Remaining faithful in a pandemic

April 8, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood, RN, PhD
FAAN Professor, UW-Milwaukee School of Nursing

The pandemic has taken a toll on our lives and many of our mainstay institutions and businesses—even the church. For more than a year now, Sunday mornings have looked different with many communities of faith going to virtual services, reaching out by telephone, and finding creative, but meaningful ways to engage with congregants.

Christian worship in the United States, typically characterized by its adherence to tradition, appears to have been significantly altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to National Public Radio (NPR), nearly 400 churchgoers that were interviewed stated that the pandemic has changed their views of church life and their expectations for worship in the months and years ahead.

Pastor Anthony Wade, Senior Pastor of Second Baptist Church, located in Madison, WI, and First Vice President of the General Baptist State Convention views the pandemic from a unique vantage point—he recently retired from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as Program Manager, after 40 years.

“Since my secular position focused on public health, I believe that we cannot be so heavenly bound that we are no earthly good. Public health is important so each Sunday morning and during Wednesday Night Bible Study, I address COVID-19 with members and reiterate the safety protocols we must take. I’ve been vaccinated and I’m encouraging others to lay aside the myths associated with history and, rather, focus on the science,” said Pastor Wade.

There are eighteen churches affiliated with the General Baptist State Convention, and while Pastor Wade declined to specifically comment on the impact COVID-19 has had on those churches, he knows that it has negatively impacted churches in the community and the world.

“I can tell you that at Second Baptist Church- Madison, we have been meeting virtually since March of 2020. And, we have a four-point plan before we re-open our building: 1) Dane County must have achieved a high percentage of vaccinated residents 2) we must ensure our church is set up with safety protocols that meet all mandated requirements, which means additional costs for us, 3) we believe the Holy Spirit will lead us when it’s okay to reopen, and 4) we will re-open when we believe we can do so safely,” said Pastor Wade.

A survey by the Pew Research Center in April found that more than 90 percent of regular churchgoers in the United States said their churches had closed their doors to combat the spread of the coronavirus, with the vast majority responding that worship services had moved entirely online. Service times, events, and even how worshippers provide financial support, may be a thing of the past—at least for now. All these changes are not all negative. In addition to live streaming, many pastors have found unique and creatives ways to stay in touch with church members during the pandemic.

Bishop Lawrence Kirby, Sr., Senior Pastor of Wisconsin’s oldest Black church, St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Racine, WI, is among those pastors who have gone above and beyond to ensure members’ needs are being met.

“I enjoy cooking, so I’ve cooked complete dinners for our senior members. If seniors don’t feel like cooking or are feeling isolated, delivering meals to them is our way of reaching out and letting them know we care about them,” said Bishop Kirby.

Out of an abundance of caution, several churches in Wisconsin have kept their doors closed to Sunday morning worship during the pandemic.

Pastor Demetris Crum, Senior Pastor of Second Baptist Church-Kenosha, said his church closed its doors to worship services in March of 2020, held outdoor services during the summer and as the weather got colder, the church returned to limited, socially distanced worship services. “Throughout the pandemic, we also live streamed services. We plan to re-open for worship the first Sunday in April but will continue to maintain safety protocols such as wearing masks and staying socially distanced,” said Pastor Crum.

Like Pastor Crum, many black churches, long characterized by tradition with fellowship playing a great role, appear to have significantly changed their worship experience since the coronavirus pandemic. Many now rely on creative techniques and social media platforms to stay connected with members.

“In my opinion, God permitted COVID-19 for His own sovereign purposes. COVID exposed many issues in society. The world, including our churches, will never operate the same. We’ve learned a lot. More persons will be reached for Christ because live streaming is here to stay,” said Dr. John Walton, Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Milwaukee.

Pastor Lawrence Kirby II, Senior Pastor of The Acts Church of Kenosha (and son of Bishop Lawrence Kirby, Sr.) agrees that virtual worship experiences are probably here to stay.

“We closed down like most churches did in 2020 and re-opened the last Sunday in August with socially distanced protocols in place. We continue to livestream our services as well because we knew that some members would remain digital,” said Pastor Kirby II.

In addition to ensuring church members are adhering to safety protocols, many pastors are proactively helping spread the word about COVID-19 vaccines and encouraging members to get them as soon as they are available. Pastor Kirby II has gone a step further and is involved with the Kenosha County Health Department’s Task Force. Among their strategies is creating a video to promote the vaccines.

“We want people to know that the vaccine is safe. We’re producing a video that can be used in various venues that explains why the COVID-19 vaccines are important, as well as providing educational information about the vaccines. Members of the task force— including myself—have taken pictures getting vaccinated and are posting them on social media platforms,” said Pastor Kirby II.

Pastor Crum agrees that it’s important for religious leaders to play a leadership role in encouraging congregants to get vaccinated.

“I let members know that I have been vaccinated. I’ve also made staff available to help anyone register for the vaccine that needs help. Most of our seniors have either gotten the vaccine or plan to, but the younger people appear to be more hesitant. I think it’s fear of the unknown, but as more people receive the vaccines, I believe they, too, will come around,” said Pastor Crum.

Each of the pastors said they plan to re-open their churches, with socially distant protocols in place. They— along with many other religious communities— appear to understand, embrace, and appreciate how the faith community will need to adapt to a new normal to accommodate those people who don’t yet feel safe to attend worship service.

“When we re-launch on Mother’s Day, we also plan to continue our virtual service as well. We also record services and continue to make services available online on our website,” said Dr. Walton.

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