Churches face challenges

Pearl and Leo Watts, members of the Allen Baptist Church and founding members of other local churches, prepare for the Wednesday night next step study, which the church is now hosting online.

By Mary Meadows

Staff Writer

After the COVID-19 pandemic prompted churches to end in-person services, Allen Baptist Church Pastor Dr. Tim Searcy started offering daily studies on the Book of James online, using the church’s Facebook page.

Opening that study session during one of the lessons last week, he asked members to bring their guns to the church. In that video, he told members that he called the governor and told him that the church would continue to meet, against state orders, and that he had people at the church to protect him and keep him from getting arrested for holding in-person services.

“So, I’m asking you on Sunday to surround the church and bring your weapons and we’re just going to fight off the governor and the state police,” he said.

It didn’t take him long, however, to point out — with a sly grin — that his request came on April fool’s day.

“You know, you got to keep some humor in the midst of all of this,” he said, chuckling.

The church has used that Facebook page for years, and it has a stockpile of videos of sermons and music that Searcy has been sharing online. He is also creating new ones, like the studies in the Book of James, and he pre-records the new videos and sermons so he can host “watch parties” and chat with members while the service is underway.

All of the groups at the church, including Sunday School and its Celebrate Recovery group, use Zoom and Facebook these days. That connection, Searcy said, is key in keeping churches together during this time.

“It’s whatever we can do. Like all the other churches, we’re just scrambling, trying to find a way to continue to minister and hold together as a church,” Searcy said. “We’d been using technology already, so we maybe had a head start there and had the equipment to do it. But still, we’re learning as we go.”

He said he would advise other pastors to do anything they can to keep that sense of community at their churches.

“I think anything they can do to keep community, to check on people, especially the elderly,” he said. “Use this time to figure out new and innovative ways to do what they were doing already before. My advice would be use anything and everything you can find.”

Clayton Case, pastor at Ridgepoint Church in Prestonsburg, shared similar advice for pastors.

“Don’t fight the digital age that we live in,” he said. “Lean into that digital service, lean into those online meetings, lean into those worship times online … Find a way, even if it’s through a cell phone. Get online because people, they need to see you. We, as pastors, are shepherds of the flock and it’s our duty to shepherd people that God has directed to us.”

He said his church wants to “be a refuge for people in need.” It’s been providing sermons online since the church was founded, and he said that, after the pandemic hit, he and his team there have reached out to help other local churches use technology.

“All the pastors are in the same boat right now. We’re all trying to figure out how to lead through this time,” he said. “This is not anything any of us have been through before. So, we’re doing the best we can to connect with our members, our partners, but we’re also trying to be the church that God called us to be for people that are searching.”

He said churches have the potential to reach more people online.

“Folks are watching what we’re doing now more than ever,” he said. “And here’s the thing, with this type of global pandemic, and this change of our way of life, folks are thinking about their mortality and thinking about what’s going to happen, if I die now, what’s going to happen to me? That’s a huge question on folks’ minds right now … Folks are definitely searching, so we want to make sure that we are primed and ready and have the ability to be out there and be able to connect with folks that are searching right now.”

He said he expects to see a revival after the pandemic is over.

“When we do open back up and we’re able to do face-to-face again, I think we’re going to see revival break out in our area. There’s no question because folks are thinking about their lives right now. They’re thinking about their eternity. I think that when all of this is said and done, revival is going to break out,” he said.

Both he and Searcy shared words of encouragement for people who are worried about the pandemic.

Case said he keeps reminding people that “God is in control.”

“We don’t understand it, but we don’t have to understand what God is doing to know that God is faithful to us and God is in control,” Case said. “God is not surprised by any of this. He is a sovereign God. He is not surprised by any of this coronavirus, and ultimately, he is in control. When we put our faith and our trust in him, we know that we will survive this and we will get through this as a people.”

He said he’s been quoting Romans 8:28, which states that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

“That’s encouraging to me,” he said. “We don’t understand this virus. We don’t understand how all of this is going to play out and come together, but we know that he knows, and if we put our faith and our trust in him, that he will carry us through this very difficult time.”

Searcy said he’s been emphasizing that, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.”

“I’ve been sharing in daily videos from the book of James because the emphasis there is that we consider it joy when we come into the various trials of life because it’s a testing of our faith that can produce endurance, maturity, equipping us to do the task that God has for us,” Searcy said. “So, how do we let him test us in the midst of trials of life? God doesn’t tempt us to sin, but he tests us to see if we’ll carry out our faith. I’ve been trying to share those types of things with people to encourage them. God can use difficult times and suffering to bring about his good. What Satan might mean for evil, God can use for good. And, so, we exercise faith, not fear.”

