Category Archives: Church News

EPC churches set ‘The Table’ for worship, ministry, community

 

What’s in a name? For many, a story. Which is why four young EPC congregations, unbeknownst to one another, all ended up calling their churches “The Table.”

TheTable-LittleRock4LogoLittle Rock, Arkansas

Michael Gallup, pastor of The Table in Little Rock, Ark., said that he had no idea there were other congregations who shared the name until after they had chosen it for their church plant.

“What’s great about it is that we can have humility and learn from one another,” Gallup said. “While there are some common themes there are also some unique perspectives for each context that can help inform each other as we live into this more faithfully.”

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Prior to suspending in-person worship due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Table in Little Rock, Ark., met at a local events venue.

Gallup’s church, the youngest of the four, is very much centered on the idea of hospitality. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting nationwide shutdown, Gallup said one of their primary ministry efforts was to “throw parties in our home and invite people over.”

“We have a lot of shared meals with an open table,” he said. “People understand that metaphor. It’s familiar and comforting, and points to what type of congregation we are and aspire to be.”

Gallup also believes that fellowship around a table reflects his own understanding of discipleship, approach to mission, and sacramental theology. Every time the church comes together for worship, they partake in a meal together and also observe the Lord’s Supper.

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Michael Gallup

“I began to see the ways in which the tables that we sit at and fellowship around point to the Lord’s table,” he said. “It gives a sense of belonging, brings life and joy, speaks to the nature of what God is doing, and is a reflection of the gospel.”

Because radical hospitality is so much the core of The Table, it informs every aspect of their ministry.

“Everything we do is filtered through that lens. We do a broad swath of ministry—homeless ministry, culinary classes—but it’s all filtered through hospitality. It’s not just a transactional experience.”

Earlier this year, before shelter-in-place orders forced many churches to rethink how to reach their communities, The Table rented a Venezuelan food truck as a way to provide an enriching experience for the church and support their neighbors. The family who owned the truck shared unique food from their country and told the story of their immigration to the United States.

“Our name is a very relatable, accurate way to inform those both inside and outside the church what we’re all about,” Gallup said. “We want people to know they are welcome here.”

TheTable-Denver2LogoDenver, Colorado

Almost 1,000 miles away at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is another EPC church plant, The Table Project, led by Mark Grapengater.

Mark and his wife, Stacey, learned in September 2017 that they had been approved to plant a church. Eleven months later they packed up and moved from Atlanta, Ga., to Denver, Colo.

Both had previously worked in the hospitality industry, so they decided to name their new church “The Table Project.” The imagery of Jesus sitting and eating with people kept coming up in their personal Bible study, and that idea seemed like a natural fit.

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Mark Grapengater

“As Christians, we want to be known as the best party throwers out there,” Mark said. “So that’s kind of what we’ve tried to do. We have big letters on our wall that say ‘feast.’ We believe that the last image we have of the end of the story is a wedding banquet where Jesus invites everyone to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.”

However, he is quick to point out that they are not a dinner church. While they want to have a warm, welcoming atmosphere, the end goal is still to start a regular Sunday morning worship service.

“Our hope is that people will take the liturgical practices and apply them throughout the week in their everyday lives,” he noted. “When we celebrate communion, we are taking a meal with Jesus. Now go out and do that with your neighbors throughout the week. And community groups should be a place where people can go deep in relationships with one another, but also feed on the Word and get into the truth of the gospel.”

The Grapengaters have based their lives on this principle, inviting neighbors over regularly. Last fall they hosted a Labor Day party, “Friendsgiving,” and a Christmas celebration in their home.

It has not always been easy. While the Grapengaters have hosted numerous friends, few have reciprocated. Mark said people in that region tend to keep to themselves, and of course plans sometimes go awry. Prior to hosting the Thanksgiving party, their three-year-old daughter clogged the toilet, causing it to overflow. So they welcomed their guests into their home through an entryway that was being repaired due to the water damage. The renovations were still in process a few weeks later when they hosted the Christmas party.

“We’re learning to be comfortable with that,” Mark said. “We want to invite people into the mess of our lives, too, because life is just messy sometimes, right?”

One place where they have been able to make some new friends is the local elementary school that their son attends.

“We befriended some of the other parents on the auction committee, and traditionally, they give a party as the raffle prize,” Mark said. “This year they asked if we would host the party. Only God could set that up so perfectly.”

They have considered asking if their church might meet at the school. Since they will have children in there for the next ten years, it would be a perfect location for “The Table Project.”

As the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, the Grapengaters’ hope was to continue to build relationships with neighbors with a goal of launching public worship services by February 2021.

The pandemic derailed those plans.

They held their last in-person Bible study at the end of February. The Table Project then took what was supposed to be a brief hiatus as Stacey gave birth to their third child, Joshua David, on March 12. They came home from the hospital to a stay-at-home order throughout Colorado.

Mark has transitioned to holding midday prayer times through the week on Facebook Live. They also have been connecting with their neighbors on a family-by-family basis.  On Cinco de Mayo, they delivered palomas, chips, and salsa to 16 neighboring families, and they held a baptismal service in their backyard later in May with a small gathering from the community.

The Grapengaters have come to realize that a February 2021 launch may not happen, but they are still hopeful. With changes brought about by COVID-19, they have not been able to make any concrete plans but hope to know more in September. When they do begin their Sunday services, Grapengater says that they will incorporate many of the traditional aspects of worship.

“It will be liturgical,” Mark said. “With communion, confession, assurance, and modern worship music. In the area where we live, there is only one church for every 10,000 people so this is very much needed.”

TheTable-SanFrancisco4LogoSan Francisco, California

Six years ago, Troy Wilson and his family returned to the United States from Thailand, where they had been missionaries for six years. He wanted to plant a church in a non-Christian, liberal, multicultural area, so they moved to San Francisco, Calif.

Two other families felt called to join them, so together with their friends—and with the support of their mother church, Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, Calif.—they stepped out and launched The Table in downtown San Francisco.

“It was a bit challenging,” Wilson said. “It’s easier to find work in San Francisco than it is a place to live.”

But soon they were able to settle in and started meeting people through the course of their everyday lives. They invited neighbors over for dinner and social gatherings and grew to know and love the community around them.

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Troy Wilson

“Hospitality was something that was very important to my mother, and she passed her heart for people on to me,” Wilson said. “As a child, I remember our backyard being a place where everyone was loved and welcome and safe. It was okay to be yourself there. That’s how I wanted our church to feel.”

As this community of friends grew, so did the desire to continue doing life together. When the time came for the group to give this budding church a name, “The Table” seemed to be a natural choice.

“For one thing, it just fits with the culture here,” Wilson noted. “San Franciscans are a bunch of foodies. Everyone can relate to the imagery of the table—Christians, non-Christians, people from various cultures and backgrounds. A table is a place of intimacy, of friendship. It’s where people come together to be filled and satisfied, and then go out to fellowship with others. At the table, all are included and welcome.”

The Table meets in the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, home of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Wilson found the location through a running buddy, and it is the church’s second location. The Table originally launched in an art gallery, but the property was sold to a buyer who did not want the church in the facility.

“This new location is perfect for us,” Wilson said. “It’s the Table we all envisioned. It sits on the corner of three or four different neighborhoods, with very diverse populations. It’s a very multicultural area, with rich and poor, believers and non-believers, and people from all walks of life.”

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Community Groups are a key avenue for ministry, discipleship, and outreach for The Table in San Francisco. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these groups currently meet virtually via video conference.

There also is a thriving community of artists in the area, and Wilson has connected with many of them.

“The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is just two blocks from where the church started,” Wilson said. “One day I was on my way to an appointment at a coffee shop, when I heard this amazing violin music and decided to follow it. The young man playing, whose name is Otis, was a graduate of the conservatory. After he finished his set and I threw the tip in, we just started chatting for a while. I asked him to consider coming to play for our church.”

Otis admitted that church had not really been “his thing,” and wondered if he might be disqualified. Wilson assured him that he was welcome, and Otis began attending regularly. Wilson said that Otis is still on the journey of discovering his faith and has not yet expressed faith in Christ.

“I told him he is absolutely welcome here,’ Wilson said. “He still comes and plays and is a wonderful person in our church community.”

Otis has introduced Wilson to several other musicians, many of whom have found their way to the church. Rhonel, an artist and musician who was already a believer, is one—and he has brought a gospel sound to The Table’s worship.

“Our connection with the arts community has been this fluid and organic thing,” Wilson said. “One day I started chatting with a gentleman I met in a coffee shop, and he asked me if I liked music. I told him I had just seen an amazing band called the Afro Cuban All-Stars. It turns out he was with the band and had been on stage!”

That musician ended up coming to the church and introduced Wilson to several of his friends, including Juan Perez, who now serves as the worship leader for The Table.

Wilson also works as a real estate agent in the city, and he says that being bi-vocational gives him additional touchpoints for connection in the community. But he quickly adds that he is first and foremost a missionary.

