And that’s what we need,” Traverston said. “If we do not equip disciples to make disciples, have a culture of that, we don’t stand a chance.”

Reaching the next generation

Discipling parents to better equip them to raise their children in the faith was a key theme during the panel discussion, “Reaching the Next Generation in a Post-COVID World.”

Panelists included Hannah Lee Duffey, children’s minister at Hyde Park Baptist Church; Brent Isbill, lead pastor at Epic Life Church; Jessica Kowalski, college ministry director at Great Hills Baptist Church; Jason Mick, minister to students at Prestonwood Baptist Church; Hannah Lee Duffey, children’s minister at Hyde Park Baptist Church; and Rylan Scott, pastor of student ministries at Houston Northwest Church.

Panel moderator, Shane Pruitt, Next Gen director for the North American Mission Board, recently polled 2,700 people and discovered that 95 percent of those surveyed had professed faith in Christ before they turned 30.

That demonstrates the scope of the challenge of reaching the 82 million Americans in that younger age group he said. The oldest among that generation are the often-maligned Millennials.

And they’re having children—the Alpha Generation.

“As we’ve gone through COVID, if we didn’t equip them to disciple their kids, we have thrown them into the fire,” said Duffey.

Like the pastors on the “Re-Engaging” panel, Duffey said parents also benefit from getting back to the basics of prayer and Bible study.

“Because, you know what, if a parent’s having a quiet time and they’re growing with the Lord, there’s no way they can’t pour into their kids,” she said.

But many of those parents aren’t believers, said Isbill who pastors in New Braunfels. Millennials are part of the post-Christian generation.

“I believe one way to reach the next generation is to reach mom and dad. And the only way to do that is to be the church—not expecting them to come to the building but equip your people to share the gospel in their homes and in their neighborhoods, their schools and their board rooms.”

The generation coming up behind Millennials is Gen Z.

Scott, who counts himself among the Millennials, said his generation was the last to live by the “do as I say because I say so” ethos.

“We just did what our parents told us to do,” he said. “Gen Z, they want to know the truth. They want to know answers.”

Understanding that perspective helps inform how church leaders tailor their Bible studies for each group, Scott said.

What church doesn’t need revitalization?

The coronavirus lockdowns dealt a particularly hard blow to churches in the SBTC revitalization program. The COVID-related upheavals revealed some cracks in their rebuilding foundations.

The “Revitalized Church in a Post-COVID World” featured Mike Landry, SBTC church revitalization consultant; Matt Queen; Randy Spitzer, pastor, Caribbean Baptist Church; and Andrew Johnson, pastor, Faith Memorial Baptist Church. Kenneth Priest moderated the discussion.

The two pastors on the panel, Spitzer and Johnson, recounted their churches’ years-long progress of healthy change and growth. They admitted the pandemic revealed some deficiencies.

“It became painfully apparent that we had a very stage-centered church,” Johnson said of his east Houston church. “When there was no show to put on on a Sunday morning… the temptation is to go from a stage-centered church to a screen centered church.”

The crisis has challenged Faith Memorial to make worship services more “communal.”

“We are committed, as we move forward, that this is going to be a more participatory worship service,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have more integration of the saints regardless of their speaking skills. We’re bringing back that old school time of testimony, people reading Scripture out loud.”

For Spitzer’s Corpus Christi congregation, the generational divide became a chasm. The older generation wanted to be in church. Others called for caution.

Spitzer said the desire to have worship and Bible study in the church building revealed the fact that people aren’t meeting together outside the church during the week.

“It’s Sunday morning Christianity which basically shows us a bigger problem. People are leaving it behind on Sunday morning, Sunday evening,” Spitzer said.

With thoughtfully crafted plans for 2020 “shredded” by the pandemic, Caleb Turner said churches have learned—and are still learning—to rely on God’s leading.

“Sometimes our focus needs to be shifted from the idea of the work to the actual work and being flexible to meet the needs wherever they are as opposed to always having to be rigid in everything that we do,” Turner said. “But being fully aware of the importance of just allowing God to lead us and guide us by the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to shift when need be.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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