Photo courtesy of North Shelby Baptist Church

Alabama Baptist church leaders find unique ways to engage their congregations

Mike Meadows remembers driving through central Alabama about 15 years ago and thinking it was beautiful country. He told his wife he wouldn’t mind if God called them there one day.

But when that call came a few months ago, it came in a way he never could’ve envisioned when that seed was first planted.

“It’s been a season of unintentional firsts,” he said.

The first week he served as the new pastor of North Shelby Baptist Church, Birmingham, people were just starting to talk about the threat of coronavirus. By the second week, restrictions were in place.

And life went into completely uncharted territory, Meadows said. “It became a question of ‘how do you connect with and shepherd people during this time when you don’t know who they are?’”

Preaching to an iPhone

Dave Roberts, pastor of First Baptist Church, Rainbow City, said he asked himself that same question as he started his new pastorate. His first Sunday to preach there was the first Sunday of COVID-19 meeting restrictions.

“I told our worship leader, ‘You’ll have to bear with me; I’ve never preached to an iPhone before,’” Roberts said.

And as he got used to preaching to a virtual audience, he also began to think through how he could get to know the people on the other side of the iPhone — his new congregation.

“I got a membership list, and after supper each night I would call three or four families and introduce myself over the phone and let them know how proud I was that we were there and that I was looking forward to serving,” said Roberts, who works during the day as a full-time hospice chaplain.

It was a good way to get to know people, but beyond the phone calls, he said it started getting around that he was making the calls from the empty church office, and people started dropping by to talk.

“God has just really paved the way for us — I couldn’t ask for better,” Roberts said. “I’ve heard so many people talking about how the churches have really gotten stronger through all of this, and I’m grateful for that. I feel like that’s happened for us too.”

Meadows feels the same way about what initially started out as a strange way to start a new pastorate.

“For me, coming through this has been just a great blessing and the grace of God because I’ve been able to walk through this crisis with people and lean on them in ways that have drawn us closer together,” he said.

Quick bonds

When COVID-19 restrictions first started, Meadows started posting daily through Facebook live, something that gave his new congregation the opportunity to get to know their new pastor more informally.

“Through those, the church has really gotten to know me, and they reach out like they’ve known me for years,” Meadows said.

He’s also been able to form quick bonds with his staff because as they’ve drawn together to navigate the crisis, they also have been freed from the other things in life that are normally pulling at them too.

“That’s been a beautiful thing, to settle in and plan well together without other obligations,” Meadows said.

Chris Kynard, pastor of Linden Baptist Church, said he’s felt that dynamic where he serves too. He had only been at Linden Baptist for six weeks when restrictions were put in place, and he’s leaned heavily on staff like William Faircloth, associate pastor and minister of students, to help him navigate new technological challenges and find creative ways to engage the congregation.

“What I think has happened in this time, it’s made us do things we wouldn’t have done otherwise,” Kynard said.

They’ve tried online services. They’ve started a Saturday Morning Kids Show that’s posted on Facebook. They’ve started a Daily Digest, a 5–8 minute video of a staff member sharing some thoughts on a Scripture each day. They’ve done a Bible Hour on Facebook on Sunday mornings where people can ask any question they want about the Bible.

And they’ve started something else that has become an unexpected favorite — a Wednesday night service online where they take requests for both songs and prayer.

Minister of outreach and senior adults Johnny Arnett, worship leader Donnie Cobb and others sit around the piano in the choir room with Kynard and take requests for an hour.

“It’s been a big surprise to us how well people have responded to that, especially those who haven’t been able to come on Wednesday nights even before the crisis happened,” Kynard said.

All in all, he said it’s been a great time for him and the church to grow together in unexpected ways.

“God has definitely blessed us,” he said. “It’s just been amazing.”