“Psalm 81:10 is a verse I keep returning to,” Wilson said. “Scripture says, ‘Open your mouth, and I will fill it.’ San Franciscans are spiritually hungry, and I know the One who can fill them.”

The Table is small numerically, but it is dynamic in what God is doing in their midst in the dry spiritual climate that is San Francisco. The Table was one of several evangelical church plants featured in a 2015 article in The Guardian, “Hipster churches in Silicon Valley: evangelicalism’s unlikely new home.”

And while some people have shown interest in the church, hundreds walk by every day and barely seem to notice. But Wilson knows that God has called him to keep setting the table and inviting his neighbors in.

“I’ll be honest. This has not been easy,” he said. “We are praying for more partners in this work. Anyone who loves San Francisco and wants to come be a bi-vocational missionary, we could certainly use them!”

California was one of the first states to issue broad shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, and as result The Table held its last public gathering on March 8. But Wilson and his team have been ministering virtually through daily FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Meet connections, and weekly churchwide prayer gatherings, group Bible studies, and worship services via Zoom and the church’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Church members have been volunteering on Fridays to deliver food to the elderly and others in the community. They also have participated in peaceful demonstrations in small groups while wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Wilson said the immediate future looks much like the present, since San Francisco has been very cautious in plans to reopen businesses. A date to resume public worship services has not been set, but they are working with the Kanbar Performing Arts Center and hope to be able to welcome area residents back to The Table as soon as possible.

TheTable-Dallas2LogoDallas, Texas

The Table in Dallas, Texas, is the only one of the four “Tables” that did not start as an EPC church plant. Pastor Dave Wahlstedt said the congregation was originally a Pentecostal church and came into the EPC during the Willow Creek era of church growth.

“A few years ago we decided to make a missional move away from a brick and mortar church, so we sold the building and moved into a performing arts venue,” Wahlstedt said, noting that the move opened up the church to a whole new segment of the community since the building was used by artists, filmmakers, and musicians.

“We ended up needing to move from that venue, which drove us to look at what we could do with limited space. We spent weeks fasting and praying and looking at the community around us to determine what church should look like in our context,” Wahlstedt said. “We realized that there was a huge shift in the number of young professionals who had moved in from other states, and the demographic we were encountering was not interested in the established, ‘tall steeple’ kind of church. They were looking for something communal that had vitality and an inner-directed core.”

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Dave Wahlstedt

Through personality assessment tools, Wahlstedt realized that the people who were coming valued authenticity, community, self-exploration, and were comfortable with paradox. That’s when the concept of The Table began to take shape. Visitors are invited to “come hungry,” and the welcome page of their website states that “there is more to food than simply fueling our bodies. We feed our mind, body, and soul as we experience community around the table.”

The church is organized in groups of 20-25 people, each of which meets during the week or on the weekend for a shared meal and to worship, engage Scripture in an interactive way, and partake in sacraments together.

In the fourth week of each month, the entire congregation meets in a local indoor/outdoor event space called The Mill House in Lewisville, a suburb about 25 miles from downtown Dallas. The area is filled with millennials and young professionals, and they gather in the Mill House dining room, kitchen, and outdoor area in a very fluid and informal way.

As shelter-in-place orders took effect in Dallas in March, Wahlstedt transitioned to online services on March 14. The following Sunday the men’s and women’s groups and midweek service also went virtual.

TheTable-Dallas1

Like the other The Table congregations, The Table in Dallas, Texas, met for worship in a public event space prior to the COVID-19 shutdown forced a transition to online worship gatherings.

In-person gatherings resumed on June 7 but went back to virtual following a July 2 executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

Despite the challenges that the church has faced during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, Wahlstedt noted that the consistency and commitment of the group have been really strong.

“I believe it’s because they have a voice and ownership in the church,” he said. “I serve as more of a facilitator, or as I like to call it, ‘a holy instigator.’”

When not suspended due to COVID-19, the church also has a “Family Waffle Table” where parents are invited to participate alongside their children.

“I wanted to equip them to learn for themselves and model how they could be spiritual leaders at home,” Wahlstedt said. “God loves the sounds of families in worship.”

One of the challenges that The Table faces is that it is located in a somewhat transient area where people move in and out frequently. Partially because of that, the church does not use a traditional method of partnership or membership. At the beginning of the year, they take a pledge together and renew their commitment to one another and the church. There are presently around 75 congregants, with a core group of middle-aged attendees and a large influx of young professionals and families.

“I have learned to be comfortable with having them for a season,” Wahlstedt said. “God is transforming lives, and it’s rewarding to witness the spiritual growth.”

Tom Ricks, who leads the EPC’s church planting efforts, said he believes each of the four pastors selected “The Table” as the name for their church because they recognize the longing for friendship and community that exists in our culture.

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Tom Ricks

“They are innovators, genuine, and they love Jesus,” Ricks said. “They appreciate our ancient traditions but also look for ways to make honest connections with people. I love their heart for the lost as well as their willingness to try a variety of approaches.”

Ricks said he has devoted his ministry to investing in church planting because he wants to walk with fellow disciples who care about their neighborhoods, schools, and local businesses.

“So much of life is on the run, and we often feel like our hair is on fire,” he said. “A community church is hopefully a place of respite and worship where we connect with God and with one another.”

Ricks added that there is always room for more at the table. Or as he put it, “more The Tables,” and anyone sensing a call to engage in church planting should contact him at tom@greentreechurch.com.

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

First Presbyterian Church of Orlando makes largest-ever donation for local COVID relief efforts

 
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David Swanson, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla. (photo credit: David Whitley/Orlando Sentinel)

First Presbyterian Church of Orlando (FPCO), hoping to ease some of the pain of COVID-19′s economic devastation, has made a historic donation of more than $500,000 to non-profit agencies in Central Florida, individual families, and worldwide mission efforts. The church pooled the money from virtual collection plates, leftover funds of a capital campaign, bequests, and an annual missions drive after leaders started seeing a dramatic uptick in pleas for help.

Read the full story: Orlando Sentinel

More than $73,000 donated to EPC churches through online giving provided by Office of the General Assembly

 

As churches began to suspend in-person worship services this spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, 32 EPC churches inaugurated an online giving option provided by the Office of the General Assembly. As of June 24, parishioners have made 381 donations through the EPC’s platform totaling $73,080.59.

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Jefferson Ellis

Jefferson Ellis, Pastor of Hanover Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Pa., said the church has received online contributions “almost every week since we put it on our website. We even have some folks giving from other parts of the country who had roots or family in our church. It has been a positive thing for our small congregation.”

Oak Island Presbyterian Church in Oak Island, N.C., reopened for in-person worship services on June 14. David Paxton, Ruling Elder and Finance Committee Chairman, said providing online giving in the months that they were not able to meet was very helpful.

“Many of our congregants are retired,” Paxton said. “During this difficult period, we have been blessed by contributions exceeding our expenses. Thank you for providing this service to us.”

OnlineGiving-GradyDavidson

Grady Davidson

Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been holding drive-in services for several weeks, and the opportunity for people to give online has been “a great success.”

“Each Sunday there are a few people who make an offering which probably would not have been given without it,” said Pastor Grady Davidson. “Thank you so much.”

For many of these churches, the EPC’s platform—provided at no cost to churches—was their first time they offered online giving to their congregation.

“We have considered this in the past, but we were not motivated—primarily due to the size of our congregation,” said Bryan Little, Treasurer and Elder for Evangelical Presbyterian Stone Church in Caledonia, N.Y. “Online giving has allowed us to accept donations that would probably not be received otherwise. Members are pleased to have this option and have said the process is very easy.”

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Bryn MacPhail

Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, Bahamas, noted that “the mechanisms for online giving are not as user-friendly” in the Bahamas.

“This extended period of not gathering in person has challenged us in a number of ways,” he said. “Even more challenging is trying to receive contributions in a foreign currency. Once again, the EPC has come through for us with a helpful remedy. We are so grateful for this practical help and the ongoing support we receive from our denominational office.”

Some of the 32 churches had offered online giving previously, but with mixed results.

OnlineGiving-Guinston“Guinston had previously offered online giving through a company specializing in this type of service,” said Arlina Yates, Treasurer for Guinston Presbyterian Church in Airville, Pa. “Setting it up was laborious and communication after setup was difficult, so we decided to discontinue our contract. Because of that experience, I was hesitant to take up the offer of the EPC online giving tool, but I have found working with the EPC to be a delightful experience. The setup was so easy that I thought I must have missed some steps. Since day one, communication has been prompt, helpful, and kind. You’ve made a difference. Give yourselves a pat on the back, you deserve it and much more!”

Pat Coelho, EPC Chief Financial Officer, said the program will continue as long as it is needed.

“I know a big obstacle for many churches is trying to figure out how to choose an online giving solution and deploy it well,” Coelho said. “It feels good to be able to help like this.”

He noted that all donations are forwarded directly to the church each week.

“The Office of the General Assembly has not kept any of these funds,” Coelho added.

Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah noted that many churches faced unprecedented financial pressures as shelter-in-place orders became commonplace.

