THE CHURCH WITHOUT WALLS
By Pat Sabiston, Connecting NowFaith
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations: Matthew 28:19-20
It was unthinkable … the entire world placed on lockdown due to the coronavirus. However, during this unprecedented time in our history, and while in solitude, our all-powerful God drew us to Himself by giving His disciples the time and creativity to open the door to show God’s love in a variety of ways. All around Vero Beach and the contiguous areas, Christians have been meeting this ministry challenge to bring the Good News to their communities. More important, the pandemic was not able to stop the Body from celebrating the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a church without walls.
Jim Kerns, a Holy Cross Catholic Church parishioner, related this time of isolation to a sign he’d seen. “At the exit of a church’s parking lot, a sign was posted that read – ‘You are now entering the mission field,’ and that’s really an important statement now,” he said. “My wife, Madeline, and I are big on charitable mission work (corporal or spiritual), and we feel you actually start being the church when you leave it.”
The isolation has not bothered the Kerns, because it has been an opportunity to be with the Lord, clearing their minds and calendar to embrace the presence of the Savior.
“We’ve learned and grown to be grateful we’re home. And, in isolation, it has been a blessing for us to join Irish Jesuits at www.sacredspace.ie in prayer. For Sunday services, we’ve enjoyed streaming the Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City,” said Kerns. “But each night, we pray for those who have little and need much because perspective is so important.”
Frank Ellis, Senior Pastor of King’s Baptist Church, shared how much everyone was missing the face-to-face gatherings, which are so crucial to the life of the church.
“We are not made to be alone and independent; we are a Body. So, on March 22nd, we decided to begin meeting outside, yet still keep our distance. We built a stage in our parking lot and installed a speaker system to cover the entire area. We’ve had to be really strict and told attendees not to greet one another. Our plans haven’t gone perfectly, but we’ve been responsible, and the attendance has been good. In fact, we’ve had people come that I’ve never seen before,” shared Ellis.
On Easter Sunday, the church advised people to prepare and bring their own Lord’s Supper essentials if they preferred not to use the self-contained elements the church ordered for Communion.
“We even brought in a horse trough to do a Baptism of a young woman. The girl’s father actually did the physical part, because we were trying to model good health practices, yet still, able to celebrate together. When the services are over, we have a lot of horn honking, which has been different, but good,” said Ellis.
In addition to providing pre-recorded online services, the church has been able to continue its food ministry as well. Churches are doing their best to use social media platforms to reach people in their homes, yet still provide worship experiences and teach the Word. For Pastor Jim Gallagher of Calvary Chapel Vero Beach, it is actually a fulfillment of scripture.
In Galatians, Paul said, In the fullness of times, God brought forth his Son: Gal 4:4-7 ESV. “In other words, the world had been prepared, specifically, for the arrival of Jesus, the birth of the church, and the spreading of the Gospel. We see that evidenced in there being a universal language at the time of Greek and a Roman road system that allowed travel throughout the Empire,” explained Gallagher.
“In the same way, had these events we are experiencing right now happened 25 years ago, we’d lack the ability to communicate with people who were locked in their homes when we’re not supposed to go into their homes. So, we are emphasizing social media and using the Internet,” said Gallagher.
He continued, noting that the church has two very distinct roles. “We are to gather … and … to scatter. Under normal circumstances, we gather to worship and study the Word. We build each other up, and then when the service ends, we go back into the community to be a Light in the world. Now, what God has done is disperse the church into our homes, and I think maybe one of the primary focuses for Believers right now is the question – How to live out my Christianity at my house?
“Over the years, I think this is one of the areas where, perhaps, Believers have struggled the most in how to live out their Christian life at home. Someone may be growing in the Lord and showing fruit but is still struggling to be the husband/wife, son/daughter, or mother/father that God wants them to be. So, the church has been dispersed into the isolation, and we have opportunities to develop and live for Jesus in the confines of our home,” explained Gallagher.
More critical is the new reality through social media, according to Gallagher. “This Easter Sunday, we probably had the Gospel communicated farther and wider than it has ever been communicated in the history of the world. At the current moment, we want to be focusing on living for Jesus within our homes. Then, as we see restrictions lifting, we want to mobilize into other peoples’ lives. People will be hurting in a variety of different ways as the calendar pages turn.”
Sebastian’s Coastal Community Church Pastor Seth Goldsmith has made children a priority during the pandemic.
