This article was written by Jimmie Sheffield, Assistant to the Executive Team at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention
COVID-19 has dramatically affected the way we do church. The change happened quickly in March. One Sunday we had Bible study and worship; on Wednesday we had our regular prayer meeting, children and youth activities and choir rehearsal. The next Sunday, we were shut down and no one came to the church building for services. Even the offices of the church were shut down during the week.
Since that time, we have learned to use various methods to conduct worship services, have Bible study, and stay connected. COVID-19 made us develop a new normal.
I have been in the ministry for approximately 62 years, and I have never experienced anything like the situation in which we find ourselves now. The suddenness of the COVID-19 changes got me thinking about some of the other ways things have changed in the way we do church. I just briefly want to share some of these changes. Of course, none of these changes were as sudden as the COVID-19 changes.
When I first started in ministry, a loyal Southern Baptist Church had five programs – Sunday School, Church Training, Music, Brotherhood, and WMU. Many factors could be delineated as to what caused the changes, but many churches no longer have Church Training, Brotherhood and WMU. In many churches, Sunday School has a new name – Bible study, life groups, and small groups – to name a few. These may meet at times other than Sunday morning.
In those early days, a church’s one main source for Sunday School and Church Training literature was the Baptist Sunday School Board, now LifeWay Resources. Today, some churches get their curriculum from various sources thus changing the way they do church.
Another change that happened in the sixties was the introduction of “contemporary music.” When the musical, “Good News,” and other musicals became popular, they introduced a new way of conducting worship services. Since that time, the worship services of many churches have changed dramatically, and you will see worship teams and a complete band with drums, guitars, keyboard, and other musical instruments. Some churches still have the traditional worship service, but many have gone to blended services, contemporary worship, or use a new approach with an emphasis on inter-generational worship.
A third change that also began in the sixties and has affected the way we do church was the introduction of modern technology in churches. In the late sixties, I worked for a company called Membership Services Inc. This company offered computer services to churches, primarily membership and financial records. I doubt that many churches had computers at this time.
After two years, I left that company and went back into church ministry. I told the president of the company when I left that, in a few years, the use of computers in churches would be a major change in the way we did office work. Little did I know about the explosion of personal computers that would be available along with laptops, iPads, smart phones, and much more. Since that time, use of the computer and other technology innovations have affected the way we do church in a great way. Who would have thought about drive-in services, parking lot services, virtual VBS, and many other innovations? Video capabilities of various forms now make it possible for people to participate in worship from home, while traveling, etc. Live streaming will probably be around for a long time after COVID-19 is under control.
One facet of the technological changes has been the introduction of giving online. Online giving was available but it is now more widely known, used, and accepted because of COVID-19.
Also in recent years, we have discovered different ways to keep in contact with church members. COVID-19 made it necessary for churches to utilize Zoom, social media, and other programs for keeping members in contact with each other. When COVID-19 is under control and many churches get back to doing some of the activities they conducted before this pandemic, I think many churches will continue to use these changes to help members stay connected.
A fourth change that has happened in churches is the way we try to get unchurched people involved in the church and eventually become members whether by letter, baptism, or statement. In my early years of ministry, Sunday School was the front door of the church. The Sunday School was identified as the outreach program. A church tried to get unchurched people involved in a small group Bible study and eventually they would join the church.
In today’s world, the worship service has become the primary approach for getting people into the life of the church. We offer excellent worship services that appeal to the unchurched. After they visit and eventually join the church, we do our best to get them involved in a Bible study where they can be discipled.
One more change involves the use of home groups for Bible study and discipling members. In my early years of ministry, hardly any churches knew about or tried this approach to doing church. Now, this approach is widely accepted and used by many churches
All of this article is to say that we do church different today than we did 62 years ago. I confess that there are probably other things that have happened in the last sixty-plus years that have changed the way we do church. The ones I have highlighted stand out in my mind as very important changes.
Looking back over the past 62 years of ministry, the way we do church has always been changing. Makes one wonder what changes will take place in the next sixty years!