Lent is a season of self-examination and denial. It marks 40 days prior to the celebration of Easter. This year Lent began on February 26, and as I mentioned in a recent sermon, it seems like the season never ended. Thanks to COVID-19, we continue to deny ourselves our full fellowship and ministry. We are wandering in the wilderness with face masks and hand sanitizer.
It would be understandable if we became discouraged. However, I am reminded of the words that the Apostle Paul wrote from a jail cell to a persecuted church:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)
Although we face uncertainly, the fundamentals have never changed. God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ, and we have a mission to complete. Pandemics will come and go, but God’s faithfulness remains. We can emerge from this long Lent, stronger and more vibrant.
September 2020 marks the second anniversary of my pastorate here, and I am more convinced today than before that I am called to serve with you. Your mission is now my mission. Before my arrival, First Presbyterian Church developed a study to reflect on some of the challenges that continue to face our congregation. Since then, I have used that study as a blueprint for our ministry together. We have begun to address concerns and seized a few opportunities that God has given us.
The mission study outlined five areas of growth for our congregation.
Focus on Youth and Children.
Becoming More Generationally Diverse.
Educational and Spiritual Development.
Strengthen Worship and Music.
Focus on Evangelism.
In the last two years, we have seen some dramatic changes. We raised expectations for our youth through the confirmation process incorporating new technology and media. We completely reviewed and rebooted our children’s ministries incorporating ministry to both parents and children. We have brought better organization and offerings to our adult ministries. We have kindled stronger partnerships with other congregations in our community for mission and evangelism. We created a cross ministry which has distributed thousands of wooden crosses along with the message of God’s love both locally and abroad. We have started new mission partnerships including a recent trip to Belize to work with our Christian brothers and sisters there.
Even the pandemic has not deterred our efforts to strengthen our witness. We will emerge from this time with a greater social media presence, better communication, and a wider reach with our worship. We now offer live-streamed services that are archived and can be viewed when convenient. We now have a radio ministry where those without the internet can experience the sermon and our music ministry. The worship team is constantly seeking to innovate and push past our current limitations. God deserves no less.
We are not finished. There is much to be done. Nonetheless, even in the fog of this extended Lent that we call COVID-19, we have much to celebrate. This congregation has acted with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We should be confident about the future.
Grace & Peace,
Pastor James Hodsden
ADDRESSING OUR CHALLENGES:
Focus on Youth and Children
Confirmation Class. In 2019, our confirmation class was completely revised. We raised the expectations for our youth, took field trips to experience other faith communities, and included a final project which asked the youth to apply their faith. We developed online videos and assessment tools for the class. The youth even led the service in which they were confirmed.
Children's Ministry Reboot. In 2019, the Christian Education Committee underwent a huge effort to reimagine our children’s ministry. This involved everything from new Sunday School curriculum, to retreats and workshops, to new milestones to celebrate our children’s growth in Christ. We remodeled the Kingdom Kids room and created a Family Room. The committee and staff worked hard to make it all happen. With COVID-19, some of our efforts have been adjusted, but we are still focused on the new vision for our children's ministry.
Become More Generationally Diverse
Children's Ministry Reboot. With our reimagining of the children's ministry, we placed a new emphasis on families. We are now offering retreats for families to provide support for parents at key moments in their child's development. We are also more committed to incorporating children and youth in all the ministries of the church including worship.
Educational and Spiritual Development
Small Groups. In recent years, our small groups have acted independent from each other with very little coordination. This has its strengths, but there have been some downsides. Since 2018, we have increased our communication with groups, and for two years now, all the small groups begin the program year with the same curriculum which also serves as a sermon series. This means the entire congregation is studying the same Scriptures together. Finally, in 2020, we began a virtual small group that will continue to meet long after the pandemic is over.
Bible Overview Classes. Starting this year, we are now offering annual classes on understanding the Bible. These take place in January and will provide an overview of the themes and narrative of the Scriptures.
Right Now Media. We provide a subscription to Right Now Media for all members and visitors. This supplements our curriculum for small groups and Sunday School. It also encourages individual study and provides content for families.
Strengthen Worship and Music
Dramatic Changes in Worship. With COVID-19, we have had to make some important adjustments to our worship services. During the lockdown, we never missed a Sunday worship service, providing pre-recorded worship services building an audience on the internet. These efforts taught us a lot about video production for worship and the use of the internet for ministry. After the resumption of in-person worship, we have now developed a quality live-stream worship service. We now even have a presence on the radio for those unable to access the internet.
Replacing the Organ. Faced with the challenge of an ailing organ, we considered all our options. The most economical and helpful for the music ministry was the purchase of a new digital keyboard system. This allows us to approximate the sound of the organ while giving us new voices and instrumentation.
Focus on Evangelism
Ecumenical Partnerships. Starting in 2019, First Presbyterian Church has strengthened our partnerships with churches in our community. We have joined eight other congregations to maintain a presence at Love Norwalk. We have made our National Day of Prayer services ecumenical. Through the Norwalk Ministerial Association, we have developed video resources to use in worship. We have rekindled a relationship with the Hispanic congregation, Iglesia Genesaret (formerly Mount Sinai Presbyterian Church).
Cross Ministry. Starting Easter 2019, we began a ministry of sharing hand-made wooden crosses with the community. The crosses, built in a woodshop underneath the sanctuary, provide an opening for conversations about faith with others. We strengthened the ministry with a website, www.woodofgod.org, that is printed on every cross we give. Since the ministry began, we have distributed many thousands of crosses.
Radio Ministry. The First Presbyterian Church now has a half-hour radio program, Rooted, Growing & Loving, which includes highlights from last week’s service. It airs weekly on WLKR Classic, 92.9 FM, at 8:30 AM on Sundays. The program is also available as a podcast.
Social Media. The church already had a presence on social media such as Facebook. In the age of COVID-19, we have expanded our efforts. Our services are now live-streamed and available for sharing. We have added a weekly newsletter to our monthly physical newsletter. We also have created "The Pew Pad" a place to share prayer requests and comments.