“When the shutdown started in March, none of us knew how long we would be unable to hold public worship services,” he said. “I recall many thinking we would be back by Easter, but of course that did not happen. I am thankful that we have been able to provide this financial lifeline for our churches, many of which are among our smallest congregations.”

Churches that requested the service received a page on the EPC website that included the form to make a secure donation, said Brian Smith, EPC Director of Communications.

“They can add a ‘Donate’ button to their website that links to this page,” he said. “For churches that do not have a website, they can share the address of the page on the EPC site with their congregants in all the usual ways they keep their attendees informed.”

EPC churches interested in more information about using the denomination’s online giving platform are encouraged to contact Smith at brian.smith@epc.org.

Memphis EPC churches gather for service of lament, prayer walk

 
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Members of The Avenue Community Church and Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis participated in a prayer walk on June 10 in the neighborhood near The Collegiate School of Memphis, where The Avenue meets for Sunday morning worship.

In response to the EPC’s call to observe June 8 as a Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer, several EPC churches in Memphis, Tenn., gathered for a public service of lament followed by a prayer walk through the adjoining area on June 10.

MemphisLamentService-Johnson

Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson, Lead Pastor of The Avenue Community Church facilitated the service. Also participating were Lee Adams, a volunteer leader at The Avenue; Barton Kimbro, Assistant Pastor of Young Adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis; and Denny Catalano, Regional Director of Campus Outreach Memphis.

“Lord, we acknowledge that we are fallen and that we are led astray by our own desires,” Adams prayed. “Even our pursuit for justice can be shortsighted, but Lord, give us your eyes to help us to stay fixed on you. And Lord, give us your heart, so as we cry, ‘How long,’ that we are not forsaken.”

In addition to his prayer, Adams read passages from Habakkuk 1, Psalm 113 and Psalm 143.

Catalano prayed that God would heal broken hearts and bind up their wounds, provide comfort to the families of those who have died in recent weeks, and “bring conviction and courage to our non-African-American brothers and sisters to enter into the fight and speak truth in love and to promote unity in the family of God.”

Kimbro reminded those gathered that “only the Lord is big enough, good enough, wise enough and powerful enough to do anything about what ails people in this world.”

“Oh Lord, we long for the day to come for the new heavens and the new earth,” Kimbro prayed. “We pray for your deliverance from evil around us, particularly racism, bigotry, and systematic injustice.”

At the close of the service, Johnson asked the congregation to stand, raise their hands, and clap.

“He’s worthy of our praise!” Johnson exclaimed. “He is to be trusted. He is the solid Rock on which we stand. All other ground is sinking sand. And I’m not worshipping the God of woke-ism, I’m not worshipping the God of patriotism—I’m worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who’s coming to get me!”

The prayer walk was originally scheduled for immediately after the service but was delayed two days by rainy weather. It was designed to demonstrate love and understanding for the community amid the racial unrest of the past several weeks.

“The indictment against the Church is that they don’t care, that their love does not have feet, and that whatever they talk about—whatever they do—has no tangible impact on the world around us,” Johnson said. “The indictment is so bad, especially for me being an African-American pastor and a person of color.”

He described the part of Memphis in which The Avenue meets as an “edge” neighborhood. The area is located between Highland Terrace—which has some of most expensive real estate in the city—and a district dubbed “The Nations,” which includes the highest concentration of Hispanics, refugees, and low-income black and white families in Memphis.

“The nations are there,” Johnson said. “Our church sits in the middle of that, so we aren’t necessarily out to be a niche church for multi-ethnicity. Rather, we believe that if we preach the gospel indiscriminately up and down the street without skipping over people, that we will be diverse.”

He said the prayer walk in the neighborhood represented that belief.

“For me, the Church has got to step up and demonstrate—even if they don’t understand—that it does care about the anguish and the grief of society.”

Rob Liddon, a Ruling Elder for Second Presbyterian Church and member of the EPC National Leadership Team, said the service of lament helped meet an important need.

“For some time I have felt we need to learn to lament all that is happening, and especially so after these killings,” he said. “Our worship services are ordinarily joyful—rightfully so—but we need to do a better job of weeping with those who weep.”

During the week following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Johnson said he had reminded the church of its core values, where the church sits in the Memphis community, and how the people who make up The Avenue could be the catalyst to bring together divided communities.

“Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father is one,” Johnson said during the prayer service. “We need to pursue that like never before. It’s the biggest apologetic to the world. We have to get to know people, allow ourselves to be known, and pull together and not fracture into several different groups.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Reopening the church: Doors continue to open despite restrictions

 

ReopeningTheChurchFourth in a series

As protests and more violent demonstrations continue across the U.S.—potentially hindering economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic—a nation desperately in need of spiritual direction is seeing churches slowly reopen their doors to worshipers. In that context, EPC congregations are balancing local, state, and federal guidelines to protect parishioners who choose to return to on-campus worship services and other activities.

Chris Parnell, Pastor of Bishopville Presbyterian Church in Bishopville, S.C., said in-person worship services resumed on May 3 following a unanimous vote by the session. He reported about half of their normal Sunday attendance of 70 were present for the first service.

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Chris Parnell

“For those in attendance, and the elders, the mood was quite positive,” Parnell said. “We’d been closed except for online worship services from mid-March through April—including Easter—and the elders and I felt a positive, uplifting response to our meeting again in-person.”

He said that neither his state nor local authorities had issued any guidelines on churches reopening, “so we looked at the CDC recommendations for guidance,” he said. “We are also blessed to have several healthcare workers and doctors in our congregation to give us local guidance.”

Parnell said other activities continue to be closed—such as choir practice, on-site Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and other gatherings—and looks forward to fully reopening. He explained that navigating ministry during the pandemic included conducting a graveside-only funeral service.

“Other than the family and me, the funeral home sent two facilitators and a local musician who played and sang the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.

Following 14 years as Associate Pastor, Joyce Harris was installed as Lead Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kokomo, Ind., on March 8 as the first cases of COVID-19 began to sweep across the nation.

ChurchesReopening3-Harris

Joyce Harris

“This season has been very overwhelming to learn new ways, and the brunt of the responsibility for assuring conditions are met are on the church, session, and pastor,” she said. “We were able to meet March 15 because the state had a limit of 250 at that time, and then on the following Tuesday, we were shut down. We were not streaming before that time; we did our first live video stream on March 29.”

The church resumed in-person worship services on May 10, with attendance and social distancing restrictions as recommended by Gov. Eric J. Holcomb’s “Back on Track Indiana” guidelines.

About 60 of the regular 175 congregants attended the May 10 service, with everyone doing their part to social distance and sanitize, Harris said.

“A large part of our congregation is over 60,” she said. “I still am trying to walk the balance of respecting the choices of when someone will return, with a lot of grace and truth. It’s hard when you know someone goes to the local store, or now gym, but is not in church. And I have to be OK with that, and yet pray. The work of discipleship needs to continue in order that others may see the work of the church is essential in their life.”

Harris said the decision to reopen has been well-received.

“I’ve not been told that we were crazy to reopen,” she said. “A longtime member and doctor who has worked in Indianapolis with infectious disease and control for over 12 years was part of our session meeting, and has been available to me throughout our decision-making process. Right after announcing, people agreed that it was a reasonable plan, which gave people choices. It’s been affirming because even as I’ve seen other churches larger than us open up after us, they have basically used similar types of things.”

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Bill Crawford

Bill Crawford, pastor of two congregations in Louisiana—First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux and First Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Houma—said services at the Houma location resumed on May 17, with 25 percent capacity per state guidelines. The two churches are about 30 miles apart.

“Twenty mostly young families and some widows attended,” Crawford noted, adding the pre-shutdown attendance was about 60 for both churches.

“The mood was somber, but it lifted as we continued,” he said. “We asked participants to wear a mask and to be seated by ushers, and installed UVC lighting in the air return.”

Crawford said feedback on the reopening has been mixed, ranging from “‘I won’t come to church until masks are given out,’ to ‘This is a government conspiracy,’ to ‘Thank you, I’m coming no matter what!’”

In Ohio, where churches were exempted from Gov. Mike DeWine’s order for non-essential businesses to close, Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon reopened May 24 after relying on live streaming its worship service for eight weeks.

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Peter Larson

Senior Pastor Peter Larson said in the county where the church is located has had 340 confirmed cases and 21 deaths—but no confirmed cases in the congregation.

For the church with a typical worship attendance of 380, the plan is to reopen in phases in order to provide a safe worship environment.

“Due to social distancing, our capacity is limited to 80 people at each service,” Larsen said. “For that reason, we have encouraged people to stay home and continue to watch the livestream unless they have an urgent need to be in the church building. On the day we re-opened we had a total of 65 people in the first service and 35 at the second.”

The overall mood of the first on-campus service was “very positive and joyful, but also kind of strange,” he said. “The pews are divided by duct tape to provide social distancing. Also, the live streaming equipment stands directly in front of the pulpit for now until we can install it permanently. Clearly, these things were awkward and distracting. Nevertheless, it was great to gather in worship and to preach to actual people instead of preaching into the cold lens of a camera.”

At Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Va., almost every member of the church has told their pastor they are eager to get back to an in-person worship services, Senior Pastor David Weber told the Lynchburg News & Advance.

ChurchesReopening3-Weber

David Weber

They got their wish on May 24, as the church reopened for two services on campus: an 8:00 a.m. service requiring face coverings and an 11:00 a.m. service that didn’t require masks. The sanctuary was limited to 150 people in spaced-out seating arrangements, and a pamphlet from the church lists other measures taken—such as limited singing and removal of pew hymnals and Bibles.

“Our expectation is that we’ll see a slow start to people coming back,” Weber said. “People are kind of waiting it out and seeing how it goes and slowly re-engaging.”

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Stephen Morefield

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Leoti, Kan., said the church returned to indoor worship on May 31 with about 80 percent of its regular attendance of 115 after conducting outdoor services the previous four weeks.

He described the return to in-person worship as “jubilant and enthusiastic,” with the congregation being understanding of special considerations that had to be taken.

“Because we haven’t had a case in the county, our challenge was getting folks to take reasonable precautions, especially to honor those in the body who were deeply concerned,” Moorefield said. “We had painted boxes for family units on the church lawn, moved an offering box, and practiced communion with pre-packaged elements handed out by gloved elders.”

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Ken Chivers

Lighthouse Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mooresville, N.C., reopened on May 17 with an outdoor service following social distancing guidelines.

Pastor Ken Chivers said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper continues to recommend that churches don’t meet inside yet, in spite of a federal judge’s ruling that churches could worship as they chose.

“Everyone understands the situation, so they were good with them for the most part,” Chivers said. “Not everyone wore masks, but most people followed our recommendations. About 60 people—roughly 75 percent of the church’s regular attendees—were at the May 17 service.

“We were very joyful and thankful,” Chivers said. “I teared up with joy when we all started saying the Lord’s Prayer together.”

by Tim Yarbrough,
EPConnection correspondent
with additional
reporting by Rachel Mahoney, The Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance

Reopening the church: Pastors, congregations take cautious early steps

 

ReopeningTheChurchThird in a series.

As the country slowly reopens following a three-month onslaught of the COVID-19 virus, EPC congregations are cautiously resuming corporate worship and other on-campus activities.

Middle Smithfield Evangelical Presbyterian Church in East Stroudsburg, Pa., lost the husband of an elder and son of a deacon to the virus. Despite the tragic death of a beloved member, Pastor Jeff Brower reported that they reopened public worship on May 15.

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Jeff Brower

“We announced the re-opening on May 8 with very little fanfare on our live feed and via email—we just said the doors will be open if you’d like to come back, but we were sure to make it as low-pressure as possible,” Brewer said. “We said, ‘Come if you want, but continue to watch the live stream if you’d prefer.’”

He said the church’s leadership prepared 13 policies for re-opening, and about 10 people in a congregation of 200 attended the first week—which included Brower and the praise team.

“I roped off every other pew so there would be no mistakes, and we provided masks for anyone who forgot theirs.”

He said attendance at the May 24 service doubled to about 20, including several from a nearby Reformed congregation that they participate in many activities with.

“The mood of the people here was great,” Brower said. “Everyone was very excited to be able to worship together, but also disappointed that we can’t stay and fellowship afterward. We normally have a small meal every Sunday after church and a big meal once a month—we’re very big on fellowship here.”

In Texas, Covenant EPC in Lake Jackson used a “soft opening” on May 10 to “iron out procedures,” said Senior Pastor Alan Trafford. He noted that they followed suggested guidelines such as maintaining social distance, providing hand sanitizer, encouraging worshipers to wear masks, and not to serve food.

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Alan Trafford

Though Gov. Greg Abbott did not require churches in Texas to close, Trafford said they held online-only services for seven weeks as a precaution, so the first service was “emotional and that of relief” for the congregation of about 200.

“The call to worship was from Psalm 84, ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.’ The praise team led with ‘Praise Belongs to You’ followed by a traditional hymn on the organ, ‘Come, We that Love the Lord.’ There was barely a dry eye in the place.”

He said 66 people attended the first service, and attendance has grown steadily in the weeks since.

“We can only get about 70 in our sanctuary with social distancing, so we are live streaming to our multi-purpose building,” Trafford noted. “Some have chosen to worship there since distancing is easier in the gym.”

He also said Covenant continues to stream its worship service on the church website, Facebook, YouTube, and a local cable TV station.

In Florida, Faith Community Church in Seminole also reopened on May 10 after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed retail and restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity.

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Dillon Thornton

“When that happened, we followed suit,” said Lead Pastor Dillon Thornton. “Our thinking was that most people spend at least 45 minutes in a restaurant, so offering a worship service of 45 minutes or so is consistent with the governor’s permission.”

He said they marked the pews with tape so that social distancing could be easily practiced and made face coverings optional.

He said the reopening of in-person gatherings has been met with “only positive feedback. I suspect this is because we have taken a hybrid approach—we offer both an online gathering and two in-person gatherings—and we have encouraged all gospel partners (how Faith refers to its members) to return in person whenever they feel ready to do so. No pressure.”

Worship attendance has ranged from 95 the first week to 108 on May 24. Prior to the shelter-in-place orders, the congregation had an average worship attendance of about 300.

“The majority of our gospel partners are not yet ready to return to in-person gatherings, so they join us online each week,” Thornton said. “Additionally, we’ve seen significant growth in online viewers.”

Thornton added that current services are abbreviated in length, and include prayer, praise, and communion.

“We intentionally made the first week back concise, and only the sanctuary is open at this stage,” he said. “Families worship together, but there are no children’s or student activities yet.”

Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Wilson, N.C, resumed public worship with outdoor services on May 17 and worship in the Sanctuary on May 24.

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Chris Greenwood

Pastor Chris Greenwood said the services have been well received, with more than 60 attending the outside service and 30 attending the first inside service. He said average attendance prior to the shutdown was 60 to 70—which has increased from about 35 just a few years ago.

“We spaced the chairs for social distancing and asked people to arrive in masks through the end of the musical worship time,” he said. “We then suggested they remove them for the sermon and put them back on from the benediction until they depart.”

Greenwood said the impact of COVID-19 on the Wilson area—about 50 miles east of Raleigh in the eastern North Carolina—has not been widespread. As a result, he hopes the church can soon return to some semblance of normalcy.

Back in Pennsylvania, Brower said the impact in East Stroudsburg has been much greater so returning to how things were before the coronavirus took hold may prove more difficult.

“We are in the Pocono Mountains just across the river from New Jersey, so we’re a vacation destination for folks from New Jersey and New York—and many of our parishioners commute to both,” he said. “The member of our church who died lived in New Jersey, and a couple with three small children tested positive but have recovered. Overall, our area has been relatively hard-hit.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Memphis, Tenn., EPC pastors collaborate with local faith leaders on reopening churches video

 

ReopeningTheChurch

Second in a series.

George Robertson, Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.., and Rufus Smith, Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn., contributed their voices to “Memphis Faith Leaders Stand Together,” a one-minute video on the decision to love their neighbors by waiting for in-person worship.

Smith said the video has received significant viewership and “emboldened many churches to predicate reopening based on data, not dates. It also reinforced implementing safety protocols now and whenever we regather.”

While Tennessee’s shelter-in-place order expired on April 30, Smith noted that most of the Hope congregation understands “the three factors of healthcare, economics, and loving our neighbors must all be considered before in-person gatherings resume.”

The idea for the video emanated from a weekly Zoom meeting of Memphis-area clergy.

“A coalition of churches is in partnership with the Church Health Medical Clinic and Christ Community Health Services, both of which provide quality healthcare for the uninsured and working poor,” Smith said. “The churches in the video have covenanted to care spiritually, materially, and emotionally for those who test positive for coronavirus in their ZIP codes while they quarantine for 14 days.”

The Hope Church Creative Team produced the video.

 

Reopening the church: ‘When and how’ the critical points for EPC pastors

 

ReopeningTheChurch

First in a series.

As debate rages about opening up the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, EPC congregations across the U.S. are weighing options on how and when to resume regular worship services and other activities.

Some churches have already started holding in-person services.

Sylvania EPC in Ward, Ark., reopened for services on May 10 with about half of its regular attendees—most of whom are age 65 and older.

James Pitts, pastor of the Sylvania congregation, said there is “no pressure on the others to return before they are ready.”

He added that they are attempting to follow Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s guidelines.

“Most wore masks,” he noted. “One wore gloves. We positioned offering plates near the doors and did not have bulletins. We practiced social distancing, streamlined the service slightly, and did not have a choir.”

Arkansas has been one of the outbreak’s least-impacted states, Pitts reported. “We are thankful that none of us have experienced serious symptoms associated with COVID-19.”

In Louisiana, which was one of the early “hot spot” states for the virus, First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge reopened on May 17 with two services—each of which had an attendance limit of 25 percent of the Sanctuary’s capacity.

