Is it possible to thrive during this uncertain time of the coronavirus? It depends. Businesses such as delivery services, online classes, grocery stores and cleaning services are thriving because they are meeting the needs of people at this time. Can congregations do the same? Aren’t they essential or, at least, relevant for us now?
According to the Lake Institute of Faith and Giving’s COVID-19 Congregational Study released in September, many congregations are facing hard times due to the closing of their buildings and related economics. This is especially true of those with fewer than 50 weekly worship participants. In addition, the COVID-19 Congregational Impact Survey released by the Disciples Pension Fund in October revealed that state of weekly offerings varied dramatically. Some increased significantly (2%), or increased slightly (14%), or stayed the same (25%), or decreased slightly (40%), or decreased significantly (17%). That’s only 16% of congregations seeing gains, while almost 60% are seeing losses.
In working with congregations across several regions, I noticed that some were initially shocked at not being able to meet in-person in their buildings. Many, however, managed to adapt to their new reality. Some have even continued working on their plans to transform their facilities to improve their ministries both inside and outside church walls.
Take, for example, Iglesia Nueva Vida (New Life Church) — a thriving congregation that just started in January, 2020.
Pastor Venus De Jesus is a bi-vocational minister with a full-time job as a hospital chef. Using his 23 years of ministry experience, he planted Iglesia Nueva Vida with a small group of worshippers at his home in Garland, Texas. Two months later, the congregation leased space from another congregation in Mesquite, Texas. That same month the building had to close due to the pandemic, but the congregation never lost hope. Instead, they began holding worship services from their cars in the parking lot. Pastor Venus admits it was a challenge to bring out the musical instruments and sound equipment each week, and to set up a tent to protect everything from the weather, but they continued to worship rain or shine.
Iglesia Nueva Vida’s faith and persistence paid off. When the congregation returned to its building in August, eight new people were baptized. In the months since, the congregation has continued to grow and now numbers 140 members. In addition to worshipping on-site, the church continues to hold virtual services which are attended by people from other states as well as Mexico.
In planning for the future, the congregation has already started a facilities fund (Pro-templo account) to purchase a building as soon as possible. Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF) is already in conversation with church leadership to guide them in obtaining a loan and applying for a Holy Place Grant. It is inspiring to see how this new congregation boldly grows even during this challenging time. As Philippians 4:13 says,
“I (they) can do everything through Him who strengthens me (them).”
Iglesia Nueva Vida certainly exemplifies this verse.
Why are some congregations able to keep going strong even in the roughest of times? Here are a few reasons I’ve noticed:
They have a clear purpose
In working with several congregations, I have seen that many were already developing plans to expand their ministry well before the pandemic. For example, Northwood Christian Church, a growing congregation in Springfield, Oregon, was planning to expand its building and ministry before COVID-19 set in. The project changed when they saw the opportunity to purchase a piece of land on which to build. The pandemic maybe delaying the process, but they still have a clear vision of what they want.
They have good leadership
Pastor Venus said with humility that people trust him and that is why new families are coming to the church. He strives to live what he preaches and teaches to set an example for the congregation. He also cares for his people, trusts them, empowers them, and is in constant communication with them. As Mark Twain said,
“Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
Many churches had no idea how to have a virtual ministry. Nowadays, most of them have become comfortable with having online worship services and holding small group meetings on Facebook, YouTube, or Zoom. They also have invested in the equipment needed to deliver these services with good quality. In addition, congregations will need to adapt to state guidelines that might change in response to the spread of COVID-19.
They develop and empower their leadership
It’s not a one-way street. These congregations not only rely on their Pastors to do ministry. Their Pastors develop leaders in areas like teaching and discipleship to support the congregation. In addition, Pastors surround themselves with capable leaders in several areas needed by the congregation. For example, University Christian Church in San Diego, California, has been working to transform its building into a community hub that provides affordable housing. Church leadership counts on an experienced team of people with specialized knowledge to spearhead this project.
They attend to the needs of their communities:
Recovery Café in San Jose, California, used to provide meals every day to the hungry. When their building closed because of the coronavirus, they started delivering the meals to the people who need them. The previously mentioned Disciples Pension Fund survey also reported that congregations’ main service activities included delivering supplies to the homebound, distributing food to those in need, and making masks.
For a printable handout of these suggestions, click here.
Joseph Addison, eighteenth century writer and politician, described the basic elements of all thriving congregations,
“Three grand essentials to happiness (thriving) in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”
Rev. Rosario Ibarra provides congregations with culturally relevant strategic planning, building planning, capital fundraising, and loan and investment services. Her fiscal expertise is geared toward meeting congregational building planning and funding needs, for both Spanish and English-speaking congregations. Rosario grew up in Lima, Peru, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. She went on to receive a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California and work in the fields of public relations and finance. Rosario lives in Los Angeles, CA, serving congregations in the western United States (including Hawaii and Alaska).
For 137 years, DCEF has offered mission-driven building and capital planning services to congregations and organizations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. Together with our investors and partners, we are Disciples helping Disciples.