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‘This is just a change in where we are needed’

 

What makes for effective Matthew 25 ministry during a pandemic

by Mari Graham Evans | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — As churches, worshiping communities and their leaders continue to grapple with the spread of COVID-19, some are finding ways to live into their commitment to the Matthew 25 invitation.

Launched in April, Matthew 25 calls on Presbyterian churches and groups of all forms to actively engage in the world around them, so that our faith is ignited in our efforts to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor. As of Friday, 437 churches, 37 mid councils and 11 groups have accepted the invitation

Despite disruptions and challenges that this pandemic has presented, churches are adapting to this new normal amid financial concerns, member anxieties and changing communication technologies. And while the nation continues to see a rapid rise in new cases, PC(USA) churches are displaying an abundance of resilience, compassion and ingenuity in the middle of widespread anxiety.

Social distancing has required PC(USA) churches to rethink and rework how they do worship. First United Presbyterian Church in Belleville, Illinois is among the many churches to have turned to Zoom videoconferencing as an alternative for in-person worship and meetings. Yet the church, which is working on all three Matthew 25 focus areas (building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty), is taking its use of Zoom one step further by making it  available to outside groups like Healthier Together.

The Rev. Rob Dyer

“Many of our community change agents do not have the resources or technical know-how to gather online for meetings,” said the Rev. Rob Dyer, the church’s senior pastor. “We are becoming a valuable resource to others with what we have. That isn’t a change in what we do. That is just a change in where we are needed.”

South Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, is an example of a community prepared for the shifts in worship. The church has long been experimenting with alternative forms of “doing church.”

When COVID-19 forced us into new paradigms, we benefited from the prior practice we had in being flexible and thinking outside the box,” said the Rev. Laura Bachmann, the church’s associate pastor. That included rolling out videotaped messages and sermons at the onset and training members how to use Zoom.

Social distancing has also created some surprising opportunities.

“We are learning how to pay attention to one another in new ways,” says Dyer. “Without the benefit and bias of what we see with our eyes when we gather for regular big events, like

Wednesday youth nights or Sunday worship, we are now forced to reach out to the congregation in other intentional ways.”

Ultimately, Dryer believes that the situation will create even more opportunities.

“The busy nature of most people’s lives has been a challenge to churches in general. We are finding that this environment of social distancing is opening up opportunities to get people’s attention again,” he said.

Members of South Presbyterian Church, according to Bachmann, are “pretty flexible, so they are doing really well with the changes.” This is due, in part, to the change they experienced selling their church building five years ago.

The Rev. Laura Bachmann

The church sees the current changes as exciting and an opportunity to “grow in new ways, to encounter God in new ways and to raise up new leaders for new times

and circumstances,” Bachmann said.

None of it, she said, has come about without a struggle. “Of course, people are struggling, particularly with not being able to see one another,” Bachmann said. “So there is fear and anxiety and loneliness too. We are doing our best to stay in touch with each other to mitigate these responses.”

While both churches continue to adjust to new routines and new formats, living out the Matthew 25 invitation is as top of mind as ever.

Part of First United Presbyterian Church’s Matthew 25 ministry is a pilot program where the church has “teamed up with a local social service agency to fill gaps in the current aid system,” Dyer said. “Much of this work can continue over email, phone, and other methods that don’t require personal presence. We are also able to reach out to our community partners to assess the actual needs of our community during this time.”

Bachmann said South Presbyterian Church is “trying to make decisions so that the needs of the least of these are uppermost in our minds.”

“It is hard to live out Matthew 25 when you can’t be present in person and we are still working out how to do these things at a safe distance,” she said. “I feel like we have way more questions than answers, but I remain confident that God will not forsake us, that the new ideas and energy we need to implement them will bubble up, that we will run and not grow weary. We will do it together — maybe not physically together, but spiritually together in prayer and praise and communication and love.”

One Great Hour of Sharing in an embodiment of Matthew 25 ministry supported by thousands of Presbyterian congregations. For over 70 years, this Special Offering has supported the most vulnerable among us, responding to disasters, and addressing the root causes of poverty. The Church’s response to the present crisis will begin with the most at-risk in communities across the country and around the world, as well as those facing spikes of racism in response to this disease. In this difficult time, we are still the church, together.


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