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Gerrit Dawson

Senior Pastor Gerrit Dawson said plans for future meetings depend on what Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards outlines in phase one of the state’s reopening plan.

“Things change so quickly, the guidelines may or may not be what has been already announced,” Dawson said. “This defines the road ahead as ‘speculative’ and we must remain dynamic and be prepared to make changes to whatever plans we have made.”

Dawson said they asked the congregation to register online prior to Sunday. When the pre-determined capacity limit was reached, the system would not accept additional registrations.

“With pre-registration, we know the size of the families, groups, and individuals who will be coming and will be able to accomplish at least some strategic seat assignments to accomplish healthy distances,” he said.

Ruling Elder Jane Cooper said about 60 people attended each of the first Sunday’s services.

“Everyone was given a mask, and we were spread out,” she said. “We stopped the online signups after the first weekend, and this past week our attendance was about the same.”

Dawson said decisions on logistical matters—such as distribution of bulletins and order of worship, communion, fellowship, and helping attendees maintain social distancing while exiting the Sanctuary—required extra thought but were necessary to reopen for public worship.

“Those who come will be hungry to worship our Lord in Spirit and in Truth,” he said. “Gathering as God’s people is a privilege and one that is in our DNA as Christians.”

In New Mexico, First Presbyterian Church in Artesia reopened for worship services on May 24.

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Dan Phelps

Pastor Dan Phelps said maintain social distancing was not difficult for the congregation of about 25 individuals.

“We are in a building that would seat 250,” he said. “I have ordered masks and gloves to have on hand so that folks who would like to utilize them may have access to them.”

Phelps added that a team cleaned the building before the service, sanitizing doorknobs and other potential high-touch items.

“We did not pass the plate but had it at the back for folks to drop off their offerings. Also, we roped off every other pew so that folks would maintain six feet distance between families.”

Faith Presbyterian Church in Crivitz, Wis., began holding outdoor worship services after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new five-week “Safer at Home” quarantine order in April that allowed for church gatherings with specific restrictions.

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David Pleuss

Pastor David Pleuss said the church’s leadership felt it was time for the congregation to meet.

“We noticed a shift in people’s attitudes,” he said. “Discouragement was creeping in and relational intimacy beyond our online daily devotion was needed.”

Pleuss said that while Crivitz is located in one of the state’s largest counties by land area, it has had the smallest number of COVID-19 cases.

“After looking at the new order we determined we could in good conscience hold outdoor services with appropriate social distance measures in place. We ended up having somewhere around 50 people (out of an average attendance of 80) attend our first time,” he said. “We are still doing a lot of online presence, but this was a breath of fresh air that many of our people needed.”

He added that the church’s small groups are not yet meeting.

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Tony Myers

Tony Myers, Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Somerset, Pa., said they will continue to make pre-recorded services available online through May, then consider reopening in June.

Prior to the shelter-in-place restrictions, the church held two services each Sunday—with about 250 people in each. He said the plan for in-person worship gatherings beginning in June is to require pre-registration for three Sunday morning services of no more than 100 each to allow for social distancing.

“During the month of May we are cleaning the building for the health and safety of the congregation,” Myers said, adding that Sunday School classes have been suspended through the summer.

In Indianapolis, where Southport Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor Rob Hock said there is a “healthy relationship between church and state,” churches “have been given a lot of latitude regarding public meetings.”

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Rob Hock

Despite the leeway, Hock said Southport plans to continue digital worship and times of prayer by video conference for the time being.

“We have empowered our elders who have said ‘less is more,’ and we have provided connection,” he said. “Our people believe that gathering more than 10 people together would be immoral and irresponsible, so we are going to be more restrictive. Our values will drive what we do.”

Hock said those values include caring for both the “physical and the spiritual needs of people, caring for the whole community, and caring for authorities over us.”

Cedarville United Presbyterian Church in Cedarville, Ohio, is following much the same strategy as Southport.

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Anne Horton

Anne Horton, pastor of the Cedarville congregation, said they do not have a firm date for the church to reopen. In the meantime, the church will continue to offer Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening Bible study on Facebook Live—a service they had not provided prior to the pandemic.

“We are committed first and foremost to the health and safety of the congregation,” she said. “We will rope off some pews and encourage people to stay at least six feet away from anyone not in their household. We have already removed the hymnals, praise books, and Bibles, and will encourage people to bring their Bibles and to download a bulletin from our website and bring it with them.”

She said hand sanitizer would be placed in the sanctuary, along with cleaning supplies in the restrooms. Congregants will be encouraged—but not required—to wear masks.

Horton said she has emphasized to parishioners that while services will be different from previous experiences, it also will be a joyful experience.

“It will be a very different experience from what we have been used to,” she said. “It will feel awkward. It will feel sterile. But whether we are in the sanctuary or in living rooms, we can glorify God together.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Church sewing groups answer call for masks for Michigan COVID-19 hotspot

 

Hamtramck, Mich., is an area that was hit hard by COVID-19. About five miles from downtown Detroit, 42 percent of Hamtramck’s 22,000 residents are foreign-born—giving Hamtramck the largest percentage of immigrants in the state and a longtime focus of EPC World Outreach efforts among Muslims in the United States.

Between January and March, as many as 300 families moved to Hamtramck from Bangladesh to join relatives. The March coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shelter-in-place orders isolated these immigrants in unfamiliar surroundings, in some cases even from relatives. So when a World Outreach global worker in the area put out an urgent request in April for masks to share with the Bangladeshi and Yemeni families in their neighborhood, women in sewing groups at two EPC churches jumped into action.

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Paula Creamer

Paula Creamer, a Ruling Elder for Grace Community Church in Falcon, Colo., responded to the need after seeing it posted on the EPC Women’s Resource Council’s Facebook page.

“We have a women’s sewing group at the church called Stitchers of Grace,” Creamer said. “It actually started about seven years ago in response to a need for pillowcases at a local homeless shelter. We sew pillowcases every year now for the Salvation Army and the shelters.”

When COVID-19 hit Colorado and local paramedic, fire, and police departments requested mask donations, Stitchers of Grace stepped up to help. They were joined by two other women’s sewing groups in the Colorado Springs area: The Black Forest Craft Guild and Falcon Stitchers. The three groups were familiar with one another, having met at the annual craft show that is held at Grace Community Church each holiday season.

“Between the three groups, we have about 20 women who have given their time and efforts over the last few weeks to sew almost 9,000 masks,” Creamer said. “We have given them out to rescue workers, shelters, clinics, and hospitals. We already knew how to make them when the request came from Hamtramck. So, of course, we said we could help.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Findlay, Ohio, a group of women from Gateway Church also was rallying to sew masks for Hamtramck.

“The request came from one of our mission partners,” said Cody Ohnmeiss, who serves as Gateway’s Go Local Director. “We were already partnered with that area of Michigan and wanted to help in any way that we could.”

So he called Sandra Tietje, who leads a ministry team called Sew, Quilt, Share. When Ohnmeiss told her they needed 500 masks, her response was, “That’s a big number!”

But she knew that God would provide, as He always does. The group had already been sewing masks for local hospitals and nursing home facilities. In the previous month, they had distributed more than 2,000 masks—all made from materials they already had on hand or had been donated from local fabric shops.

“God knew that this moment was coming and what would be needed, and He had already laid the foundation so that this could happen,” Tietje said. “There were many, many hands involved in this process, and God is the one who has done it.”

The women’s group launched in 2003 when a few ladies from the church felt like God was calling them to start a sewing ministry as part of the church’s outreach ministries.

“We have a strong missional history at Gateway,” Tietje said. “I have a photo of my grandmother working on a quilt with her Ladies Missionary Society back in 1967. I’m actually in the photo, too—underneath the quilt! We grew up watching our mothers hold bake sales and sew things to raise money for missions. This is our heritage.”

Every month, people meet at the church to cut fabric and put kits together to distribute to women who want to participate in the sewing projects. Ohnmeiss serves as the runner, dropping off and picking up projects throughout the city.

“One of the beautiful things about sewing is that if you have a passion for it and you meet someone else that has a passion for it as well, it breaks down the barriers that divide,” Tietje said. “This is a fun, non-threatening outreach to our friends. There are ladies who have started coming to our church because of friendship evangelism through the sewing group.”

Creamer has seen the same thing at Grace Community Church.

“Some of the women have started praying together and a few have even been attending the Tuesday Women’s Bible Study,” she said. “This latest project—the masks for frontline workers—has connected us more deeply with the community. We’ve even had grocery stores providing us with twist ties from the produce section to make the nosepiece on the masks.”

Creamer knows firsthand what a blessing these masks have been. Her husband is an essential government employee, and she is a nurse in a local hospital.

Ohnmeiss noted that a perhaps-unexpected blessing from the effort was watching how God brought many different people together to serve those who are in need.

“One of our pastors made it a family project,” he said. “He and his girls had never sewed a mask before, but they put in a day’s effort and came out with masks to send to Michigan. It was beautiful to watch.”

