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Illustration by Sarah Duvvier

May 4, 2020

Lake Union churches are still open: Ministry in the midst of a pandemic 

Adapting to a fast-paced world has long been a challenge for many churches. Technology is advancing faster than most can learn it, and with so many responsibilities on our plates, keeping up with modern technology often takes a back seat.    

Until it can’t.   

As 2020 unfolded and the realities of a world overtaken by COVID-19 began to take shape, churches suddenly found themselves with unexpectedly closed doors. Weekly community by gathering in one building was no longer possible, and adaptation was directly tied to survival.   

As grim as that sounds, the results have been anything but. Lake Union pastors, elders and church members have all mobilized without a second thought, collaborating, researching and learning as they go. Suddenly, no effort is too much and no idea is too crazy; community and connection depend on them.  

Illinois Conference  

Ever since he was a kid, Milt Coronado has loved art. While in his senior year pursuing a degree in Art from the Art Institute in Chicago, his father’s death rerouted his passion toward service, particularly to youth and young adults. Today, trained as a pastor, he works for the State and does commissioned murals, paintings and illustrations. Recently, he’s taken his skills and his passion, and combined them with Facebook Live to create an artistic ministry he never saw coming.  

“The first day my seven-year-old son was out of school, he asked me to help him draw all the animals in the world,” Milt recalls. “We ended up doing FaceTime so my nephew could join us. Then I realized, “All the kids home from school need to see this.”  

Milt now does a virtual drawing class twice a week. He has children from around the world tuning in for not just the art, but the life lesson that comes with it.  

“I tie a positive message to every drawing,” he explains. “When we draw a unicorn, for example, I talk about how unicorns don’t really exist, but you can consider yourself a unicorn, because you are unique — God made you special with talents and abilities no one else has.”  

Milt has done everything from unicorns, to elephants, to dragons, to hummingbirds and superheroes, each one tied to a positive message in what he calls a “mini kid sermon.”  

Although his teaching experience, art training and personality made this project a breeze, Milt says a major component is “the Jesus factor.”  

“He’s there every time I go live, and some of the things I say I didn’t expect to,” he says. “The Holy Spirit jumps in and tells me what those kids need to hear.” 

Although most adults know how to cope with and find resources for their emotions, most children do not. Milt says art can help ease the feelings of anxiety, fear, depression and anger.  

One mom messaged him: “When all of this started happening, my son was nervous and stressed. He had even started grinding his teeth at night and was restless. I’ve noticed him become more and more relaxed and little distractions like the one you’ve been able to provide have contributed to his peace. Thank you!”  

Find Milt on YouTube @MiltCoronado  

  

Indiana Conference  

“We knew this day was coming.”  

Throstur Thordarson, South Bend First Church pastor, anticipated a situation as predicted in Hebrews 10, where it would be more important than ever to meet together, although churches would not be able to. This is why ten years ago he began working with his elders to create parishes within the church.  

There are about 20 elders in SBFC, and each elder has 12‒15 families in their parish. They are the primary pastors for the church; Thordarson serves as administrative and training pastor.  

“My associate pastor and I split the group of elders, and every week he and I call our group to encourage and support them in their work,” Thordarson explains. “The rest of the week we work to make what they do possible and provide resources.”    

SBFC has over 650 members, made up of about 200 families. As soon as COVID-19 reared its head, the elders jumped into action to contact their members, checking in and encouraging them via text, phone and email. Six Zoom Sabbath School classes, including teen and collegiate, offer options for members, and children’s Sabbath School services are recorded ahead of time and streamed on Sabbath mornings.     

Thordarson says he saw this day coming, and their church was prepared.   

“We planned ahead of time,” he says. “Whatever happens, we will be ready, which is precisely what Jesus told us to do.”  

 

Lake Region Conference  

Due to their proximity to University of Illinois at Champaign and other university towns, Pastor Nikolai Greaves’ churches have a lot of medical students, residents, nurses and other health professionals in their congregations, and they had been monitoring the COVID-19 situation even before the crisis hit. As a result, they anticipated what to do to continue ministry when the physical building closed.     

