By WAYNE STEWART
Photography by CHRISTINA STEWART
Life for everyone and everything changed just as spring approached this past year, perhaps nowhere was this change felt quite as profoundly as in churches across this nation and across the world.
Suddenly, almost overnight, the doors of many churches closed as church leadership weighed their duties to Christ and to the people in their care. How should Sunday services look going forward; how should government guidelines be followed without shirking the higher calling of God?
“We found out there are other ways of doing church,” noted Neches River Baptist Association Director of Mission Dr. Bill Jones, of Crockett. “We discovered there are all kinds of opportunities to do different things to reach people around us.
“It forced us to do more of reaching out to people to of the culture today through social media and those avenues.”
For centuries, in order for people to hear a gospel message they had to go to some place, but now through the advent of technology the message can be given out and received at just about any place and any time.
“When I preach now, there is someone in Branson, Mo. who watches every service,” said Cornerstone Church (a church located in the Dallas-Metroplex area) Pastor Jim Everidge, who has traveled around the world in evangelism. “People are watching across the whole country over the Internet… That’s really a Jesus thing.
“God said He would never leave us without a witness… I don’t care how people hear it, as long as they are hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Churches adapted quickly to the changing circumstances and calls from health care workers to practice social distancing, maintaining proper space and so forth. Many churches adopted parking lot services, broadcasting the message over a small FM transmitter so people could sit in their vehicle and listen to the music and the message. Oftentimes, instead of an “amen” a cacophony of car horns filled the air.
Many rural churches never stopped and never altered their worship routine, as faith makes up much more of the fabric of rural lifestyles than those in urban and suburban contexts, especially in Christian-friendly states like Texas. Social distancing is unheard of as the need for human contact is met, and the scripture’s admonishment from Hebrews 10:24 and 25, to meet with one another is taken seriously. “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
The same is not true for other states, and even the larger cities of Texas. Ongoing court cases in California and other states test whether the freedom of religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution is an inalienable right, or whether worship services can forcibly be curtailed, or in even more draconian circumstances, churches forced to close.
Still, many churches that have remained open have experienced significant declines in attendance.
“With so many elderly in our churches, many are cautious about returning and being in large groups because of underlying health conditions,” Dr. Jones said. “They are still committed to their church. Most churches have found their collections have stayed the same as people are still honoring God with their tithes – that shows where their heart is. As a church, we have to stay connected to these people and tell them the church is still their home and they are still a part of the family.”
COVID-19 has taken a greater toll, seemingly, on the churches located in the cities than that of rural churches. Bro. Everidge has been asked to do several funerals for people who died from complications due to COVID-19. Recently a father died from complications of the disease, the man’s 45-year-old son is not expected to survive, so the mother is faced with losing both and has asked Bro. Everidge to do a double service.
“I have had to do a lot of funerals,” Bro. Everidge admitted. “It’s tough, but it provides another opportunity to reach people with the gospel.”
Over the past few weeks, news of a vaccine sparked hope in many. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel may be near and everything can return to normal, but rarely do things prove so simple.
“When church starts back, so many people have gotten used to not going to church,” Dr. Jones said. “Church leadership needs to be mindful of that and do things to rebuild their churches.
“When God has brought about healing through these vaccines that needs to be a big deal for our churches… God is answering prayer through modern medicine. There needs to be some celebration services,” Dr. Jones added.
One of the positives of the pandemic, at least for churches, is a proper reordering of people’s mindset. The very word “church” in the Greek, means “the called out.” For too long, in Dr. Jones and Bro. Everidge’s estimation, we have missed understood church
“COVID-19 has taught us we are not going to church,” Dr. Jones said, “the church (God’s people) are going to a building.”
While the nature of a church service has undergone a transformation, the message of the gospel has stayed the same.
“Everything we do has changed,” Bro. Everidge said, “but, we serve a Savior that never changes.”
Through this world-wide calamity, Bro. Everidge sees something happening.
“I can thank God for all of this,” Bro. Everidege praised. “There is a greater hunger for the things of God because of what’s happening. People come to me crying about the pandemic, or crying about the election. I have to tell them none of that matters, just make sure your eyes are on Jesus.
“We have a unique opportunity to reach people for Jesus,” he continued. “People want answers out of this pandemic, people want answers because they see the signs of the times. The signs of the times provides us with this opportunity and I just have to thank God for it.”
For so long, faith and going to church was woven into the fabric of American culture. As society has fallen away from the truths of scripture, the culture has decayed. In times past, a building could be built at an intersection; put a church sign on it and people would show up. Today, it is a much different environment.
“Our churches need to be looking at the community around us as a mission field,” Dr. Jones explained. “The church has a dual emphasis. We have to portray Christ to an unbelieving world with our lives, but we also have to speak Christ.
“We have to demonstrate Christ by doing good things,” Dr. Jones continued. “But, we have to speak the gospel often. People have to hear, and see our life demonstrate it.”
In whatever fashion the church takes going forward, the gospel message; that salvation is available through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for those who believe, must always be central to the body of believers.
It’s a message that has not changed in almost 2,000 years.