All of the masks produced by the church groups have been sent to Hamtramck. Between the two churches, they were able to provide even more than the 500 that were originally requested.

Tietje understands firsthand how important it is to come together in this unprecedented time and be there for one another. Her father-in-law passed away in May, and they were unable to be with him in the nursing home when he was sick or give him the kind of funeral that they would have liked. While the experience was difficult, it also gave her a greater empathy for those who were suffering and a passion to get even more masks to those in need.

“God always lays the groundwork before something like this happens,” she said. “He knew the pandemic was coming long before we did, and was aware of every little need. He brought our sewing group together for such a time as this. What a joy and privilege to play a small part in His plan.”

By Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

Nebraska church planting pastor seeks city council seat

 
JeffRyanCityCouncil

Jeff Ryan (left), pastor of Three Timbers Church in Bennington, Nebr., has the support of his wife, Kristi; son, Levi (10); and daughter, Selah (15) in his bid for a seat on the Bennington city council.

For EPC Teaching Elder Jeff Ryan, who planted Three Timbers Church in Bennington, Nebr., in 2015, reaching his Omaha suburb for Christ means taking a holistic approach and embracing the church’s entire sphere of influence.

On May 12, Ryan will find out how far that influence extends when voters consider him for a four-year term in the Ward 2 seat on the Bennington City Council.

“People need to know that you care before they care what you know,” he said. “You have to be visible before you can be viable. Visibility shows people the love of Christ before having a conversation is a viable option for them.”

While Ryan wants to promote his campaign, he’s been acutely aware that the coronavirus pandemic has shifted many voters’ focus away from things like elections toward basic everyday needs.

“This is not at the top of the minds of people right now—it’s ‘How can I pay my bills? Do I have enough food? Am I safe?’” he acknowledged. “I have political signs out in the community. I’ve done two Facebook posts, and I’ll do one more, but I’m trying to be sensitive right now.”

Ryan noted that only one other member of Three Timbers actually lives in Ward 2, but he emphasized that the church’s leadership supports his decision to run.

“It’s not something that I have stood in front of the church and said, ‘I have made this decision,’” Ryan said. “Our elders gave me their blessing. Others who have found out have been very supportive. I think that’s because they know that my heart is for the gospel and to make our community as strong as it can be. I don’t talk politics, and I don’t preach politics. It’s Kingdom first.”

As a five-year-old church plant, Three Timbers meets in a local elementary school for worship, as well as at various venues in and around Bennington—which naturally extends the visibly and reach of the church.

“Our strategy since the beginning has been tangibly demonstrating to people our love for them—how are we visibly loving our community?” he noted. “We buy box lunches for the school where we meet. We buy box lunches every year for the entire school staff to welcome them back. We stuff Christmas stockings. We want people to know that we love this community, and we want to serve this community.”

Ryan understands that his status as a religious leader in the community of about 1,500 people could both help and hurt his candidacy.

“I think that anytime that you put that you’re a pastor, that’s a dividing line for people,” he said. “For some people it’s a real plus. For others it’s a real detriment. We have to be very careful because we are carrying the image the Christ. We have to handle ourselves the right way.”

He noted that as a small community, relationships are key in Bennington.

“I’ve had the privilege to interact with a lot of people from local businesses that we partner with at the church and the school that we have a great relationship with,” he said. “I hope that we have positive name recognition from just trying to serve our community.”

Ryan believes Three Timbers is well regarded in Bennington because of the way the church has worked to meet needs.

“We didn’t come in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you.’ We came in and asked, ‘How can we serve? Tell us where you have a need.’ So we really tried to be humble and submit to the local authorities and to serve them.”

Since Three Timbers lacks a permanent church building, the church has numerous partnerships in the area.

“Everything we do, we have to do somewhere else in the community,” Ryan explained. “From partnering with Anytime Fitness to do a 5K run that raises funds for the school’s foundation to help students and in the classroom, to a local bar called Nate’s Stumble Inn, where I do a Bible study weekly. We do something for the community in the summer called Friday Night Flicks, where we show movies in the park. Nobody’s getting up and preaching. It’s just to come out and have a good time. We provide snacks and drinks and watch a good movie.”

Tom Ricks, pastor of Greentree Community Church in Kirkwood, Mo., and chairman of the EPC Church Planting Team ran for a seat on the Kirkwood school board in 2019. He said understands the pressure of being a pastor and a candidate for public office.

“You live in a glass house as a pastor—people are watching you all the time,” Ricks said. “That would be doubly true as an elected official, so there’s a lot of pressure. I hope he wins. I think he’d do a lot of good. I know he’ll have good people around him, because it’s hard being a pastor and I imagine it’s hard to be an elected official. So it would be doubly hard to be both. But I’m rooting for him.”

Prior to launching Three Timbers, Ryan and his family lived in Orlando, Fla., where he served 13 years as team Chaplain for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. As he seeks public office in Nebraska, he looks to the life of Christ who demonstrated love through grace and truth without compromise.

“Being obedient to the call of Christ means loving people in a variety of contexts,” he said. “You can love somebody but say, ‘I see a different way;’ but say, ‘I love you, but more importantly, Jesus loves you.’ I think you can put Christ first and not your own agenda or your own politics and say, ‘I just want this person to know Jesus.’ And if that happens, that’s a success—everything else doesn’t matter. So it’s about how can God use this opportunity to bring the hope of Jesus to our community?”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

EPC churches minister to members, communities affected by Easter tornado outbreak

 
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An EF3 tornado destroyed the area of East Brainerd Road in Chattanooga, Tenn., on April 13, only a few miles from the EPC’s Brainerd Presbyterian Church. Photo courtesy of Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, Emergency Medical Services and Field Services.

One week after a series of tornados raked the southeastern United States, EPC churches are helping members of their churches and communities affected by the storms.

Michael Allen, Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Miss., said several members of the congregation worked on Monday following the Sunday night storms to cut fallen trees off the home of Westminster’s nursery director, Gail Smith.

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Michael Allen

“We put her and her family in a hotel for a few days and will be helping her move into our mission house until she can get her home repaired,” Allen said. “She will need a new roof and possibly other structural repairs.”

In addition to Smith, Allen said one of the teachers in Westminster’s Laurel Christian School “lost everything,” and some other church members were “mildly affected” but not displaced.

Allen reported “indescribable devastation” in the area around Laurel, in southeastern Mississippi.

“The damage is over a mile wide of complete ruin and it goes for miles,” he said. “There will be lots of work to do but it looks like everybody is getting involved and helping out.”

The only known damage to an EPC church property from the Easter storm system was Brainerd Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., which Dane Deatherage serves as pastor. He said that downed trees and power lines prevented him from getting to the church campus quickly, even though he only lives about a half mile away.

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Dane Deatherage

“We have a few very minor repairs to do,” he reported. “We have some small damage to a portico, and several trees down. None of the trees, however, damaged our building.”

Deatherage said none of the congregation’s members were injured, though four families have been displaced.

“One neighborhood was hit really bad, and we have several families with substantially damaged homes and property—lost roofs, trees on their homes,” he said. “The devastation is heartbreaking, but we hope for Jesus to use us to display His grace and glory. We are thankful that God protected us, and we are praying for our neighbors who have had major home damage, injuries, and have lost loved ones.”

Pastors in Monroe, La.; Meridian, Miss.; and the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic reported varying levels of local damage, but no injuries or harm to any EPC church property or members’ homes.

John Mabray, Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Monroe, reported via text message that the hardest-hit area of the city was on the east side, including the airport.

“It hit in an area pretty far from us, the church, and most of our members,” Mabray said. “I do not know of any church members who suffered damage.”

Rhett Payne, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Meridian Miss., said by text message that Meridian—about 60 miles northeast of Laurel—was spared a direct hit from the tornados.

“We had them all around us, but nothing in Meridian,” he said.

Further east in the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic, Stated Clerk Ron Horgan said he was not aware of any EPC churches that were impacted, despite heavy local damage in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina.

“We haven’t heard of any storm damage from our churches,” Horgan said by email.

Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk, said a disbursement from the EPC’s Emergency Relief Fund was made within three hours of a request for assistance.

“I am grateful that we have a very healthy balance due to the generosity of our churches and thousands of individuals in previous disaster situations,” Jeremiah said. “These funds are available for churches to repair damage to their property, but also as they identify needs among their members and their communities. We want to do everything we can to help our churches minister in Jesus’ name when the need is the greatest.”

Throughout the April 12-13 outbreak, 132 tornadoes touched down across 10 states, inflicting widespread and locally catastrophic damage. The strongest tornados occurred in southern Mississippi, several of which produced estimated winds of nearly 200 m.p.h. and reached widths of more than two miles. With a total of 32 tornado-related fatalities, it was the deadliest tornado outbreak since April 2014. Relief efforts were complicated by social distancing requirements amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

EPC churches in COVID-19 hotspots suffer losses, minister hope leading up to Easter

 
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Volunteers from Central Presbyterian Church in New York City helped set up a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park. The 14-tent, 68-bed respiratory care unit opened on April 1.

