For Southridge Community Church in St. Catharines, Ontario, the cancellation of their annual retreat for their shelter community marked the beginning of everything changing due to COVID-19.
“It was a big deal for a lot of our people. There were a lot of people who were pretty upset, just saying, ‘No, that feels like an overreaction, does it have to be that way?’ And by the next day we had to cancel our [in-person] church services, and it just really escalated like we all experienced,” says Nate Dirks, Action Pastor at Southridge.
Along with everything else, life for the local church in Canada changed in what seemed like an instant this past March. For many of us, we didn’t realize the last in-person church gathering we attended in early March would be our last in-person church gathering for some time.
“We worked hard to create the needed digital platforms to ensure we can continue to connect with our church and help them grow as multiplying disciples of Jesus,” says Ryan Dawson, Lead Pastor at Sequoia Community Church in Ottawa, Ontario.
We’ve shared how our church partners in our 25 field countries are responding to COVID-19. Today, we want to highlight how local churches here in Canada are stepping up to meet needs in their communities.
Moving online—and reaching further
It’s strange to be used to going to church through a screen in our living rooms, bedrooms or kitchens—but that’s the new normal! While it will be a joyous occasion when we are able to gather in-person again, moving online has created some positive and exciting opportunities and outcomes for churches.
“It’s lowered the threshold for coming into church,” Pastor Nate says. “[Church] can be intimidating, and this way it can be a little easier for people to say, ‘Let me see what this is all about from the comfort of my own home.’ It’s a redemptive quality to everything that’s happening right now.”
Moving online is also helping people make new connections. “We have seen that our Zoom ‘family gathering’ after our worship service on Sunday, which acts as our virtual foyer, is connecting people who would not normally connect with each other,” says Pastor Ryan.
Churches are also trying new things with their digital platforms. The youth and young adults at Light Presbyterian Church / New Hope Fellowship in Mississauga, Ontario started a #ChristOverCOVID campaign, sharing short videos of encouragement on YouTube and Instagram. Light Presbyterian Church was the site of one of Canada’s last in-person Compassion Sunday events, where nearly 300 kids were sponsored!
Creatively meeting practical needs
For churches like Southridge and Sequoia who were incredibly active in their communities prior to the pandemic, missing out on the face-to-face connection of serving their community has been an adjustment. “We miss not being able to serve together in larger numbers in the community,” Pastor Ryan says.
“Just like everyone else in the world, we’re having to make concessions in what we do,” says Pastor Nate. “But we’re also trusting that God will bless this program in a whole new way through how we’re trying to be creative and still fostering relationship even from a physical distance.”
Southridge is continuing to run Southridge Shelter as an essential service, and church members are finding creative ways to stay connected with their friends at the shelter. The kids are writing and drawing encouraging notes, they are hosting virtual movie nights and families are donating some “more fun” cereals to help lift spirits during this time. The church is also continuing to run a meal support program for local families in need—while, of course, making necessary adjustments to adhere to social distancing rules—and continuing to support local Caribbean workers in the Niagara region, primarily through digital platforms.
“In moments of crisis, people don’t experience crisis evenly. So, our friends that are already experiencing challenges are going to experience those to an even greater degree. In this time, [our hope is that] we’d be able to help to uphold them and give them a higher degree of support despite the challenges.”
– Pastor Nate Dirks, Southridge Community Church
As they serve their local community, Southridge also continues to remember the children and families around the world that they support through Compassion. The church posts regular updates from Compassion on social media, reminding their community that they are part of a global community: “Through this pandemic, we’re seeing how we’re all connected and how the way we live actually impacts globally—which highlights that we can make an impact,” says Pastor Nate.
Similar to Southridge, Sequoia hasn’t missed a beat in making adjustments to be able to continue serving their community. They are partnering with their local food bank, sewing masks and gowns, writing to local seniors’ homes and joining in with a group of other local Ottawa churches to respond to the heightened needs of this crisis. “It has been a steep learning curve, but we are making some headway. This will help us be more effective going forward after this crisis is over,” says Pastor Ryan.
Rising to the occasion
The sentiment from local churches in Canada is this: With grace and humility, we are being invited to respond prayerfully, boldly and creatively to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pastor Nate’s prayer for the Church is appropriately bold and hopeful: “My prayer for the Church is that we’d be able to honour God in this and recognize that He is present, and also that as the Church, we’d be able to rise to the occasion. That this would be a new opportunity for us to understand what it means to ‘be the Church’, that the world around us would be able to experience that love and outreach to a greater degree during this time, and that we would take those lessons with us even as things start to scale back, whatever that looks like and whenever that is.”
Pastor Ryan shares three simple prayer points for his church and the Church in Canada more broadly: “For continued health and energy to serve. For creativity and wisdom to know what steps to take. For boldness and opportunities to share the Gospel in our neighbourhoods.”
As the world continues to navigate the unfamiliar path of a global pandemic, churches all over the world continue to be a light in their communities, meeting needs both spiritual and physical despite the obstacles in their way.