A Fellowship in Georgia Returns to In-Person Fellowship After COVID-19 Lockdown
Story by Kathy Symborski
Pastor Blake West opened the doors of Calvary Chapel Alpharetta, GA, on the first Sunday in May with some trepidation. Although the small congregation of 150, including children, fully supported meeting together again after COVID-19 closures, the decision weighed heavily on his mind. He found himself second-guessing it, re-examining the ‘what-ifs’—Georgia was one of the first states in the nation to reopen after weeks of lockdown.
Blake didn’t feel that Christians were singled out in the government-mandated closures; rather, he fully supported them as a concerted effort to protect the community. However, his voice revealed his emotional struggle as he spoke of his church’s desire to reunite in person. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Calvary Chapel Alpharetta gathers together to worship the Lord together.
That May 3rd service was a milestone for the small fellowship in the white-collar, northern suburb of Atlanta—CC Alpharetta was holding its first-ever live online service. Before the lockdown, the church had a limited number of volunteers to run sound, lighting, and video technology. But the shutdown clearly became the catalyst for putting live services online, providing an evangelistic outreach useful in advancing the Gospel. Blake now posts his teachings to the church’s webpage and YouTube channel. He observed, though, that it’s not a replacement for one-on-one fellowship in the church body. “While technology can bridge the gap or be the ‘handshake introduction,’ if there isn’t that [personal] relationship, people flounder. I know I do,” Blake related.
Julie West, his wife and the women’s ministry leader, affirmed that congregants appreciated the recorded sermons because they could see “someone familiar on screen, hear their own pastor, and experience different worship each week.” It was not without its drawbacks, however. “There is an anxiousness to get on with life, to return to the way things were,” she added. Julie also cited constant distractions in the home that often made it difficult for many to stay focused on online teachings; only by having the entire family sit down to watch were they successful in paying attention.
“It was a very good step forward!” Blake said of the in-person service. “There were no problems, and I walked away feeling it was very healthy, very therapeutic. We believe we were here to shout out and sing His praises … in this large room where we were able to be [socially] distant. It was wonderful to see familiar faces and faces that would become new family members in Jesus’ name,” Blake exclaimed.
Pastor Blake West worships the Lord with the congregation.
They were encouraged to stay after the service to pray for each other and enjoy fellowship. It was during this time when the emotion of sharing each other’s burdens made people want to naturally reach out and hug one another, Blake admitted. “The familiarity and comfort caused some people to forget the space that we should have right now. I realized I need to communicate reminders on how to maintain that distance. We don’t want to be the cause of someone getting sick.”
As they continue to gather, they will look to local government leadership to define what is safe. The church is aware that while they may not be in a COVID “hot spot,” areas around them are. “If we can gather and not be part of the problem but part of the solution, praise the Lord, let’s go! If we gather and we exacerbate the problem in our community, then we will have failed [in our efforts for health],” Blake remarked.
Blake shares with the congregation before communion.
Looking Out for Others
While there have not been any direct illnesses from COVID-19 in the church, there have been ripple effects from layoffs, furloughs, and closed businesses from the shutdown. “Private business owners have taken a hit,” Pastor Blake shared. “One couple, already unemployed, feel their chances at finding a job will be slim. Another gentleman’s furlough that began as one week has evolved into five.”
Blake teaches from the Book of Philippians.
Blake sighed, further cautioning that many are not emotionally flourishing and remain on the fringes. “This isolation is the enemy’s playground—[Satan] delights in people being alone and isolated.” Careful to not paint with a broad brush, Blake observed that many in families or who have an active, vibrant relationship with the Lord seem to be doing very well. However, those who are single often experience the greatest amount of loneliness, anxiety, worry, stress, or boredom.
Blake’s recent sermon from the Book of Philippians encouraged believers to regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3b-4, NASB). “So the church body is seeking out each member to see how they are doing and what help they may need. We have asked our congregation [to] intentionally think about loving the other person that they’re in proximity to—to fellowship with one another, see each other, hear each other, even if we can’t give each other great big hugs. We’re all asking the same questions: Lord, show me personally—and us as a congregation—how to esteem and elevate the needs and circumstances of others,” he stated.
Those attending the service were able to worship the Lord while maintaining social distancing.
Julie described efforts to reach out. “We are calling, texting, sending physical cards in the mail, and inviting individuals over for porch visits using social distancing practices. Church members are visiting each other, sitting outside in their driveways in lawn chairs placed six to eight feet apart. They have been connecting on different levels and enjoying the one-on-one time.”
Julie shared, amazed, “The women’s ministry on Thursday nights via Zoom is flourishing outside the walls of our church! It has been quite phenomenal. When we went online, we lost about half our usual participants, but women who would never have sat inside our church, regardless of church affiliation, [from] all over the U.S., filled that void.” Julie said breathlessly, “They are listening, participating, and learning God’s Word with us. It has been so exciting and awesome to watch the Lord work in the lives of women I have never met before. We did not see this in the church body prior [to COVID]—this is totally different. Our reach is farther than it has ever been. Of all great things going on, this is the coolest!”
A couple wearing masks listens to Blake’s message.
The Future of Fellowship
Blake stressed the importance of nurturing personal relationships as churches move forward during and after COVID-19. “Fellowship in the name of Jesus has always been centered around those one-on-one relationships—not through technology alone. The greatest need for the body of Christ is to love individually, reach out to others on the edges, and to be bold in proclaiming who God is and who we are in Him to those in the workplace, gyms, etc.” Jesus will add to His church, he noted. “I feel this will be an extended season of one-on-one evangelism and walking along with those who have made professions of faith.”
It may be a long time before churches can return to utilizing large-scale events and big-name speakers, he predicted. “In the meantime, my prayer is that revival will come to the body of Christ, wake us up, give us boldness to recognize the needs of others, and share how Jesus has affected us.”
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