By MARK MAYNARD, Kentucky Today
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – The COVID-19 pandemic has created a myriad of circumstances and difficulties for Kentucky Baptist pastors and churches. Nothing seems to be back to normal and many are wondering if it ever will be.
The crisis has also brought lots of people looking for solutions to their fears and hopelessness. The clear answer is hearing and responding to a gospel message. But even that has become more difficult than before the pandemic turned life upside down.
Pastors are doing their part, sharing heartfelt messages at in-person services or virtually online. But when fear and warnings of spreading a potentially deadly disease is heard multiple times daily, it has given some pause to sharing an invitation to come forward at the end of the service.
However, just as they’ve tackled other difficult issues during the last five months, they are doing the same with the traditional invitation – everything from dedicating a room, or speaking after the service when social distancing can be observed more easily than in front of the church, and to raising arms as a confirmation to making a decision.
“Invitations are difficult,” said Grayson First Baptist Church Pastor Josh Schmidt. “We are still trying to figure it out.”
Grayson FBC has a room to one side of the room where they are having service dedicated to anyone who wants to pray or learn more about what it means to accept Jesus Christ into their life.
“Any person wanting to respond after the service can meet me there,” he said. “It’s up to the Holy Spirit. For somebody who is passionate about it (invitations) one of my biggest fears is a movement of going away from invitations. I think we need to give people the opportunity to respond. It’s one of the primary reasons we gather for worship.”
Nothing seems to be exactly as it was in churches including how tithes and offerings are received without the traditional “passing the plate.” Those who come to in-person services are sitting every other pew, masks are being worn and families sit together with gaps on either side of them. Also, the greeting time when handshakes and hugs were welcome has been replaced by a friendly wave.
Kyle Noffsinger, the pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Princeton, said some of the changes are necessary. However, he makes sure his church has a time for response and while respectful of COVID-19, he will also make time for anyone who needs to speak with him.
“I do make people aware of the fact that if they have a burden on their heart and they need to speak with me, I’m not going to turn them away,” he said “I’m not being bombastic. If one of my people is that burdened to speak to me, I’m not going to say, ‘No, I’m afraid of COVID.’’’
Noffsinger said the teachings of Christ provoke an immediate response and not having an invitation after the gospel is preached would seem like something is missing.
“It’s like getting to the last chapter of the book and the ending before it’s written,” he said.
Noffsinger said he extends an invitation every Sunday for people to come forward and pray by themselves or with families, and they also have the option of a dedicated room if someone would like to speak and talk in a less-crowded situation.
He said the invitation time is “the Holy Spirit’s time to just work.”
Jeremy Couture, the pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Ashland, says he is doing a “modified invitation” where the altar is open.
“COVID has made us rethink the way we interact with people in the church, which is not a bad thing,” he said. “I would think that we get to a place where we can resume passing the plate and have a public greeting time. But I think for right now, it’s best to press pause.”
Couture said they have a public invitation but it’s not necessarily asking people to come forward to have a private counseling session.
“They would have an invitation to followup with the pastor after the service or another time to accommodate them,” he said. “Response just looks a little bit different in this season. I don’t want to place an unnecessary hurdle in front of someone. If they feel like it’s not healthy, I want to give them another way to respond. We’re trying to be sensitive and rethink what that looks like.”
The other piece of the invitation puzzle comes from online services. Many churches don’t offer a good way to do an invitation digitally although options exist.
Here are a few common ones being used right now:
— Create a virtual decision or connection card anchored to your website
— Use a texting app. For example, text SURRENDER to 333777
— On Facebook Live or Instagram Live, encourage people to Direct Message (DM) the church’s or ministry’s social media page
— Have a dedicated phone number they can immediately call
“For about 30 minutes, I preach to the very best of my limited ability,” Noffsinger said. “My prayer throughout it all is I am preaching very imperfectly. During the invitation, the Holy Spirit is preaching perfectly. I view that as the Spirit’s time to work. I’m not judging churches who are not doing a public invitation, but I can’t imagine a Sunday without one.”