Some student, family ministries on hold as pandemic continues

By Shawn Hendricks
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

For many church leaders, there seem to be more questions than answers when it comes to navigating ministry to young adults and families seeking a new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young families, college students and professionals fresh out of school may be particularly vulnerable in this struggling economy, according to a June report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Adults in lower-income and younger households who suffered job losses during the pandemic “have less confidence they can pay the next month’s rent or mortgage on time and suffer more mental anguish and food insecurity,” the report says. If you want Toronto attorneys for financial litigation, you can click here to find out!

Two Alabama church leaders also shared a variety of other concerns from mental health issues to parents being able to disciple their own children during these uncertain times.

For many graduating college seniors, finding a full-time job after a less-than-typical semester can be particularly difficult, said Allen Tate, lead pastor of The Well Church in Florence. Many students have experienced a rollercoaster of heartbreaking disappointments, finishing classes online, missing friends, cancellations and isolation.

‘Emotional toll’

“The emotional toll for them was significant,” said Tate, who ministers to college students at the University of North Alabama. The collegiate church, a campus of Highland Baptist Church in Florence, averaged about 150–200 students before the pandemic. It now averages about 30 students since some have returned to their hometowns until the fall semester begins while others have set off to start their career.

It hasn’t been easy for jobseekers. Tate told of one student who was planning to start an internship with full-time potential, but everything fell apart when the pandemic forced many businesses and churches to close. She had to intern online instead.

“The prospects of future job employment there are really up in the air now,” he said. “It’s already difficult, and then you add COVID-19 on top of that and it makes it even more difficult.

“There is already this building pressure, and it almost feels like failure for them to have to move home,” Tate added.

One of the positives from the pandemic has been recognizing a need for community. And Tate said it can’t be found on Zoom calls, livestreaming and “online communities,” which are really just “a shadow of the real thing.” And without community, it is far easier for students to become isolated and fall into depression.

But even though many churches have reopened their doors in recent weeks, church members — including many young families — continue to stay home and watch services offered online.

Cautious plans

According to a LifeWay Research survey released July 24, most congregations remain cautious in restarting some programs and classes. The survey noted 21% of Protestant pastors say their churches still have not held in-person meetings during the past three months.

“While more and more churches have resumed in-person worship services, it has not always been a straight path back,” said Scott McConnell, executive director LifeWay Research. “Resuming in-person worship services has not been reverting to worship as usual.”

“Churches are making efforts to make the environment safe,” he said in the report, “but these efforts are often second-guessed by those who want more precautions or less restrictions.”

Andy Wilbanks, minister to families at Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, said the church is struggling with planning ahead as COVID-19 issues continue to linger and uncertainty about the months ahead grows.

But the “foundational piece” for their church, he noted, is equipping families to disciple their children at home.

Before the pandemic, around 2,600 attended on Sundays but current COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines cap the in-person attendance at around 500, he said, noting most young families are opting to watch the service online to avoid any risks.

Shift in thinking

To resource those families, Hunter Street is providing LifeWay’s Gospel Project curriculum for families to teach at home, Wilbanks said.

“We’re writing a mid-week guide based on that content, and we’re producing activities and stuff for preschoolers and kids and students,” he said. “We’re sending that to our families to have kind of an at-home study guide that they can use on their own.

“So I think one of the shifts we’re kind of thinking through is how do we equip our parents to turn the home into that hub and not just depend on the church,” he noted. “Obviously, that gets to the heart of discipleship and the heart of the important role we have as parents.”

At this point, he noted, the outlook for the rest of 2020 will remain uncertain for a while.

Tate noted his team is talking about next steps as college students are expected to return to campus in just a few days.

“Things are so fluid and change from week to week,” he said.