DACULA — On any given Sunday there are 2,000 people on the campus of Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, one of Georgia Baptists’ largest congregations. And like others throughout the state, Pastor Landon Dowden and church leaders spent the days leading up to March 15 discussing what was best for Hebron and its people amid ever-changing circumstances surrounding COVID-19, the coronavirus.
Using technology, of course, is nothing new to Hebron. The “unusual” comes in the form of music presented and a message preached to a largely empty sanctuary. And for Pastor Landon Dowden, that week had already been a break from the ordinary.
At 11:30 p.m. Dowden and his four children arrived home from Tupelo, Miss., where his wife, Tara, remained to care for her father who was recovering from a heart attack. On Thursday evening, March 12, Dowden and others learned that the Gwinnett County School System would be closing down the next day (Tara is a teacher at Dacula Elementary.). That, he said, was the cue he and other leaders at Hebron took to move the March 15 service online.
“By that time the [Center for Disease Control] and governor had made their recommendations for groups of no more than 250 meeting together,” he said. “So, we felt the burden to be responsible for people.”
A new day of ministry
Coordinating that Sunday would already be unusual. Adding to it was the fact that Hebron’s senior leadership was scattered. Executive/Teaching Pastor Nathan Neufang and Adam Platt, departmental leader for the church’s Missions and Community Outreach, were returning on a flight from Scotland (which, of course, presented its own set of hurdles). In addition, Brian Hume, director of Communications, was in Arkansas on vacation.
The next day, Friday, Hebron began letting its people know of the changes. That came through an email to members and a video of Lowden later that night. When he was a pastor in Louisiana, Dowden had held church services in a parking lot after Hurricane Gustav blew through Baton Rouge. What they were planning for Sunday and beyond, though, was new territory.
“Because we have a large group of senior adults, it felt irresponsible to have traditional services,” he told The Index. “While we decided to err on the side of caution, it didn’t mean we were going to shrink back from ministry.”
In a Saturday email to staff and other church leadership, Dowden outlined seven ways to minister during the upcoming weeks.
- Comfort and care for our people. Be available to talk to them.
- Take care of senior adults. Recruit younger people to run errands for them.
- Contact Hebron Espanol, Arabic Baptist Church, and Mulberry Baptist Association. Offer to record their services and/or use Hebron’s technology to do so.
- Make the food bank more accessible for people inside and outside the church.
- Minister alongside in any way possible those whose jobs are gone or hours have been reduced.
- Offer assistance to medical personnel whose workload would no doubt be increasing in the coming days.
- Find ways to partner with schools and students moving to digital learning.
- Partner with Nothing But The Truth, a ministry based in Lawrenceville (and founded by a Hebron member) that meets food needs in the community.
- Provide resources for parents in discipling their children. Record and present children and youth mid-week services to try and maintain a sense of normalcy.
Over the last week Hebron has taken steps to make its food pantry available as well as raise money to buy laptops for students learning from home. Members also delivered “blessing boxes” to international students and partnered with others to feed the community.
Ready to be back together
Currently Dowden is preaching a series through Revelation. The irony, given current events, isn’t lost on him. Neither was the opportunity to make a rapture joke March 15 in preaching to an empty sanctuary.
All jokes aside, though, he’s ready to see his people in person.
“It was a really unique experience, because I’d never preached just to cameras before. I learned to look for the red light to connect with our people,” he said.
“I wept a lot. I was really missing our people,” said Lowden, who admitted he’s not really soft-hearted. “This time, though, I wept through the first songs [led by the worship team]. Then, I got it together before I preached.”
Dowden admitted how the uncertainty of the coming weeks can be a challenge for someone such as himself, a self-described “planner by nature.” However, he cited two areas he sees the church standing out in the days to come.
“Parents and families are going to have the opportunity to shepherd those in their households like they haven’t before,” he said. “We’re going to equip them as best we can in this time to be the frontline ministers.”
He also sees it as a time that the “true church” is going to emerge.
“There’s going to be a refining process, the gospel is going to stand out. We have the one answer that alleviates the fear and anxiety people are experiencing, and that’s Christ. If there’s ever a time to talk about Jesus with our coworkers and neighbors, it’s now.”
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.