By Irene A. Harkleroad
Isolation breeds anxiety, fear, and loneliness, especially in the face of a worldwide pandemic. In a time when many would seek comfort and encouragement inside a church building, those doors are locked and worshipers are required to spend weeks or potentially months without fellowship. Church members are missing friends, worship and discipleship in an uplifting environment.
Arizona Southern Baptists’ Church Life Team is working hard to help churches recover those relationships and return them to some stability. On April 1, the team offered a webinar titled Combating Isolation: Creating Connection through Small Groups.
Attended by more than 60 church leaders, the webinar outlined measures some churches have taken to reconnect members through phone conversations and small groups meeting through social media. Most of them are interactive, allowing members to talk, worship, laugh and pray face-to-face.
Eddy Pearson, AZSBC evangelism/discipleship facilitator, and Keith Durham, AZSBC church health facilitator, co-hosted a panel of three church leaders who have been successful in their efforts to reunite their church members and connect to people who may not normally attend a small group.
“Our small-group and Sunday School leaders touched base with everyone in their group,” said Gale Trow, discipleship pastor at Village Meadows Baptist Church, Sierra Vista. “I was surprised how much people really appreciated a call and a ‘How can I pray for you?”
The church’s staff members have been creative in reaching out.
“Each day our preschool director and children’s pastor send parents Bible verses and related activities to do with their kids,” Trow said. “Our youth pastor is using videos and games online to keep the teenagers talking and staying part of the group.”
Adults are also staying connected.
“We held our first adult small group meeting on Zoom,” Trow said. “We are planning a Bible study on YouTube, and our senior adults are staying connected by phone and Skype.”
A new church app has been a valuable tool.
“One of the best things we did was to get a church app through Push Pay,” he said. “It didn’t cost anything, but it took some work. Practically everybody in our church has that app, so we can let them know about things that might be helpful.”
David Gantenbein, pastor of family ministries at Foothills Baptist Church, Phoenix, added another layer of connection.
“I believe in this time of physical distancing, moving small groups or Sunday School classes online will be a key solution to combating isolation,” he said. “It helps create a sense of normalcy in the midst of the disruption of day-to-day patterns. Also, small groups can minister to people who are already prone to isolation including singles, empty-nesters, seniors and the widowed.”
Church staff and other leaders are working hard at connecting with church members.
“Our elders called each family over the course of three days,” Gatenbein said. “We have three deacons who are hands-on with our vulnerable people like seniors and widows. Our small groups are going to be the glue that binds the church together until we can meet in person.”
Mountain Ridge Church, Glendale, is using a variety of methods to reach out.
“We created training for online resources to help our leaders connect with their small groups,” said Cory Bramlett, Mountain Ridge community pastor. “We use Zoom, Google Hangouts, YouVersion, YouTube, Skype and Facebook Messenger. They all have pros and cons.”
It’s a team effort.
“Our leaders meet regularly to pray, talk and figure out how to overcome challenge,” he said.
The focus goes beyond just church members.
“We took the book The Art of Neighboring and figured out how that works for us,” Bramlett said. “We’ve been praying for our neighbors and asking how we can meet their needs. We fill ‘mission boxes’ with supplies and drop them off for our neighbors. Our family filled one with snacks and took it to the local fire station to say we appreciate them and are praying for them.
“People are out in the neighborhood. [They] look for opportunities to say hello from across the street.”
The three ministers each offered final words.
“This is a learning experience,” Trow said. “We’re trying to figure out the best ways to do this. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”
Gantenbein added, “Even if your service on Sunday is being recorded on your phone and livestreamed on Facebook, I think you’re OK, because you can do groups online and you can make up for any area where you have a shortcoming.”
“Don’t be afraid to try new things,” Bramlett said. “There are so many resources.”
For more details and additional suggestions, view the webinar here.