Almost exactly a year ago, eight families from Calvary Grace Church of Calgary were sent to plant a new church in the nearby town of Cochrane, Alberta. April 21 marks the first anniversary of our public launch as Grace Church of Cochrane. Our first year of church planting was full of blessings and encouragements. Several households joined our ranks, we added a second elder to our leadership, we started a children’s Sunday School and a youth group, and we welcomed a couple of new babies.
We were aiming to have baptisms in the spring and planning to celebrate our one-year anniversary with a church party. Yet, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). None of our plans envisioned a global pandemic with lockdowns, isolation, and an economic shutdown.
Loss of a Footprint
There are many ways in which the pandemic, and the various levels of restriction and isolation imposed by governmental health authorities, have “hobbled” us as a young church plant. For starters, we’ve lost our physical “footprint” in our neighbourhood. The community hall where we meet has, like so many others, closed down. When we launched our plant a year ago, we had one family who lived near that hall, and within just a couple months after launch, we had added three more people from that same neighbourhood. Soon after we started, we had run a couple of mail-out campaigns reaching out to residents of this “east end” community. We have had multiple visitors to our services from people living nearby. Losing our regular physical presence there has certainly impeded our ability to minister to that neighbourhood.
Loss of Visibility
The pandemic has also cost us some of our visibility. It’s obviously now difficult to share physical literature like info cards or tracts. And while the web and social media do mitigate that loss somewhat, online visibility is no replacement for the visibility that a public gathering gives a church plant. While the Frank Wills Memorial Hall is not our building and we’re not the only group renting space, people both in that neighbourhood and in the Town as a whole had been beginning to identify us with it. Several times I’ve had a person say to me, “Oh, you’re the church at Frank Wills.” The loss of that location, of the physical gathering, even of the opportunity to put church signs out every Sunday, has affected our visibility in our town. For a young plant seeking any and every way to make a larger community aware of our presence, the loss of that physical presence in the community is a definite setback.
Loss of Security
COVID-19 has taken away our physical and financial security. People in our community are getting sick and some of them are dying. A number of our folks are at higher risk due to age or health complications. While we haven’t had any cases in our own church yet, several have been tested for the virus. And then there’s the crippling economic impact of the pandemic. When businesses started curtailing their activities, the job losses hit our little church extremely hard. Going into the pandemic, we already had two households out of work; since then, six more people have lost their jobs.
Five of those losses happened in one devastating week. For a church of our size, this was a tremendous blow; at one point last month, almost half of our households were without a primary source of income. Since then, praise God, several of them have been able to find short-term or part-time work, but nothing permanent as of yet. It’s not just employees losing their jobs, either. A couple of our families own small businesses and this economic “freeze” has severely affected them as well. There’s a possibility some of our folks may have to leave, moving elsewhere to find work and provide for their families.
No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy
We expected adversity when we launched our new church. And yet none of us anticipated something quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s an old military adage that says “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” and I’m sure that most if not all church planters would be shaking their heads in grim agreement right now. Church plants are expected to have roadmaps to financial self-sufficiency, with targets and benchmarks and estimated timeframes; well, now, across the country and around the world, those plans are being crumpled up and tossed in the garbage.
And it’s not just the plants; sending churches are now scrambling to cut costs and rationalize spending, and denominational missions agencies and parachurch networks are wondering if their donations might suddenly dry up. Planters everywhere are wondering what their congregations will look like in a few months, which key volunteers may have to move away. And while I’m thankful we haven’t had to face this yet in Cochrane, elsewhere there are many church planters and other pastors wrestling with how to care, from a distance, for members suffering from the virus, or how to plan funerals when gatherings are so heavily restricted.
It would be easy to despair in the face of such challenges because they cast all of our best-laid plans into the shredder. And yet, in the midst of the trials and the troubles, it’s remarkable how the Lord has been working in and around us.
But The Word Is Not Bound
Unable to meet in person, like many churches, we switched to an imperfect but still useful online alternative. We now run a Zoom call every Sunday morning where we sing, and pray, and hear the Word preached. The loss of in-person fellowship is hard, and there is no question whatsoever that what we are doing now can’t replace that. But in that Zoom call, our “virtual attendance” has actually been higher than our physical attendance was. We’re seeing new people. Visitors from nearby and from far away. And what’s more encouraging is that it’s consistent “attendance”—the same people keep tuning in. The fellowship isn’t the same. The church may not be gathering in the full biblical sense. “But the Word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9) Praise the Lord; his Word continues to go forth.
