It was a big step when the small congregation, WE Church, located in Stockton, California, went to online services.
With a fairly limited number of participants engaging in the online services, Pastors Bob and Jan Hughes and Pastor Jon Tomas wanted to connect with the people of their church and community through a time of hearing what individuals were going through and to pray together. So, they invited the congregation to join them for an online prayer time.
Initially, no one responded, which were sent out for several weeks. They then felt led to try a different approach, deciding to add some fun into their online prayer and share time.
They began offering Faith, Fellowship and Fun.
The “Faith” element was time set aside for prayer, “Fellowship” would allow everyone to share what was happening in their lives and “Fun” was to be a joint bingo game and prizes.
Several people signed up, and Pastors Hughes and Thomas note it has been a fun, successful event.
“We get online together through a zoom invite on Thursday evenings and play a few games of bingo, awarding a home delivery food prize to the winner of the evening,” said Jan Hughes, “And we share with each other while we are playing what is going on in our lives. Then we hear their prayer needs at the end and pray over them.”
Participants have been encouraged, in turn, to take those prayer requests and pray for each other during the week. Kids who have joined are also participating in sharing their prayer requests.
“We have been growing in number each week. We even have some people who have joined us from other states, who have also joined us on our online services on Sundays,” Jan Hughes said.
WE Church has added a second Faith, Fellowship & Fun event on a different day of the week so more people can participate.
“Who would have guessed that an online bingo game would be the way that we as a church could grow closer to each other in prayer during this time of social distancing?” Hughes said.
Further north, the Wesleyan congregation in Chester, California, had been seeking the Lord for a new work.
As with many churches that come to the place of wanting to be more community missioned, the individuals that make these choices recognize the need for innovation.
“The issue we all face: how is this going to change what we have come to love? Seeking Jesus to help us not compromise truth in our mission in reaching out to our community, while at the same time not lose who we are now,” said Kyle Sanders, a pastor who serves at Chester Wesleyan Church. “We believe we had been asked by the Lord to do a few things in the year leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, and that only became clear in the days and weeks that followed.”
The people of Chester Wesleyan believe the church is situated in a unique position, having remained in the same building for 77 years. Chester is small, with 2100 residents, where everyone knows everyone, and because of that, the church has the unique advantage of members knowing almost everyone in town.
This last year, Chester Wesleyan has been preaching and learning about what a relationship with Jesus looks like, including hearing the voice of God in all the troubles and worries of the world.
Rev. Cary Sanders, lead pastor of Chester Wesleyan, said, “You could say Jesus was preparing us for a pandemic to set in and change the way things are and was preparing us for a harvest we could not see yet. We have begun to love and serve each other in different and often unexpected ways.”
From delivering leftovers to people who can’t go out and shop without exposing themselves to danger, to sending out updates on a member’s health for real-time prayer and intercession, Chester Wesleyan congregants have found that “the service possibilities are endless, especially when we realize that the church is more than a building, the church is the body of Christ. The body must reach the lost to fulfill Jesus’ great commission,” Cary Sanders said.
With the onset of the pandemic and the isolation and “shelter in place” orders, Chester Wesleyan closed its building to the public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We started doing the online services and YouTube videos that other churches were doing, but we soon realized that we couldn’t forsake the gathering. So, a member organized a small (properly distanced) prayer gathering of about five people on their driveway for Resurrection Sunday to accompany that morning’s YouTube video; however, it was during that time we realized there was a need,” Kyle Sanders said. “There was a need for fellowship that a computer screen doesn’t offer, especially when the world is in crisis mode. During 9/11, people who never thought of church in their lives flooded into churches seeking answers from God on what was next.
“We find ourselves in this same crisis but without churches to go in and meet face to face with a pastor for council. Online services are wonderful for bringing a large, unseen group together to experience the word, but electronic communication is sometimes incredibly slow to address fears in a person. That’s why a physical gathering is so important: you can address and deal with fear and frustration as it rises in people instead of waiting to answer an email when the matter is pressing,” Sanders said.
After the first driveway meeting, Kyle and Cary asked the group that was there if they would like to gather again; the consensus was that the group would meet again, this time opening to multiple services within the social distancing guidelines.
The church now has two gatherings — one at 11:00 a.m. and another at noon.
“While we sit six feet apart, we are still unified in fellowship, and in place of hugs and handshakes we give each other encouragement,” Cary Sanders said. “Sometimes knowing someone is struggling is enough for God’s voice to break through where it wasn’t before and lead them through where they are to where God needs them to be.”
Chester Wesleyan has met in their newly dubbed “Lawn Chair Church” in the driveway of one member for four weeks, and the plan and gatherings are evolving, with more people willing to allow them to use their driveway to gather together in the name of Jesus.
“Lawn Chair Church is here to stay in the midst of this quarantine to bring hope, mercy, truth and love to our community. Our encouragement to other churches out there struggling to get people to watch online: there are people so hungry for the word they want to gather with you in a safe and loving area where their fears are realized and discussed,” Cary Sanders said.
“So, we recognized that the ‘way’ we had been serving the Lord prior to the pandemic might, though not wrong, have isolated us a little from our community,” Kyle Sanders said. “By being cunning as a snake and as innocent as a dove recognizing the opportunity to seize on the need for hope in the world, we have that answer and people who might not walk through the door frame of our church building have walked into the hearts of our congregation. We just have to now hear from the Lord for the next steps — just like we did leading up to now.”