Students from First Baptist Church in Thomson write Scripture and notes of encouragement on the walking path located behind the church. FBC THOMSON/Special
There is no shortage of challenges 2020 has brought to churches and pastors. Navigating ministry during a worldwide pandemic and civic unrest takes a toll. Add that everyone has his or her own online expert backing up their opinion for how to handle it all. I can’t blame leaders if the phrase “new normal” makes them want to yell into a pillow.
While there is real concern for the long-term effect this season will have on churches, there are also many bright spots. I found one of them recently talking to Pastor David Lambert of First Baptist Church in Thomson.
Like others, Lambert and church leadership have done their best to minister while paying attention to state recommendations and health officials as well as feedback from church members. If you’re a pastor, you know that can be a tough needle to thread. But, over the last three months First Baptist has added 24 members and baptized 11.
“It’s blown our minds how God has blessed the church,” said Lambert, an East Tennessee native who joined the church first as youth minister in 2001 before being called as pastor in 2012. “Things look different, but people are engaged and sharing their faith.”
In mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic first took hold, First Baptist was finishing up a “Who’s Your One” campaign, urging members to think of one person with whom they could share the gospel. A pause in physically meeting together until the end of May didn’t interrupt that focus.
Pre-recorded worship services went out to members, with live-streaming coming back in late May. Sunday Schools progressed via Zoom. Virtual VBS took place via packets sent home with each child, with attendance in line with years’ past.
Physical meetings are preferred, but Lambert witnessed a willingness by many to grow spiritually.
“A lot of people have solidified their connection to Christ during this time,” he said. “When you’re at home it’s really easy to just not attend a Zoom meeting or watch the worship service. But many of our members stayed connected.”
First Thomson’s steps to in-person gatherings have been gradual. Physical attendance is a little less than half, though online analytics indicate engagement at about the same as pre-COVID. A reservation process gives the church an idea of how many to plan for on campus each Sunday. Greeters and ushers are required to wear masks. Attendees aren’t required, but strongly urged, to wear them inside the building.
The lockdown made the walking path behind the church a popular destination for many, so the church’s students spent one day writing Bible verses and encouraging notes over it in chalk.
The months haven’t sailed by with no bad news. Like other pastors, Lambert has had to learn to officiate funerals during this time. Conducting seven in eight weeks, he’ll do another on Thursday. Steps and recommendations about reopening with COVID lurking have led to many discussions (There have been no reports of the spread of COVID from First Baptist’s in-person gatherings.).
In total, the church is doing well. Financial giving is on pace with the same time as last year, but more importantly people are engaged in the mission.
“God is good! All the praise to Him!” Lambert told me. “I’m so thankful for the faithfulness, generosity, and patience of our people. We’ve had to make hard decisions, do creative outside-the-box ministry, go online for our worship services, and it all happened in short order without church council or business meetings to discuss and vote on it!
“Our people have been gracious, supportive, and encouraging. The outpouring of prayers and support from church members to the staff of the church has been tremendous.”
As Lambert pointed out, things in ministry look different now. Yes, there are changes and challenges afoot. But that doesn’t mean each has to be met with a yell into the pillow. They often bring a shout of hallelujah.