By Norma Adams-Wade
Sam Cooke crooned in the mid-1960s that “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Now more than a half-century later, major change has come for countless churches and faith groups across the land.
“We learned that although we could not be in-person, we could still be in touch (through technology).”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought that change.
“Change has come and we’re likely not going back to old times that will not work anymore,” said Rev. Roy Locke, senior pastor at New Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, 2000 West Pleasant Run in Lancaster. “We’ve got to hold on to those times that were so meaningful; and at the same time stay tuned to where the Lord will lead us.”
Current trends indicate that Rev. Locke’s sentiments are being replayed in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, kingdom halls, and various other worship sites globally. Why? Because the COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark on how faith groups carry out their worship services and minister to congregants.
The government first mandated two years ago that worship groups must suspend inperson services to prevent spread of the coronavirus that was rapidly spreading across the land. The government and health leaders then slightly relaxed the restriction allowing about a dozen congregants to gather.
Countless congregations have never returned to their packed Sunday and Saturday services. And where hundreds used to gather now many worship services see less than 20 worshipers seated with respectable social distancing in nearly empty pews.
Will young members under the legal voting age continue these trends as they mature? Will they leave in-person worship services entirely – turning completely to social media as a way of worship?
And will social media worship become so entrenched that few followers adhere to the Biblical rule stated in portions of Hebrews 10:23, 25 (NIV) “23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, …25not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, …?”
“A lot of churches are closing. Many others are not going to survive. Without adequate resources or technology,… the pandemic put them out of business. The question is: what to do with those members after closing who may not (join other churches)?”
Dr. Jerry Christian, pastor at Kirkwood CME Church, 1440 Sunny Glen Dr., in Oak Cliff, said among various ways to keep the congregation in touch with each other – while in-person meetings were shut down, — his members periodically would gather outside the building for “parking lot praise,” in addition to holding worship and meetings via social media platforms.
“To do anything differently, we would have to figure new ways other than what we’ve already done, meaning Zoom, emails, phone calls, and the “parking lot praise,” Dr. Christian said.
Dr. Christian and other ministers said holding on to their Gen Y and Gen Z members – those born shortly before the year 2000 and soon after – was a challenge that took much effort from youth leaders and church administrators.
At Kirkwood, youth leaders would hold youth meetings on Zoom — abbreviated to no more than a half-hour to honor the youths’ short attention span and to prevent them turning off before the meeting would end. The meetings would include Bible lesson games and awards that the youth seemed to enjoy.
Rev. Dr. Ouida Lee has battled diverse issues over more than 30 years in ministry, including as a pastor at several churches in Dallas and nearby towns.
Surviving decades of struggle being a female pastor strengthened her ability to inspire worshippers to stay strong during the pandemic. She always has sought to draw and retain youth and young adult congregants and admits that COVID-19 was an extra challenge.
“Youth ministry is a touchy-feely ministry,” said Dr. Lee who retired in 2019 as pastor at Church of the Disciple-United Methodist in DeSoto, then helped other congregations during the pandemic.
“If we had more funding, we would rely more on electronic means of reaching parishioners.”
“Having to be isolated one from another made it difficult to address the youth without being present with them…(but) multi-media has been very impactful as relates to being in touch with your faith community. … You can be anywhere –finishing soccer practice or wherever– and still call in.”
Dr. Lee became a pastor again this past August and currently leads Haven Chapel United Methodist Church in Denison. She collaborates with public and private school administrators and faith leaders to help youth get on track after church and school closures during the pandemic.
Rev. Locke of New Mt. Gilead said parents often did ask him when the youth would come back to the church. He said his stock answer was: “They will come back when you bring them back!”
Denis Corbin holds dual responsibilities at two multi-ethnic Catholic churches in Dallas — business manager at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 4910 Bonnie View Rd, in Oak Cliff, and pastoral administrator at St. Anthony Catholic Parish, 3782 Myrtle St. in South Dallas/Fair Park.
Corbin said the parish youth have faith-training classes. He said he and other parishioners noticed symptoms in their youth similar to those the public and media mentioned in students at Dallas public and private schools that also were shut down.
“We have to proceed with caution. The pandemic is not over. We have to consult with the Master and in all our ways acknowledge Him.”
“For about six months (during the pandemic), we had ceased all activities,” Corbin said of the two Catholic parishes ruled by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. “The kids came back with learning deficiencies like those they would experience if they took a six-month-long summer break. There was remedial work that had to be done.”
Rev. Joe Patterson is pastor of Greater New Zion Baptist Church, 2210 Pine St. in South Dallas/Fair Park. He and his congregation faced a tsunami of multiple catastrophes during the Texas power grid freeze in February 2021, followed about a month later by the government’s mandate that faith groups cease in-person services. The freeze destroyed the church sanctuary, then unrelated state road construction cut off accessibility to the church entrance. Currently, the church still has not reopened because of continuing reconstruction delays and setbacks. Additionally, poor WiFi reception at the church has meant that leaders must broadcast on social media from home. And construction workers recently hit a wire that shut down transmission.
“It’s been one thing after another, compounded on top of another,” Rev. Patterson said.
Holding the interest of young congregants, as well as some adults, also has been a major task, he said.
“What we would do differently is not to put so much stock in social media, but continue to have in-person services with people who actually are vaccinated. And we would follow all CDC health measures.”
“We work hard to offer the young people incentives and awards, including $25 gift cards to Walmart and other stores, to keep them interested,” Rev. Patterson said.
Youths who were pre-teens when the pandemic hit now are teenagers, he said, and have lost the benefits of face-to-face worship. “We have to be more interactive with the parents to try to keep the youth involved.”
Pastors and leaders at all the churches contacted said they have learned major lessons:
Rev. Roy Locke: “What we would do differently is not to put so much stock in social media, but continue to have in-person services with people who actually are vaccinated. And we would follow all CDC health measures.”
This story is part of a project funded from the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) to support original and innovative coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus vaccine, and how these topics intersect into the nation’s K-12 education system.