As the human and economic toll from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic mounts, EPC churches in some of the hardest-hit areas of the United States have witnessed the death of parishioners in quarantine among other unprecedented challenges as they continue to minister to their congregations and communities.

In New York, which has experienced more cases statewide than any single country outside the U.S., grief and hope comingle in a region under lockdown.

“Every Sunday is a mixture of sadness, grief, lament, beauty, joy, and hope,” said Matt Brown, Senior Pastor of Resurrection Brooklyn. “Traffic in the city has decreased, but the sirens are incessant day and night. But in the midst of sickness and death God has gifted us with spectacular blooming magnolias and cherry trees.”

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Matt Brown

Brown said the congregation mirrors the city.

“We are in a very difficult season right now. We have growing numbers of sick people in our churches and had our first death on April 2. Fortunately, none of our staff has fallen ill yet. We are trying to cope with Sunday worship as best we can—like everyone else.”

Another coronavirus hotspot is in Detroit, 600 miles west of Brooklyn.

Scott McKee, Senior Pastor of Ward Church in Northville, Mich., said the situation is “pretty bad here in Detroit.” He reported that the church staff and congregation are mourning the recent loss of a faithful member.

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Scott McKee

“He was 79 years old and a very active church volunteer. What is heartbreaking is that his wife was not able to be with him, and now, in her grief, is not able to be with family. She has COVID-19 and is home in quarantine.”

Despite the heartache, McKee said church members are stepping up to help in the face of the pandemic.

“A young medical resident in our church was worried about becoming infected and passing it on to his wife and young children. A member of our church loaned him their travel trailer, which is now parked in front of the doctor’s house and has become his home away from home.”

Hotspot-SewingMatthewNeighbor

Matthew Neighbor, grandson of Ward Church member Barb Stahl, taught himself to sew and make face masks by watching a YouTube video. He and other Ward volunteers have made 1,000 masks for local nursing homes, healthcare facilities, and at-risk church and community members.

In addition, more than 100 volunteers from the church have mobilized to sew 1,000 face masks for local nursing homes and healthcare facilities, as well as at-risk church and community members and hospitals.

“God is faithful. Times are troubled. Jesus’ Church prevails,” McKee proclaimed.

For Randy Brown, Pastor of Military Avenue EPC in Detroit, personal illness has slowed—but not stopped—his efforts to address the needs of the congregation.

“I am extremely busy trying to get up to speed on streaming our classes and services online,” Brown said, noting that he came down with the seasonal flu and has been in isolation since early March. “I have had to replace much of our dated internet equipment, as well as learning new software.”

He reported that none of the church’s members have contracted the coronavirus, but confessed, “the isolation is getting to people.”

Back in New York, volunteers from Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan helped set up a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital about three miles from the church in Central Park. The 14-tent, 68-bed respiratory care unit opened on April 1 and is designed especially for coronavirus response.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris, Senior Pastor of Central, reported that “a lot of positive work” is taking place during the crisis, noting that volunteers from the church also are preparing hundreds of sack lunches for the city’s homeless each week. Yet he echoed Matt Brown’s comments that the good is mixed with heartache.

“Several people within our congregation contracted the virus, and we suffered our first loss on April 2. An elderly member contracted the virus, and then fell in his home fracturing nine ribs, one of which punctured his lung. He was rushed to the hospital Wednesday night and died peacefully Thursday morning. The saddest part is that none of us could visit him in the hospital.”

Harris emphasized that the member received “exceptional care” from the attending doctor, who “rested his hand on his shoulder as he breathed his last. This has brought comfort to the family and friends.”

Across the East River from Manhattan, members of Resurrection Brooklyn’s Williamsburg campus (one of five in Resurrection’s network of churches in New York’s largest borough), are communicating their experience of isolation to the rest of the congregation by email.

“Anything that reveals a bit of light ultimately points to the One who is the Light of the World,” said Vito Aiuto, Lead Pastor of the Williamsburg congregation.

Steve Brune, a self-described “seminary dropout” who now works in finance, offered the following perspective during Holy Week:

“As we celebrate the season of Lent in anticipation of Good Friday and Easter, we would do well to imagine the ultimate moment of Christian emotional dislocation and vertigo as we see our King executed outside the city like a common criminal. The hopes and dreams of the faith community crushed—overwhelming feelings of tilting or spinning.” Brune wrote. “The losses we are experiencing are real and should never be diminished. We have absorbed tangible losses, fractured community, emotional dislocation, and severe vertigo.”

He added that “grief and outrage at these forms of evil and pain and at death itself” are normal and acceptable responses—but are not the end of the story.

“Then it happens,” he wrote. “Easter comes. Resurrection. A new song of the Lord.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Drive-in church the ‘new normal’ for rural Missouri EPC congregation

 
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Nathan Markley, Pastor of Big Creek EPC in Hannibal, Mo., led Palm Sunday worship from the sanctuary’s fire escape, which faces the church parking lot. 

Drive-in restaurants. Drive-in oil changes. Drive-in car washes. And for those old enough to remember, drive-in theaters.

Big Creek EPC in Hannibal, Mo., has added “drive-in church” to the list.

Nathan Markley serves as pastor of the congregation of less than 50 in rural northeastern Missouri. When a deacon proposed it as a way to gather during the coronavirus pandemic, he thought she was joking.

“When we first cancelled our regular worship gatherings, we shifted to a home worship,” Markley said. “I did the bulletins and mailed them to our members by Wednesday. I was not preparing a sermon the rest of the week, so I called everyone in the church to check on them and find out if they had any prayer needs. One of our deacons mentioned that someone in her family went to a big church that was meeting this way. She said I could stand on the fire escape and everyone could just stay in their cars and listen.”

Janet Taylor suggested the idea, and said she was serious.

“We’ve been doing in-home church which worked out really good, but you just need that fellowship and your fellow Christians,” she said. “To be with your friends and family and hear Nathan preach—it’s just not the same on TV or Facetime. I’m glad Nathan was energetic and said, ‘let’s try this.’”

BigCreek2-FireEscapeDespite what seemed like an outlandish idea for their small congregation, Markley researched what it would take.

“A house in our little community of about 200 people has Christmas decorations with music tuned to it—you drive by and they have signs to tune your radio to a certain station to hear the music. I thought that if a house can do that, surely a church can do it.”

For about $100, Markley purchased an FCC-compliant transmitter that sends a low-power signal throughout the church property.

“I am not a technical person at all. We don’t have a sound guy, and it’s not like I could call people in to help either,” he said. “I very nearly dismissed this as an option, but I found this device online and literally plugged it in to our sound system and turned it on. That was it. I almost bypassed this because I didn’t think we could figure it out, and it was easier than I ever imagined.”

Big Creek launched their drive-in service on Palm Sunday.

“It wasn’t like a huge, super-packed out, hyped event,” Markley said with a laugh. “We also didn’t do it for Holy Week. It just worked out that way because Palm Sunday was the first Sunday that we had it set up.”

Markley estimated that 50-100 people showed up.

“I knew some people from the other churches in town were joining us, because we were the only ones doing this,” he said. “But I couldn’t see everything, and I couldn’t see in all the cars either.”

But he knew they were there, which was the whole idea.

“Our goal was that we could gather in a way that was safe and healthy, but still gather to worship,” Markley said. “Home worship in the weeks prior was good. There is a spiritual union—if I could call it that—in that, but it’s not the same. We want to worship as a body if possible.”

Markley said the morning had some challenges, including being so windy that he had to stand inside the window leading to the fire escape instead of outside.

BigCreek3-Window“I could hear myself through the church speakers and I could hear the wind, so I preached from just inside the window,” he said. “I’m sure many of the people only saw my arms and hands.”

Taylor laughed that her brother-in-law was one of those with a somewhat restricted view. “He told me. ‘I never realized Nathan talks with his hands so much!’”

But the act of gathering together was worth it.

“One of our members told me last week that she knew it wouldn’t feel the same as a regular Sunday, but she told me after that it was ‘a lot more like a regular Sunday than I expected,’” Markley said. “She said, ‘I need that,’ and to be honest, so did I. To have them see their church family was really beautiful, even though they were in the car with the windows up. I saw some people holding their babies up to the car windows and people were waving. To see one another was just…good.”

Taylor agreed.

“One lady I talked to said she couldn’t see Nathan but told me, ‘I felt that I was at church,’” she said. “You can’t hug them, but you’re still in fellowship with them. Especially during this time and Holy Week. I can’t express what a feeling it was. It felt like a true Sunday.”

Markley noted that as a pastor, “I want to shepherd them as best I can, and to have some semblance of that was so very important. The whole time I thought this would be helpful for the people in the congregation, but I didn’t realize how much I needed to see them also. It’s been fine talking to them through the screen and the phone, but I realized that I needed them in person. Watching the cars pull in before we started, I was just in tears. But then I had to pull myself together so I could lead us through a service.”

At the conclusion of the morning, those who attended were encouraged to honk their car horns following the benediction.

