OPINION: ‘On-the-spot pivots’: How my church closed its doors but opened a new digital space for our members

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Minister Byron Johnson writes: “If any organization, institution, group or otherwise should be on the forefront of the new horizons of change, it must be the church!” (Photo by Sue Vliet)

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“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
-Arundhati Roy

Mid-spring of this year, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my pastor, the Rev. Walter Lanier. I told him, “Doc, I think I’m facing a burnout. It feels like everything is starting to catch up with me now.” To my affirmation, he said, “Absolutely, man. You’ve been going hard with me for over a year!” 

As an assistant minister of a Baptist church, which, like most, closed its gatherings in the midst of a global pandemic, it was an eye opening and unforgettable experience to say the VERY least!

A New Way Forward

A New Way Forward

This is the sixth in a series of “Community Voices” that invites our neighbors to share what they’ve learned during the pandemic and their visions for a better Milwaukee.

“What do we need to do now?” 

“Let’s try it! Let’s do it!” 

Since the second Sunday in March 2020, these phrases have been repeated countless times. “On-the-spot pivots” is how I paint the picture of the past 18 months at Progressive Baptist Church. 

Last year, we found ourselves facing multiple forms of crisis. We witnessed a contentious political election season. There were uprisings in racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter Movement, with more police brutality. Then there was the rapid global spread of a contagious and deadly virus, forcing us to stay apart from each other. This enormous, seemingly overnight change was bewildering, especially in the faith community.

Churches closed their doors indefinitely, and we were left with the question, “How does one simply go to church now?” And “How does one manage to pastor people without being close to them?”

We didn’t know the second Sunday of March 2020 would be the last Sunday of “normal.” Within the next seven days, the online meeting platform Zoom became the essential mainline connection for our congregation. 

Our pastor met virtually with the associate ministers to discuss what worship online would look like. We considered what was important to our people, such as sharing testimonies and prayer, along with preaching and singing. This also forced us to examine many in-house worship practices that would become unnecessary like eliminating the church announcements, since events were basically wiped out. It was a jarring time for me.

On that Sunday, I prepared and dressed for the camera, sat on the edge of the bed, opened the laptop and logged in by 9:30 a.m. I saw a growing number of curious and waiting faces pop up, smiling, waving and laughing with one another loudly on camera. It was at this moment when I knew that we were beginning a new journey. 

I must admit, I was unsettled. Although we were gathered on a screen, we were not physically together. This made me question, “Is this sufficient? Does this pass as church? Is this effective? Are we doing church right?” However, there was no time to ponder those questions because it was still Sunday morning! Game time. I shifted into grind mode, put on a game face and gave a helping hand, maintaining a congregation as they shifted completely online.

The Rev. Walter Lanier delivers a Sunday morning worship service while Minister Byron Johnson runs the church’s multiple online platforms. (Photo by Byron Johnson)

The purpose of the church is for individuals of different backgrounds to assemble in mind, spirit and in faith. They hold the same things sacred — worship of the divine, alignment with Christ, accountability with each other and shaping ourselves to fulfill what we believe is our life’s purpose given to us by God. The beautiful thing is that all of this can happen in unexpected ways. 

This pandemic and new shifts may just be the restart that the church needed! And many churches have already started.

For Progressive Baptist, one of the many amazing things that happened is that we created a community within a community. Though members attended regularly in the building since its founding 32 years ago, many did not make deeper connections and new relationships with other members until an online space was the only option available. 

The pastor and associate ministers immediately planned to keep members consistently engaged. We logged into Zoom for prayer and gave members three different options a day: To have a space to open up, to pray for each other and to trust each other in struggles that we share, even while facing uncertainties together. It’s humbling, empowering and solidifying, and it opens the door, albeit digitally, for more individuals to become a part.

This took discipline. It took hopeful repetition. As Pastor Lanier says, it takes not “muzzling the ox” but doing the work day in and day out while God does what God does for the church spiritually on God’s end. It might just result in the expansion of ministry rather than downsizing and scaling back. 

Progressive also organized and scheduled times for our Sunday School meetings and ministry meetings to continue. I believe it gave members hope as they were able to see that ministry and service can still go forward and produce fruit even in abbreviated ways.

Moving forward, a digital and online presence will be essential for the life and community of any congregation. Because the fact of the matter is that some people may never return to the building. It may sound scary, but this is a revelation that the church must open her eyes to. Online accessibility allows for a further reach than the building being the only option.

If any organization, institution, group or otherwise should be on the forefront of the new horizons of change, it must be the church! It’s imperative that we always look at what’s new and help people to function better in their lives and then to integrate it creatively in how we do church. 

This will take allowing younger visionaries to take the driver’s seat in some areas of church function. It may also move us to shape and adjust how we preach and relay our messages in a more efficient and palatable way. 

But also, it will require us to hold sacred space in a more intentional way, where the church community has the ability to rebirth, reshape and reclaim itself as the church it is supposed to be — in the face of God and in this ever-changing and tumultuous world.

The sacred space that believers hold so dear should lead in trekking through this “portal” as a pandemic creates a world anew. 

A new way of being the church is in our hands!

Minister Byron Johnson is a native of Milwaukee and is a graduate of the American Baptist College of Nashville. He currently serves as associate minister of Progressive Baptist Church under senior pastor, the Rev. Walter J. Lanier

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