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Being the Church during COVID-19: Reflections from a Small-Church Pastor

Mike Matthews

You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:5 (ESV)

I need to be honest. As a pastor, I’m in new waters with this COVID-19 situation in the world.

The global spread of this pandemic has made me realize how small our world is and how something like this virus can impact so many, not only in other parts of the world, but here in my own rural corner of western Pennsylvania. The spread of this virus has disrupted so many areas of our lives, and people need hope.

That’s where we, the church, come in.

A Local Church in a Global Crisis: First Baptist Church in Claysville, PA

Like many churches, we had to temporarily stop holding physical services over the past few Sundays. Now we are in our homes rather than a church building, but we are still the church and are still called to worship Jesus and tell others of his glory.

That’s why I want to encourage you today to be the church, not just attend one. Look for ways you can worship with your family this week and in the weeks to come. Peter calls us a royal priesthood—that’s all of us, not just those of us who get paid and have the title pastor. We are all called to proclaim God’s great worth. For my congregation, it’s the people of First Baptist who are the church, not the building on Main Street. Now, perhaps more than ever before in our lives, it’s important that we remember that.

Adapting Corporate Worship

At First Baptist Church of Claysville, we are tackling these tough circumstances as a small rural church the best we can. On Sundays, I have been using Facebook live to deliver messages. Our first online service was March 22, and I came out of that week amazed at how God used our transition to online worship to reach people in our community.

We are a small rural church. We average 25 to 35 attendees in worship on an average Sunday, but our reach far exceeded these numbers the first Sunday we went online. Thanks to Facebook’s analytics, we were able to track that by Tuesday the sermon video had reached 932 people and been viewed 546 times. This was amazing, especially since there was a problem with the live feed.

This has all helped me realize that online ministry is a valid tool that rural churches can utilize to maximize our impact on the culture for the Gospel, even when life returns to normal, and we can worship in-person again.

And it wasn’t just the sermon that reached far beyond our church walls. Our worship video, posted by a high schooler in our church, reached 2,700 people and was viewed 4,500 times. This video was shared ten times and had more engagement clicks than anything else has had on our page in the last three years. Our overall numbers on Facebook showed the same trends. For the month including March 22, the number of folks counted as reached by Facebook was nearly 5,000, with half of those individuals choosing to engage in some way. Compared to our small congregation, these numbers are enormous. This has all helped me realize that online ministry is a valid tool that rural churches can utilize to maximize our impact on the culture for the Gospel, even when life returns to normal, and we can worship in-person again.

Getting Families Involved

Streaming our services is new for us, but some of our previous rhythms have also proved to be really helpful during this time. Over the past couple years, we have been reading a chapter of the Psalms together every Sunday. We plan to keep this going even during social distancing by recording someone reading a Psalm from their home and then uploading the video of the reading to our church’s page on Sundays.

During the week, I’m encouraging families to have a family worship time and to take pictures or videos of how they spent time with God as a family. Then, to encourage each other, we will upload any pictures of family worship time to our church’s private Facebook group. The aim is to keep us connected as a community and to motivate us to be the church beyond our walls of the church building.

Pastoral Ministry via the Internet

For some time now, I have been writing a daily devotional for our church called “The Disciple’s Devotional” to help our people start their day in God’s Word. This devotional is published daily on First Baptist’s Facebook page. I have found this to be a helpful way of connecting with the majority of our church community, but there are some challenges to this strategy, especially for elderly church members who do not have access the internet. As pastor, I am calling them to see if they need me to run errands for them to get supplies, so they do not have to risk going out. I’m also planning to print out the daily devotionals and make them available on a monthly basis.

Given the stress of this situation, pastors and church leaders in all settings need to do what they can but to serve without giving in to the temptation to beat themselves up for what they can’t do. There’s no easy map or rules to pastoring during a pandemic like this. I keep reminding myself that God is sovereign. He was not caught off guard by this virus. He will use this time for his glory. He will make our church’s love and witness for Him stronger.

Therefore, fellow pastors, as you do your best to help your congregation to be a holy priesthood that gives praise to God in the midst of a confused world, know that our efforts are empowered by a living Hope in the person of Jesus Christ. Press on, pastor! Press on, church! Jesus reigns!

Mike Matthews is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Claysville Pennsylvania. He graduated from Grace Christian University in 2018 with a B.S. in Leadership and Ministry. First Baptist is his first pastorate. In February 2020 he celebrated his fourth anniversary as the church’s pastor. Prior to pastoral ministry, he worked in disability rights with his last responsibility was as an assistant director of a Independent Living and Advocacy program. Mike lives with a mild form of cerebral palsy and loves helping people with disabilities discover how God can use them in ministry. Mike’s wife, Robin, and their 9-year-old son, Reese, love serving the rural community of Claysville PA.