Greaves’ churches include Park Avenue Church in Champaign, Lebanon Church in Decatur, and Mt. Sinai Church in Peoria. Like most other churches, they began utilizing Zoom and other technology to hold prayer meetings, Bible studies, Sabbath School and church services, but then they went a few steps further. They split their membership into teams/tribes, then assigned leaders, identifying those in the high risk categories and arranging grocery and other deliveries for them.   

“We also are planning online finance seminars and health seminars,” Greaves explains, “as well as online workshops on how to make one’s own essential items such as laundry detergent and hand sanitizer.”  

 It’s not just the pastor and elders who are stepping up and caring for the flock; church members are leading initiatives to stay connected. Many regularly check on each other, finding creative ways to meet identified needs.  

“This has strengthened our community as a church,” Greaves says. “We’re acting from love for God and for people, and it has brought us all closer with Him and each other.”  

Their community is growing, too; new people have joined their online Bible studies, prayer meetings have increased attendance, and there is greater communication between everyone.   

“The church building may be closed,” adds Greaves, “but the church is still open.”    

 

Michigan Conference  

For years, Pastor Christien Hodet and his family have enjoyed daily worship together. When the South Flint Church pastor’s family found they could no longer meet with their church for Sabbath services, they opted to go live with their family worship to close the Sabbath on Saturday evening.  

“It’s not just keeping us connected to each other, it’s keeping us connected with Christ,” Hodet says.    

Keeping their family worship format, the Hodets share blessings and prayer requests, pray, sing, recite Scripture, then read and discuss a portion of Scripture. On Facebook Live, they invite viewers to contribute to each portion of the worship via the video comments. On average, between 30 and 50 people have joined the livestream, and over 200 have viewed the video after the fact.   

“Time will tell how many others along the way will decide to listen in on a good ol’ fashioned family worship,” Hodet says. “It’s pretty cool to think about what an impact such a simple thing might have on people.”  

Hodet says this approach to corporate worship has opened the door for many who might not feel comfortable attending an in-person church activity.  

“I miss face-to-face interactions with my church family, so I don’t count this as a permanent substitute,” Hodet says, “but I am considering possibilities of combining the two later. It’s become a joy for us, and we trust it has been for those joining us as well.”  

  

Wisconsin Conference  

Although taking church online is now a must, Pastor Sheldon Bryan of Southside Adventist Fellowship and Milwaukee Central Church knows not everyone is comfortable with technology. So, based on members’ comfort level, he created a three-layer communication plan to ensure every member was connected. The layers include a phone tree, Zoom, and multiple social media platforms.    

The largest connection point, however, is the Greater Milwaukee Adventist Fellowship, a joint Facebook community between Bryan’s churches, Pastor Zack Payne’s WISEN (a network of Adventist churches in southeastern Wisconsin), and Pastor Myoung Kwon’s Waukesha District.   

“We wanted to maintain an encouraging community while observing the safe-at-home mandates,” Bryan explains, “so we started a group that leverages each of our talents while tapping into the resources within our local and wider community.”  

These Wisconsin churches are used to having major snowstorms close their doors for a Sabbath or two each year, forcing them to experiment with hosting church on Facebook. GMAF expanded on the thought, providing positive and encouraging messages all week long.  

The pastors’ specializations — media-integrated sermons, multigenerational ministries, video editing, and e-learning — prepared them well for the current situation.  

  “What is key, though,” Bryan emphasizes, “is that before all of this happened, we were already working together. Our pre-established relationships made transitioning online seamless and successful.”    

Join this online community: facebook.com/groups/GMAF2300 

 

Although taking church online is now a must, Pastor Sheldon Bryan of Southside Adventist Fellowship and Milwaukee Central Church knows not everyone is comfortable with technology. So, based on members’ comfort level, he created a three-layer communication plan to ensure every member was connected. The layers include a phone tree, Zoom, and multiple social media platforms.    


Becky St. Clair is a freelance writer.