May 2021
The Power of Small Churches

Pandemic Learnings

The global pandemic changed many things for us at Holy Spirit in Greensboro, North Carolina, but it only strengthened our relationships. While, like so many congregations, we decided to stop gathering for worship at our church (a small, one-story home) out of love and concern for each other, we learned a lot in this past year. We learned about the values that keep us together, the practices that sustain our sorrowing and weary souls and the risks worth taking to be with our neighbors, who are suffering and struggling the most in the pandemic.

Online worship with the emphasis on community

Early conversations about how we would worship during the pandemic confirmed that above all, maintaining and deepening our relationships with God, each other and our neighbors in our multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual context were most important.

But how? With a very small worship space and lacking the monetary resources or tech know-how to stream services from the church building, how would our small congregation do this – especially when most of our members hadn’t heard of Zoom prior to March 2020 and many did not have Internet at home.

We decided to prioritize our people over full Prayer Book liturgies or polished, pre-recorded services. Instead, we created a simplified prayer service over Zoom with a couple hymns and lectionary readings, a community response to the Gospel and an extended time of communal intercessory prayers. This allowed us many weeks to help members learn the basics of Zoom, yell at our computers in frustration (and each other, if we’d forgotten to mute first) and above all, to focus on relational and interactive practices.

What did we learn? Zoom allowed people in distant cities and countries to reconnect and participate meaningfully and regularly in worship. People appreciated the simplicity and learned to respond to each other and God’s Word honestly, vulnerably and worshipfully in the virtual moment. When George Floyd was murdered, we prayed for the Holy Spirit to come among us and then responded to the Gospel by sharing and listening to the raw angers, fears, weariness and yearnings of our racially diverse congregation. By God’s grace, Zoom worship became the place where we spoke the truth in new ways that may not have happened without the disruption in gathering in person.

When the digital divide pushes us beyond Zoom

Not all connected to our ministry have Internet at home, and not all are comfortable with English. Prior to the pandemic, we worshipped with a bilingual eucharist each Sunday, but over Zoom it was just too hard. And most of our Spanish-dominant members weren’t able to get on Zoom.

We had already committed to valuing every member and to finding ways to make worship accessible. So as more hospitable summer weather arrived, we decided to work with those families not participating over Zoom to develop protocols for pandemic-safe, front-yard eucharists. We would conduct these services mostly in Spanish.

Focusing on the leadership and creativity of our technologically marginalized members expanded our community’s worship. Putting time and effort into strengthening these commitments prepared us to respond quickly when many in our Latin American and African-American community began contracting COVID and later when vaccine roll-out began. Our Latino/a and Black members are now neighborhood ambassadors, helping family, friends and others get access to the vaccine and sharing new love and fellowship in the Holy Spirit in the process.

Relationships drive mission for health, healing and abundant life

At Abundant Life Health and Healing Ministries, a new Episcopal community and collaboration housed at Holy Spirit Church, we had to rethink how we did everything. Our weekly community health ministry, which involves a sit-down family-style meal, a pantry and drop-in visits with a nurse, became ill-advised in the pandemic.

What seemed insurmountable – many people needing to quarantine and a small leadership team still in development – became a wonderful opportunity. We called on our friends, the relationships we’d been cultivating over a couple years with larger churches, food reclamation groups, caterers, local farmers, universities and neighbors, to get the volunteer and financial donations we’d need to expand the ministry.

Within a couple months of the pandemic’s start, we were able to go from serving 40-50 people to 250 people a week by delivering prepared meals, groceries, diapers, feminine products and cleaning supplies to people’s homes. Other churches took up collections for our discretionary fund so we could help families whose earners had lost work as the pandemic began with rent and utilities. In 2020 we shared almost $40,000 to help people stay housed and safe, thanks to the relationships and trust we had built in the community.

When setbacks become opportunities and challenge produces growth

It took a lot of energy to coordinate an ever-shifting team of volunteer drivers to bring life-giving supplies to families and neighborhoods, rather than only to people who could come to the church. When we trusted God’s dream for our community’s health and that Christ would be with us along the way, setbacks were turned into chances to reach out to someone else. Far from restricting our ministry, the challenge of a shifting volunteer base opened us up and expanded our community.

Neighborhood leaders helped reach families who’d lost work and shared food with them. Someone with a car would come to the church and take prepared boxes of supplies to their neighbors. Delivery time became prayer time as people asked for and offered intercessions across parking lots and through doorways. Food became the vehicle for people to care for each other spiritually and emotionally in a time when social mistrust was high.

Holy Spirit gathers as perhaps 20-25 souls on a Sunday morning Zoom call, and Abundant Life is a new community in formation, made up of four loosely-tied neighborhood cell groups of 10-15 people. Our community-based nurse and food security ministry, however, now tie together over 300 people spread across our city. Our vocation is not to be “small” or “large.” Our vocation is be in relationships that change us and reconcile us to each other and to God. Our vocation is to seek and serve Christ in everyone we meet, to risk our comfort for the sake of freedom and life for others and to love each person in our growing network as the beloved, Spirit-gifted and dignified human being created by our loving God and invited into Christ’s abundant life.

The Rev. Audra Abt serves in Greensboro, North Carolina as the Vicar at Church of the Holy Spirit and Mission Developer for Abundant Life Health & Healing, a new Episcopal community and collaborative ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Both of these communities are multi-lingual and intercultural expressions of their neighborhoods, with members from Latin America, West Africa, the Caribbean, and from around the U.S. She became and ECF Fellow in 2015 while developing a bilingual base community in Greensboro among Central American and U.S.-born neighbors. These leaders are helping Holy Spirit and Abundant Life envision a model of basic Christian community that can thrive and bear witness to God’s powerful presence in the world, even during this pandemic.

[Click here to watch a video interview about Audra's ECF Fellowship]


This article is part of the May 2021 Vestry Papers issue on The Power of Small Churches