“We have two ministries – Coastal Kids and Coastal Student Ministries,” explained Goldsmith. “With the older kids, we have Zoom calls as a replacement for our Wednesday night gatherings, where they have a devotional and small group interaction. With the younger kids, we have storytime with our Student Ministry Director, who tells various Bible stories. We’ve also done fun things like photo scavenger hunts and online gaming for healthy competition.”
The church had planned a big performance entitled “The Journey of Jesus,” which was to theatrically document Jesus’ life from birth to resurrection. People were to walk through the school, where the church meets, to the various stations for an interactive, dramatic experience.
“When the virus hit, it was actually a blessing in disguise with this production, because the director was able to film segments of the actors on their own time. The various segments were premiered leading up to Resurrection on Easter Sunday,” said Goldsmith, adding that they had a kid-specific Easter program as well.
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the Sunday streaming for Coastal Community is having moderators who watch the comments, prayer requests, and other interactions and communicate in real-time with the viewers. Then, during the week, the Life Groups (small group Bible study) have been relaunched online, so participants can see each other and interact. “It’s not the same, but better than not connecting at all,” said Goldsmith.
In Port St. Lucie, Rev. Dr. Jennifer Stroud pastors First Presbyterian as well as Goodwill Presbyterian, a historic African American church in Fort Pierce started by the great-grandchildren of slaves. Emails, phone calls, a FaceBook page, and a unique YouTube channel have kept the lines of communication open for her congregations.
“I do a lot of counseling by phone,” said Stroud. “Whereas all our people are doing well, praise the Lord, many find it a challenge staying home, where fears may rise up. Some are asking for prayer; others need someone to listen, but with the assurance that this won’t be their life for the rest of their lives. I keep reminding them that in the history of the world, we’ve always had deadly viruses, and we will continue to have such health challenges. Because of modern science, we will know how to behave next time, and instead of waiting, we will be smart and start to exile ourselves earlier.”
One of the most unique aspects of Stroud’s ministry is her “My Goofy Pastor” segments on YouTube, which gives people a funny break and a poignant message. The production team was led by the Holy Spirit to do 10 segments when the virus first broke out. As the isolation continued, the productions grew in number.
“I do three-to-five minute comedy skits in my back yard, which are upbeat and positive. There’s also a spiritual message that can reach our members or people who may not attend church. Who knows if God is starting something new with this outreach? But one thing I’ve heard over and over again, ‘I never knew how much I loved the people that I go to church with until I wasn’t allowed to be with them.’ So, this time of isolation has actually been a blessing,” shared Stroud.
Rev. Dr. Anna Copeland, Community Church of Vero Beach, shared that there are two primary things to keep in mind during this challenging period.
“First, the church is not closed. The buildings are temporarily closed, but the church is always open,” said Copeland. “Second, we have looked for different ways to be the church, but ‘church’ is the people of God, and we have looked at how to empower them to be the church when they can’t leave their homes.”
E-mails, live streaming services, and Zoom calls have been a part of worship for Community Church. They conduct Bible study groups, have prayer, hold small groups, and facilitate Circle of Care groups, which regularly check on church members to discern if there are any needs. During Easter week, an 18-page guide for Holy Week devotions was distributed. Another unique ministry was instituted that got widespread media attention.
“On Palm Sunday, we had a drive-through service, with our ministers posted within the lanes of traffic, distributing virtual hugs, and prayer. A palm frond was placed on their windshields to remind them of the special day. There were lots of tears and smiles of gratitude,” Copeland said.
“Plus, the church has become more deeply connected, and our faith has deepened as a consequence of what has happened, because moving forward, we won’t take anything for granted. It takes intentionality and effort to connect because we really want to be joined not only to God but to one another. So, we’re doing everything we can to nurture and encourage that effort,” continued Copeland.
Because this church offers a full pre-school, the teachers have been creating a curriculum so the children and families can participate with lessons online.
In the end, perhaps Copeland encapsulated the thoughts of all the Christians interviewed for this article when she said, “Every day we think of new ways to connect because this is a profoundly creative time. When we go through really dark times and don’t know what’s on the other side, don’t know how long it will last, what life will look like when we get ‘beyond,’ we just keep our hands on the hem of Jesus’ garment and follow Him. Right now, we are staying close to the one we celebrated on Easter Sunday. His resurrection to new life lets us know whether we live or die, whatever comes, we do not have to be afraid.”