Talking about the ways in which this pandemic can be “used for good” by God, Searcy said believers can grow in their faith.

“It’s easy to say you’re a follower of Christ when everything is easy,” he said. “But when the times get tough, the testing comes. And so, the good that comes from this, just apart from that, that’s a sense of building up maturity in Christian believers, giving us a chance to practice our faith in the midst of difficulty. That really grows you and makes you strong.”

He said all people, including those who are not Christian, can also learn about “things that are most important” during this time, like how important it is to spend quality time with family.

“It can also break down barriers of separation, where we’ve been so divided as a nation these days, but now we have a common enemy to fight, so maybe we start to understand, hey, we can work together even if we disagree on certain political issues,” he said. “There’s a lot of good things that can come out of this.”

Case said about 15 younger members of his church have started offering a meal delivery service for the elderly, single parents and people with compromised immune systems. The church has been asking Facebook visitors to “Stop and Pray” at least once a day. Those pray requests are sent out for various reasons, including prayers for healthcare workers, prayers for moments of joy and other things. He said programs like that and the new online meetings and events, will strengthen the church’s infrastructure when the pandemic is over.

“It’s something we’re doing because we know that God is over and ultimately in control,” he said. “So, if we stop and pray every day and take a moment to just reflect, and thank God for his blessings and ask him to heal our land, ask him to bring us back together, take a moment to intentionally reflect back to God, back to the Father, that’s going to change our world. It’s going to change more than our world. It’s going to change our mind. It’s going to change our hearts. It’s going to allow us to step outside of ourselves and reflect on God that is ultimately sovereign and in control of all of this.”

For the first time, his church is offering all of its Easter services solely online, as are other churches, and it is distributing communion kits this week for a service on Good Friday.

Although he misses the connection that those in-person services offer, Case talked about how “excited” he is to see people watch live sermons from churches online. His church encourages families to gather together to watch the services.

“That gives us the opportunity to be fed with the word, and the fact is just to see that many people on Sunday mornings that are tuning in to listen to God’s word, is absolutely remarkable,” he said.

Searcy said he’s seen that benefit at his church as well, reporting that some members who previously refused to have Facebook signed up so they can keep in touch with groups and prayer requests. He said his members are taking the initiative to find new ways to connect.

“They’ve buying in even more than what they were before, and I think that will produce, like James, in the first chapter says, to count it all joy when you come into various trials of life,” he said. “This testing of your faith produces endurance, completeness, maturity so that you are equipped in every way to do the work that God has for you. I really believe at the end of the day we will have people are more mature, more serious, able to take the reins themselves, and that will be a benefit to the church.”

Floyd County Health Department Director Thursa Sloan reported this week that there have been reports of Floyd County churches holding services and planning programs that do not adhere to social distancing guidelines. Searcy said his church will not be among that list.

“We’re being very careful about that because, for me, as a pastor, to do something that caused one of my elderly members to catch it and it took their life, I could not forgive myself for that. I would consider myself to have blood on my hands,” he said. He said pastors should encourage personal devotions and home Bible studies, saying that Americans are “sort of lacking” on those things.  

Both pastors said one of their biggest challenges is reaching people who don’t have internet. Case said finding a way to connect with those folks is “the question of the hour.”

Local Old Regular Baptist churches also have the same problem.

Clinton Dean Moore, the 85-year-old pastor of the Little Rosa Old Regular Baptist Church in McDowell, said his church stopped having services altogether, but he calls some members and talks to them on the phone.

“It’s different. We’re Old Regulars, so most of us are used to going somewhere every weekend, you know,” he said. “It’s a little different, staying home. Basically, what I do is try to study a little. I miss it and I’m sure that the other members of our church miss it, too.”

The church meets on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, the third Sunday of each month and, in some months, it holds an additional Sunday service. It had planned to spend Easter at a local nursing home, but the pandemic changed those plans. He was, however, able to distribute free meals that were donated to the church last week.

His encourages people to keep their faith.

“Be faithful and just be humble and God will help us through this because he promised us he would never leave us and they’ll be sixth troubles, and in the seventh, no evil shall touch you. This is a, well, it’s just a different time. In all my life, I have never seen anything like this,” he said.

Moore started attending Old Regular Baptist services when it was established in 1937. He started preaching in 1967 and was ordained in 1970.

He said church attendance has declined over the years, and he believes it’s because people are living “fairly comfortably” and they “don’t really look to God to supply their daily needs like they used to.”

He hopes this pandemic will help change that.

“I wish that we could all return to God and get out to his house of worship when we can and not just use him as a crutch,” he said.

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