“It was a chorus of car horns,” Marley said. “I know they were singing and praying with me during the service, but I couldn’t hear them. But when I heard the horns, it was like ‘this is the Lord’s church.’ And it was stunning.”

NBC “Today” show honors Second Presbyterian Church choir’s ministry to Kathe Russell

 

On the April 4 edition of the “Today” show on NBC, host Willie Geist began the “Highs and Lows” segment with a tribute to the choir of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis. The church’s Chancel Choir sang hymns outside Kathe Russell’s home on April 1. Her husband, Tim, died on March 30 following a two-week hospitalization from COVID-19. He served as the church’s Assistant Pastor for Middle Adults.

Heaven’s bells: First EPC Roanoke (Va.) rings carillon bells to support local healthcare workers

 

Churches in Roanoke, Va., are showing their support for our healthcare workers in the most vocal way they know how—ringing bells. The local effort to bless and affirm medical professionals began with Carilion Clinic, a non-profit health care organization based in Roanoke, and its Carilion Community Outreach and Healing Arts program.

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Robert Smith

First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Roanoke is one of its first partners. Pastor Robert Smith said it was an easy decision when the hospital asked if they would ring their bell towers during 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. shift changes to honor those caring for the community during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are the closest church to the hospital, so we immediately agreed.” Smith said. “Our bell tower has the original bells from when the church building was built in 1929. Simply changing the schedule of our bells for a period of time, it’s a very small thing for us to do.”

“I think we have a few neighbors who might be praying harder for a cure than the rest of us because of the early schedule,” he quipped.

Katie Biddle, Director of Carilion’s Keely Healing Arts Program, was seeking creative ways to cheer on their hospital workers. In Europe and elsewhere, cathedrals and churches began ringing their bells several weeks ago as a show of support for health care workers in their communities. Biddle brought the idea to the Roanoke valley.

“What we’d really like to do is offer a show of support throughout Southwest Virginia, throughout our local community hospitals, as well as long-term care facilities,” she said.

Smith’s wife, Julie, is a bereavement specialist at Carilion, so the church bells have taken on more personal tone than ever before. The church is supporting the community in other ways as well. On March 23, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam order all schools in the state closed for the rest of the school year. First EPC operates a preschool, which they also closed as a precaution.

“Because of that, we have offered our parking lot to Carilion as a drive-through rapid testing site should that become necessary. So far it hasn’t,” Smith said. “The Lord has been gracious to us. None of our members are hospitalized, and as of yesterday (April 1) Carilion only reported 34 positive tests out of the 657 they have conducted.”

Several members of the congregation live in nursing homes, which Smith said he has not been allowed to visit.

“Thankfully we are doing well, though it’s frustrating not being able to meet together—as it is for everybody. But we are participating in the prayer and fasting on Good Friday and expect that to be a blessing to our congregation.”

with additional reporting from Lindsay Cayne, WDBJ-7 News in Roanoke. Video courtesy of Carilion Clinic.

EPC churches using technology, intentionality to minister during coronavirus crisis

 
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Bob Stanley, Pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, took advantage of a beautiful spring day in northeast Ohio to deliver his Sunday morning message on March 29 to the church’s website from his back yard.

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has dramatically impacted businesses, state and local governments, the healthcare industry, and the daily lives of all Americans, EPC churches are meeting the challenge of ministering to their congregations and communities in unprecedented circumstances.

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant EPC in Leoti, Kan., wrote that the church is seeing “quite a bit of fruit” from reaching out to its small, rural community of about 100 in a county with a population of 1,500.

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Stephen Morefield

“Because we are an agriculture-based community, all of our farmers and ranchers are as busy, if not busier, than ever,” Morefield wrote. “We have a few non-essential businesses so while there’s no one out unless they need to be, nearly all businesses are continuing to function. The food supply is as important as it ever will be during times like this.”

He said Christ Covenant has seen an explosion of Facebook use during the crisis.

“We’ve never seen so many people watch Bible devotions or local sermons online,” wrote Morefield. “It’s quite remarkable and we’re praying that it leads to more unchurched visitors after all of this has settled down.”

Engagement on the church’s website and social media platforms has been its largest ever, according to Morefield.

“When your church page has 350 percent more views in a week, reaches 235 percent more people, has 425 percent more engagement and 18,000 more video views, something notable is happening,” Morefield said. “The challenge is using the opportunity faithfully with real biblical context and gospel hope, and then translating this into not more couch-sitting church-goers, but more actual church-goers.”

Bob Stanley, pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, said he was on vacation when the crisis erupted, and knew he and his staff had to work quickly to respond.

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Bob Stanley

“In less than 48 hours we launched a new barebones website and went to a guided worship experience via prerecorded video,” he said. “The plus of all of this is that I can record my message on Thursday and upload it, and have our discipleship guys have it all set to trigger and go live at midnight on the weekend.”

While he considers himself tech-savvy, Stanley said he is amazed at the quality of video tools and resources available—he said the church started broadcasting its services using an iPhone XR.

“We literally did this with everything that we already had,” he said.

Stanley added the community has applauded the way the church has handled the crisis and efforts to stay connected while not gathering in person.

“We’ve received multiple emails or messages to social media thanking us that we have been clear, and that we have been hopeful,” he said. “Our church theme this year is to be servants, the idea that Christ is a servant and came to serve. So the Lord prepared us for that concept. We’ve received a lot of feedback that people appreciate that we have a servant’s heart in how we are approaching this.”

Thousands of miles from northeastern Ohio in downtown San Francisco, Troy Wilson, Pastor at The Table, said the small, “highly relational,” international, and multicultural church is finding ways to keep connected and meet needs. He emphasized that having the entire city and state on mandatory lockdown has presented unique challenges for the church’s congregants—comprised largely of artists, musicians, medical workers, and other professionals.

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Troy Wilson

“We’ve just resorted to using Facebook Live for worship. It’s nothing fancy,” he said. “Our small groups are using Google Hangouts. We can get 12 to 15 folks on there.”

He added that most of the congregation is younger adults.

“I’m one of the older people at the church,” he said. “They are definitely more tech-savvy and social media savvy. But this is all new for us as a church, because we have never relied on the social media platform—good or bad—it’s just not who we are. We’ve wanted people to come and experience us in person.”

Wilson said one of the upsides has been that those who attend The Table are sharing the link with friends who don’t go to church, as well as increased interaction.

“We really do see our community reaching out to one another,” Wilson said, adding another positive is that people not connected with the church are “looking for answers.”

For example, Wilson, who also is a realtor, shared that a real estate colleague recently reached out to him about some challenges going on in his life.

“He wants to talk because he wants to know the faith piece that he’s missing,” Wilson said. “He’s not a Christian and he’s not a person of faith, and he just wants my perspective on what Christianity is, and if the Christian message has anything to say about what he is going through.”

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Doug Resler

Doug Resler, Senior Pastor of Parker Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Parker, Colo., said keeping the congregation “relationally engaged” is essential.

“The biggest takeaway so far is that people are looking for connection and not content,” Resler said by email.

“The most impactful program we’re running is keeping our Early Learning Center open. We are in conversation and coordination with our county health partners, as well as state and local leaders, to provide childcare for up to 12 years of age for the families of those who work in the most critical sectors.”

At Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa., pastoral and volunteer teams have mobilized to care for congregants.

KevinGourley

Kevin Gourley

“We have divided up a list of 170 members over the age of 80 to call within the next week. Next we will divide up those between 70-80 years of age to call,” Kevin Gourley, Minister of Congregational Care, said by email. “The rest of our 1,300-member congregation will be divided up by family units to be called by the six pastors, 15 elders, 36 deacons, and 30 Stephen Ministers on an every-other-week basis until the virus subsides.”

Gourley wrote that a prototypical call includes four questions: 1) How are you and your family doing? 2) Is there anything physically we can do for you? 3) Are you aware of our online services and daily devotions that we are offering and how to access them online? and 4) How can we pray for you?

“Even if we leave messages, all the congregation will know that their church leadership is caring and praying for them in this time of crisis,” he said.

Nadia Stropich, Transitional Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Angier, N.C., said the absence of face-to-face contact is a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

NadiaStropich

Nadia Stropich

“It’s a beautiful time as well,” she said, “because while we many times see the negative side of cyberbullying with people thinking, ‘I can say anything because I’m not there face-to-face.’ On a positive note, we can also say things because we are not there face-to-face, so that intimidation of sharing the gospel goes away—because I just post it on Facebook.”

Stropich recounted a chapel service during her seminary studies at Princeton Theological Seminary the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She said a message from the Book of Ester by the late Thomas W. Gillespie had a deep and lasting impact on her ministry.

“He said, ‘For who knows for such a time you have been called.’ Those in that class didn’t realize the ramifications of what he was saying,” she said. “As an encouragement to pastors right now and even the flock, ‘Who knows for such a time as this you have been chosen.’ God knows what the outcome is. God knew this was coming, and we are to be strong and courageous because we have an opportunity that we have never had before to share the gospel in new ways that are taking everybody out of their comfort zone.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent