Alive Wesleyan Church (AWC) is located in Kirkville, New York, just a few miles east of Syracuse. Our vision at AWC “is to transform real lives by the love of Jesus Christ and the power of God’s Word.” I have been on staff at AWC for 16 years, the last seven years as the senior pastor. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, we were averaging about 150-160 people for our Sunday morning worship services.
Syracuse, as is much of New York state, is a tough area to share the gospel, a very hard soil for the message of Christ to break through. But our church had been growing and making disciples and ministering in the community. Earlier in the year, we had made a large commitment to roll out a new one-on-one discipleship program called “XChange.”
We had started XChange, as well as a new Sunday evening service. We had even planned a large baptism service for Easter morning. Then everything came to a crashing halt because of COVID-19. For the past three months, our church has been closed for Sunday morning worship. No Easter service, no baptisms, no children’s programs, no midweek, no Sunday evening services. We were even forced to cancel vacation Bible school.
At the beginning, back in March, I was purely in survival mode. That first Sunday, when it was announced there could be no church services, there was a period when I almost just did nothing. “OKAY, the church is closed this week,” and it felt similar to having a huge blizzard and cancelling church. Eventually, I ended up recording an audio file of the sermon and placing that on our website so we would have something.
The next week I got a few volunteers to lead worship, and we recorded that. In time, we added announcements, prayer and videos to help us have a Sunday morning service experience online. For a little while, it was a “family affair:” my wife doing announcements and singing, my dad playing the piano. One of my daughters read the Lord’s Prayer, and my other daughter recorded everything and edited the video to post to our website. To be honest, it felt very isolating and, at times, discouraging.
As a pastor, I admittedly thought, “we are trying to grow our church and get it to the next level.” We were striving to get our attendance to 200. And then, 12 weeks without Sunday morning corporate worship. You want to re-open and, in your mind, you initially picture this wonderful celebration of everyone coming back and a huge joyous service complete with balloons and smiles. But pretty quickly that optimism is shattered as you realize many people aren’t coming back right away. Maybe some will never come back.
As I worked through how to reopen the church, part of me became discouraged. This process is messy, and I am in uncharted territory. “What will the church even look like when we reopen? Will we be fighting to get back to 75 people, 100 people?” I wasn’t trained for this in seminary. I often joke that I must have been absent that day in class when we discussed, “How to lead your church through a pandemic 101.” As you serve in ministry, you have a mindset of how do we grow? You are tracking attendance figures, and then suddenly there is no attendance.
This year, as I filled out my annual church statistics, I again became discouraged. Then, as I thought through what reopening could look like, General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt’s vision for The Wesleyan Church came to mind: to see a “transforming presence in every ZIP code.”
AWC is located in the 13082 ZIP code. As I began to sketch out our four-phase reopening plan, I could see the beauty in phase one, which we labeled “house churches.”
In one week, we went from having service in one ZIP code to house churches in seven ZIP codes. There I could see God’s hand: a vision for The Wesleyan Church to see a “transforming presence in every ZIP code.” We went from the classic ideology: come to us and here is where we have “church,” to sending people back to their communities and having them invite people over.
At the end of May, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo began to allow religious gatherings, but only with 10 or less in attendance. That allowed us to begin implementing phase one of our reopening plan. We recruited “hosts” to open their homes for gathering of up to 10 people. The majority of our “house churches” began June 7.
As I preached from Acts 2, I said, “In a way, we return to our roots. That early church didn’t have buildings, organs, stain-glass windows, computers, projectors, all the things we think of being essential to worship. They met in homes as small groups. So, next week we are inviting you to gather together in your homes as the Church.”
Our church will come together, in the form as house churches, to watch the online service and pray together. Worship and fellowship happen in each group and looks different for each one, whether offering coffee or even lunch. I am not sure where all this will lead as we move through this crisis, but it is special to see how God continues to work even through these uncertain times. I have been shaken and confused and lost at times, but God has not.
The COVID-19 crisis caused us to really ponder how we do ministry. So much of our focus, our energy, our budget, was aimed at Sundays. I hear a lot of people talking about “getting back to normal,” and I would be lying if I didn’t say there are some things that I want to go back to normal. I miss corporate worship on Sunday mornings. I miss being able to go out on visitations, shake hands and see people.
But in other ways, I don’t want us to go back to “normal.” This time has stirred us and caused us to reevaluate the most basic of questions, “what is church? What are we trying to accomplish here?”
These past three months have led us to be more involved in our community than we previously were. We supplied masks to the schools and bus garages. We have collected food and handed it out to those in need. We have collected clothing. We offered a prayer trail on the church’s property to be used by the community and have seen dozens and dozens of people using it. We had our church members adopt a local high school senior. We have gone out into the community to serve and hand out supplies.
We are hoping that even as the church itself is re-opened fully that this time will give us a greater heart, expanding our ministry, reaching into our communities and building fellowship for those that met together in these “house churches.”
I hope that people who’ve been intimidated by or had a previous negative experience with church will place their faith in Jesus just because a friend, neighbor or family member invited them to church in their living room. I pray Alive Wesleyan Church truly embraces opportunities to have a transforming presence in several ZIP codes, instead of just the ZIP code in which our church is physically located.
Dr. Eric Paashaus serves as lead pastor at Alive Wesleyan Church, Kirkville, New York.