The email came just a few days ago. Retired clergy Phil Dicks is serving as the pastor of two small churches in the Central District, Farrar and Mingo. Pastor Phil sent me an email last week, wanting me to know about the amazing ministry that has been taking place in his churches since COVID-19 has forced many congregations to rethink the way they do ministry.
Referencing 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, where the apostle Paul writes about the many hardships he experienced in his mission to preach the gospel, Phil lifted up his two small town, rural congregations as an example of how they, too, were facing adversity in the form of quarantine in the midst of a growing pandemic. Just as Paul’s disorientation resulted in transformation, so Mingo and Farrar needed to do a new thing immediately.
How were Pastor Dicks’ churches going to respond? After never having had an online presence, Mingo and Farrar began using Zoom for worship, and in a matter of days, they progressed lightyears. Finding a way to connect online lessened the fear and anxiety of COVID-19, and people felt closer to one another. Pastor Phil said, “They discovered a way of meeting together that lessened the separation and loneliness… The ‘disorientation’ helped people understand the importance of relationships in our faith—God’s desire to not be separated from us, our desire to not be separated from God, and our faith relationships with others in the Church. There was opportunity in the adversity.”
Every week, the Zoom services attracted more people as word spread through the local communities as well as around the country and world. The virtual doors were opened!! Time is allotted at the end of each service for people to visit and get to know each other. Communion is celebrated online every week. Pastor Phil sends out “pre-sermon” messages during the week, and the sermons, which are posted weekly, are receiving many more views. There have been over 136 hours of online viewing, with a high of 110 viewers one Sunday and 65 unique first-time views another Sunday.
“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” Phil said. “We planned online the planting of a community ‘milpa garden.’ We found an organic farm that was open to us, scattering an acre of ground with bulk assorted seeds to get ready for a summer-time and fall harvest to meet the needs of our ‘neighbors’ and stock up the local food banks as needed. The garden provided us a way to invite and connect with other churches in the area to be a part.”
Phil continued, “We were seeing a God ‘momentum’ begin in mission. This has been a miracle. Like the ‘crossing of the Red Sea,’ it was challenging, but as the 23rd Psalm promises: ‘Thou art with me (us).’ Each Sunday, we included it in our online worship, and we asked people to share God sightings: ‘God Winks’ as they call it…which increased our awareness of God at work in and through us. Even our traditional ‘sending out’ phrase: ‘Go Be the Church’ took on new meaning as we discovered the opportunities in leaving the building and scattering – ‘The Church has left the building.’ The World is our Parish!”
As I experienced the blessing of worship with Mingo UMC, I remembered that the Chinese word for “crisis” is often referred to by motivational speakers as consisting of two Chinese characters that signify “danger” and “opportunity” respectively. The disorientation of which Pastor Phil spoke became the catalyst for an explosion of creativity in ministry. Each week, more and more people gather online.
My virtual visit to Mingo confirmed Pastor Phil’s description of the transformation of Mingo UMC. I watched people logging on from different towns, cities, states, and countries. The congregation is preparing for a gradual “soft” reopening of in-house worship, and I could see a scattering of people in the sanctuary wearing masks and sitting socially distanced. I don’t think online worship is going away, however.
I got a sense of how both the Mingo and Farrar congregations were becoming more confident in their ability to worship online and form connections with new people. Folks use the chat function to catch up with each other. I especially appreciated the “God Winks” part of worship where anyone could share a way in which God was working in their life that week.
- Seeing my brand-new grandson’s face
- Forming new relationships
- Watching the funeral service for George Floyd and Al Sharpton bringing a biblical and theological word
- The full moon last night, shining bright through the thin clouds
- A major transformation in someone I love
Special music came all the way from Decorah from a husband, wife, and young son.
Inch by inch, row by row, Gonna make this garden grow.
All it takes is a rake and a hoe, And a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row, Someone bless these seeds I sow.
Someone warm them from below, Till the rain comes tumbling down.
Pulling weeds and picking stones, We are made of dreams and bones.
Feel the need to grow my own, Cause the time is close at hand.
Plant your rows straight and long, Temper them with prayer and song.
Mother Earth will make you strong, If you give her love and care.
Pastor Phil’s sermon was a powerful and personal reflection on the fragility of this time when the world is protesting the murder of George Floyd and we are all learning what it means to be racially inclusive. What role can we play in the healing of our world, and what would Jesus say to us this day? Pastor Phil’s biblical text was Micah 6:8, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (CEB)
I was left with much to ponder and pray about the rest of the day. Can I live in a different way? Mercy and justice must go hand in hand. I will do what is fair and just for my neighbor. I vow not to take myself too seriously but will take God seriously. I will assume the best in other people rather than the worst. I will stand with those who need me. I will love.
We can be a force for Christ. Let’ go be the church! Thanks be to God.