Taking the Church Outside the Building
What COVID has taught us about virtual connection
I remember the call like it was yesterday. The young lady was studying in Israel. She had recently moved to the other side of the globe and called to ask about joining a virtual small group. She grew up at Northland, and while she loved her time in Israel, she was missing the comfort and familiarity of her Northland family. She worshipped with us online, but was craving the community she had grown accustomed to, studying the Bible and growing in her walk with God.
While I was empathetic, I had trouble understanding why she thought she could fill the void with virtual connection. As a person who feels lonely when my family is in another room, I couldn’t wrap my mind around meaningful connections being fostered by sitting alone in front of a computer. In my mind, there’s nothing better than gathering together in a friend’s home, sharing a meal, laughing together, talking about hard things, and turning together to Scripture. I kept asking myself, “How in the world is she going to ‘find community’ here while she’s over there?” Then, COVID happened.
COVID caused us all to reevaluate our lives. The loneliness of lockdown restrictions has us questioning things on a much deeper level. The polite question of, “How are you?” has evolved to “How am I?” Over the past year, isolation has been unrelenting. Though restrictions have lifted to some degree, many people are still working remotely, others have lost their jobs, and we’ve watched friends and family struggle with the virus. Sadly, some have passed away.
These are the kinds of gut-wrenching difficulties that drive us to ask those deeper questions: “What is the source of my security?” “How can I persevere through this season?” “Where or who can I turn to?” God uses these trials to show us just how much we need Him and others.
I’ve spoken to people who found Northland while searching to ease their suffering during this pandemic. They recognized their need for God. Nothing else has quenched the void, nor the pain they’ve experienced--the physical, emotional, and mental decline that has slowly taken its toll. Most of those people began by connecting with us for online worship. But, as the pandemic dragged on, the desire to connect with others beyond worship continued to grow. The need to move our church’s front door from the church building to inside our homes became urgent.
Our pastors, staff, and ministry leaders were challenged to reimagine how to minister to and serve our congregation in a quarantined world. Beyond streaming our worship services, how would we help our congregation remain connected to God and one another, while continuing to grow spiritually?
We worked with ministry and group leaders, helping them transition their gatherings to virtual. They were determined to serve and care for each other and those God had placed under their leadership. Some group leaders took on additional responsibility when we launched Easter Groups, leading their small group AND starting an Easter group. Stories began pouring in!
“We had a person from North Carolina join our small group last night.”
“A Northlander who moved to New York joined our online class and shared what an answer to prayer it was to be able to remain connected to her church home even while moving so far away”
“Our small group held a special virtual candlelight gathering for Christmas.”
“Our weekly prayer gathering never stopped. We just moved from the prayer room to a virtual room and continued gathering together through Zoom to lift up the prayers from our church family.”
We began streaming daily devotional content, our kids’ worship services, Bible studies in student ministries and our Co-Op teachers took their classes 100% online. Our Community Art Connection daily art program went virtual and we continued to serve our friends and families who live with disabilities in creative and engaging ways. Our Care ministries like Celebrate Recovery, GriefShare, even counseling sessions, moved online ensuring continuity of the care and support that God has called us to provide to those in vulnerable seasons of life.
The examples of God’s faithfulness through keeping His church connected virtually are endless. We had five new partners join our latest Belong & Grow session from all over the world! These are folks who truly consider themselves Northlanders and consistently worship with us online. Thanks to so many of our classes, groups, and ministries being offered virtually, people can dive deeper into our community.
It’s been incredible to see how God has used our leaders to help people feel known, seen, heard, and loved. It seems counterintuitive for this to occur during a time when physical connection is so limited. I’ve come to realize that in this virtual world, the intentionality we’ve had to practice to reach people is not at all unlike the intentionally that our Father uses in His constant pursuit of us through the Holy Spirit. It draws us closer to Him. In this COVID-weary world, through God’s grace, we’ve drawn closer to one another in ways I don’t believe we ever thought would be possible. When my 78-year-old mother-in-law told me she had joined her weekly bible study via Zoom, I knew that was something only God could do!
Church will never look the same. The Church has moved outside of the building alone and into the homes of believers worldwide. Geography is no longer an obstacle to connection and community as it once was. These days, people can find “church,” and more importantly, God, in their own backyard or half-way around the globe.