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Amid omicron surge, churches experience struggle and hope

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The North Tuscaloosa Church of Christ has dealt with its share of trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It lost two members — whom minister and elder Clark Sims described as “very involved” — to the virus. Another just reached six months in the hospital, much of that time on an ECMO machine to support his heart and lung functions — a last line of life support.

Still, there was a sense that things were returning to normal last year. In 2020, the congregation had split into two worship services held at an outdoor pavilion because of the constraints of its building. But despite setbacks, by the end of 2021, it had returned to one worship service in its own auditorium. In-person Bible classes resumed on Sunday and Wednesday, and attendance was on the way up.

The North Tuscaloosa Church of Christ meets in a single worship service for the first time in more than a year on May 2, 2021.

The North Tuscaloosa Church of Christ meets in a single worship service for the first time in more than a year in May 2021.

Then, omicron came to North Tuscaloosa’s doors. Multiple members — including Sims’ family — came away with COVID-19 from the Exposure Youth Camp in Huntsville in late December. So did members of at least five other congregations across the state who were among the camp’s more than 2,600 attendees, Sims said. For some, infection came despite vaccination and booster shots.

The elders of North Tuscaloosa decided to cancel in-person Bible classes for one week — then two. In-person worship continued, but the following Sunday, attendance dropped to nearly half that of the previous week. Meanwhile, more positive tests rolled in. In mid-January, the elders were still working on a plan for the coming months.

“We have tried to hold our own and are planning/implementing ways to move forward,” Sims said.

How Churches of Christ are coping 

But more broadly, how are Churches of Christ doing almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, amid an omicron surge that’s overwhelmed hospitals and caused even worse employee shortages?

It depends.

The Christian Chronicle recently conducted a survey to gauge the state of churches at the new year. For some, the coronavirus still doesn’t seem like much of a threat. It’s business as usual.

For many, though, the pandemic’s effects are still being felt. Attendance remains down by about one-third on average, based on those who reported numbers — and more than 1 in 5 congregations have below half of their pre-pandemic attendance. Some of the missing members worship online, but some have left altogether.

And with its omicron variant, the coronavirus has affected more Christians personally, renewing fears and causing members to stay home again.

Related: Faith and COVID-19

“I think omicron is going to be a real trial,” said Norma Cook, who serves as secretary for the Newberg Church of Christ in Oregon. “People I know are getting ill, not just distant relatives or people I rarely see. It is hitting close to home.”

Yet even now, there is disagreement over how — or if — Churches of Christ should adapt as the pandemic continues.

Most congregations had resumed in-person worship services last year and continue to have them, though they typically also offer worship and Bible classes online. There seems to be a hesitancy to lose momentum by canceling the services that have returned.

But should those services require masks? Some do. Some take temperatures. Some even require vaccination. And the implementation of such protocols, or lack thereof, has caused significant division — sometimes even within congregations.

Some worshipers wear masks at the Washington Street Church of Christ in Fayetteville, Tenn.

Some worshipers wear masks at the Washington Street Church of Christ in Fayetteville, Tenn.

“Our congregation feels it is important to follow the government mask and/or isolation laws,” Cook said. “This has not been well-received by many. … We had someone storm out of worship because of mask requirements.”

Michele Thompson, a member of the Western Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas, said she’s concerned that the political strife in churches is only going to grow:

“How will this affect our congregations in the future — will there be more divides and we start to split up into different ‘camps’ such as liberal vs conservative congregations based on politics? Will we lose the more liberal members to other faith traditions … or completely? How can we remain unified despite our differences? Is this just the way Satan tries to conquer us in this age?”

Joshua Parrish, minister for the Lake Merced Church of Christ in San Francisco, said churches — especially those outside the Bible Belt — have to address such divisions head-on rather than ignore them.

“If your local Church of Christ alienates you, there may not be another option,” Parrish said. “You either stay where you are, divided and embittered, or you move and leave Restoration churches altogether. We are going to need ministries dedicated to forgiveness, humility and healing to emerge from this pandemic on mission.”

But there are some ways in which Christians have come together during the pandemic, too — particularly those who’ve had strong leadership and have made good use of technology to stay connected.

“Our elders made a consistent effort to tend to the needs of the congregation throughout this period as they made their rounds delivering communion supplies and other needed items,” said Rob Sparks, minister for the Fernvale Church of Christ in Franklin, Tenn. “We spent the bulk of our virtual meetings praying for those in need around us.”

Members of the Camarillo Church of Christ in Southern California visit online.

Members of the Camarillo Church of Christ in Southern California visit online.

Similarly, minister Dale Jenkins said the Spring Meadows Church of Christ in Spring Hill, Tenn., has made a concerted effort to keep everyone involved.

“We made weekly contact with all members,” Jenkins said. “We made home visits multiple times. We developed a grid to measure connectedness. We worked hard at keeping our family connected and staying involved. We provided opportunities to serve the church and our community in creative ways.”

So has the Round Rock Church of Christ in Texas.

“Our church has worked hard through social media and ministry leaders to stay in touch with everyone,” member Joy Dillman said. “We have been encouraged to let the leaders know if we know someone who needs help.”

A new year, a new normal — the same Gospel

What will 2022 hold for Churches of Christ?

For some, it’s about getting back to what they’ve always done. But for others, there’s no going back to the way things were. Instead, there is an opportunity — if not a necessity — to adapt.

“Life is different now in that our congregation understands that things will never go back to normal,” said James Nesmith, minister for the West Broad Church of Christ in Richmond, Va. “The pandemic has become endemic; the world has changed. Yet, West Broad’s mission of reaching out for Christ from the heart of the city has not. Therefore, the challenge we are endeavoring to meet is pursuing an unchanging mission in a vastly changed world.”

Related: The Post-Pandemic Church

Jason Swick, minister for the Prineville Church of Christ in Oregon, said moving forward is his main concern.

“I don’t worry about COVID anymore,” he said. “It is what it is. My worry and focus is on where we are going as a church. How will we raise up new leaders and make disciples? Who will we be as a church and in our community with this new normal?”

And though there is much fatigue from the pandemic and uncertainty about the future, there is also optimism.

“I do believe that the future will have a great outlook, and the Sugarland Church of Christ and all congregations will continue to grow spiritually and numerically,” said Margie Creswell, a member of the Texas church. Her congregation already had four new baptisms as of Jan. 3.

“As GOD sees fit there will be more to come. We just have to continue to plant the seed.”

John Rakestraw, an elder of the Northwest Church of Christ in Westminster, Colo., summed it up this way: “Hard times are part of life this side of heaven. We know that is so, when fear or pain has not momentarily overcome us. Tough times come and go, but God’s faithfulness to his people never goes away. Isn’t that what New Testament faith rests upon?”

Filed under: COVID-19 National News pandemic post-pandemic Top Stories

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