Prayer Is More Heartfelt and Urgent
This crisis has moved our congregation to deeper and more deliberate prayer. Nowhere was this more evident than in a day of prayer and fasting we held on Saturday, April 4. We prepared a prayer guide to assist our folks as they fasted throughout the day, with suggested prayer emphases and Scripture passages at different points of the day and passages of Scripture. The prayer meeting itself was a profoundly worshipful and encouraging time. More than 50 people gathered by videoconference to read Scripture and to pray together. It was an unforgettable time.
The sudden loss of in-person meetings has reminded us that fellowship takes effort. And I’ve been so encouraged to see how our little congregation has pulled together to maintain communication and connection with one another. When my family had to self-isolate for a week early on in the crisis, one of my non-Christian neighbours remarked to me about the steady stream of people dropping stuff off at our door! In our first week of isolation, we spent time at the end of our Sunday videoconference brainstorming how to care for one of our seniors who lives alone. Someone came up with the idea of a church games night over Zoom, which was an immediate hit.
We swiftly applied that idea to our youth ministry as well. My family was extremely touched when, on my daughter’s tenth birthday, almost our whole congregation did a drive-by “birthday parade” past our house. Everyone had so much fun that we did it again the following week for an older saint in our church. As a pastor and planter, I’m particularly encouraged that none of these ideas came from me, either.
Strengthened Bonds with our Sending Church
These trials have reaffirmed our bond with our sending church. Upon learning of the sudden job losses we’ve faced—and without us even asking for assistance—our brothers and sisters at Calvary Grace have come around us practically and prayerfully. Almost half of the people who joined our day of prayer and fasting Zoom call were from our mother church, and I know others were praying and fasting who couldn’t make the call. Several Calvary Grace families have regularly joined our games nights to share fellowship with us, and some have been “virtual visitors” on Sunday mornings. At least three of our people who lost jobs have since found temporary employment working for brothers and sisters from our mother church.
The Cow and the Church Pantry
And then there was the cow.
In the aftermath of that devastating week where almost half the church lost their jobs, I had a call out of the blue from a dear older saint at our mother church. This brother keeps a herd of cattle and had to butcher one of them. Upon hearing of the sudden need in our plant, he decided to give the meat to our church to help out those in need. Almost four hundred pounds of meat—I can’t think of a more “Albertan” example of practical assistance than that!
That gift has had an ongoing impact beyond our congregation. Not only did all that beef fill the freezers for several of our households right when they needed it, but there was so much left over that we began giving it to families outside our church who also found themselves in need. One of our families then volunteered to store and coordinate a “church pantry,” supplies that could be given out alongside the beef, and I was beyond impressed to see the response as even families who had no jobs at all gave generously from their own cupboards. We had already, at the start of the crisis, made up a tract for the pandemic, and adapted a community connection card from another church. All of a sudden, we have a hamper ministry.
We don’t know what this pandemic means for our church plant in the long term. Families are still struggling to make ends meet. There are growing concerns about civil liberties in the post-pandemic world and about how expanding government power might affect churches. And we still have vulnerable people in our congregation, elderly saints and those with underlying health problems, who are in real danger should they contract this virus. But there’s such hope in the midst of it all.
People all around us are now confronting the realities of death and the limitations of human power. We’re having Gospel conversations with friends and neighbours that probably would not have happened without this crisis. As Marshal Ferdinand Foch is alleged to have said in the First World War: “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”
Church planters have far more assurance of success than Foch ever did. No, there’s no guarantee that the church I lead will survive, and that’s true not just for every church plant struggling across North America or the world right now—it’s true of every single local church, no matter how established they may think they are. But we have the Word and the Spirit. We have Christ’s promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church.
And we have the assurance that the war has already been won. No matter what may happen with our plant or with any other, God has ordained the result for his glory and for our good. The tomb is empty; the King is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he is coming again. And so, even as everything seems to be falling apart, we put our hands to the plow and press on.