COLUMN: A church’s approach to facing the pandemic

Published 8:19 am Tuesday, January 25, 2022

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By Kay Tippett/ Community Columnist

In January, people re-evaluate and make plans for change. When the ball dropped in Times Square Dec. 31, 2019, many had thoughts of recreating the “Roaring ’20s,” reviving fashion, and throwing parties, but that didn’t really happen. Instead, we faced the largest health crisis of our lives: COVID-19. Two years later, we have not overcome the beast. We are still waging war against a viral enemy that changes without warning and steals our loved ones, our jobs, our time, and our security. Where should we turn?

Historically, crises turn society toward the Church, but history does not always repeat itself. According to Jeffrey M. Jones in an article for Gallup, U.S. church membership has fallen below 50% for the first time in eight years. For decades, church membership hovered around 70%. Some think this decline does not affect the Bible Belt, but they are wrong. Speaking with local pastors reveals the decline in church membership is as pervasive as the pandemic itself. Jones also states that there is an “increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference.” In addition, formal church memberships for people of faith are dwindling. Younger generations are less and less likely to align themselves with local churches. There are many reasons for that, but the ongoing pandemic, with all the CDC recommendations about social distancing and quarantines, complicates the situation.

What looks like a complication to some, however, seems to be an opportunity for others. Pastor Larry Sailes, at The Well, an Evolutionary Church (formerly known as Hopewell Baptist Church), states, “The Pandemic was for the church — to get our attention. His (God’s) presence was not acknowledged. The church stepped out of the will of God; the earth was troubled.” Sailes indicated that the old ways of doing things were not working, and God used the pandemic to force the church out of its comfort zone into a new area of ministry.

These are not merely words for Sailes, who leads his congregation by example. He is a spiritual “shepherd,” but “life coach” more adequately describes him. He shares messages of faith and hope on Facebook Live, but he also posts videos of his workouts, encouraging and ministering to the whole person — physical and spiritual.

Sailes is responsible for the COVID-19 Call Center for the state of Alabama, and he has heard many heart-wrenching stories about the devastation of the pandemic. His focus is on educating his congregation and preparing them to deal with the crisis. The Well has partnered with the Department of Public Health to provide vaccination clinics for their congregation and surrounding community. They have established a COVID-19 Task Force to meet the enemy head-on. Eight doctors or pharmacists are available to answer questions and give professional insight on the virus and vaccine options.

The move toward a virtual approach to ministry for Sailes started in October 2019 when God led him to start a virtual Bible study, reaching shut-ins and others who were unable or reluctant to meet together. Sailes said some of his congregation do not have internet, but he said children and grandchildren share his Facebook Live messages with their elderly family members. The worship team continued to conduct services, offering Drive-In worship as an option. Sailes said we will all have some PTSD from the experiences of the past two years, but his goal is to safeguard the souls of his parishioners. He said we must not lose faith. When we spoke in the fall, Sailes said they had been blessed to experience zero hospitalizations and no deaths among their active members. We are not out of the woods in terms of COVID-19, but the Church is still the place to turn for comfort and encouragement. Sister Veronica Walker said, “God knows what He’s doing.” Sailes invites everyone to join them for Virtual Worship services and Bible Study on the “The Well – an Evolutionary Church formerly known as Hopewell Baptist Church” Facebook page.