Community UMC is growing when many churches are dying. In his “state of the church address”, Bishop Bickerton shared that in the New York Annual Conference, church membership is dwindling, pastors are leaving the pastorate at an alarming rate, and buildings are closing down because of financial hardship. He cited many sobering statistics like 75% of our churches have 25 or less people, 40 churches are currently without pastors do to a shortage of ministers, and 12 churches have closed their doors in the past year. The pandemic had made an already struggling church situation even worse. 

It was just prior to his speech that I received a call one day from the district superintendent (my boss!) asking me to write a short article explaining how it is that Community UMC actually grew during the pandemic. In person worship attendance was up, (numbers had tripled if you include the number of views online), financial giving also grew, and there was a general spiritual vibrancy about our church. Below are excerpts from that article as I outlined four reasons for our growth in the midst of the pandemic. These are important lessons learned that we must continue to maintain in order to remain a vibrant church. 

First, the proper foundation and clear mission of the church. The foundation of any church is Jesus Christ and the mission of the church is to make disciples of Christ. What I realized upon my immediate arrival at CUMC was the spiritual vibrancy of the church. Sundays were a celebration of worship and the church had a history of altar calls every week for people to commit their lives to Christ. Also, while church membership was not large, there was a considerable percentage of people who were actively engaged in bible studies, a personal prayer life, and serving the church. My immediate thought was that Rev. Davis had done an amazing job of spiritual feeding the sheep! The soil was fertile and the foundation established for God building on the faithful work of Rev Davis and all the members of CUMC.

Second, God prepared me as a pastor through adversity. What shocked me about the bishop’s address was how many pastors were seeking early retirement or leaving the ministry to pursue other work. The “Great Resignation” was happening both in the church as well as society. As for me, despite the difficulties of pastoring through a pandemic (let alone it being my first year of being appointed to this church!) I felt an energy and passion for ministry. I realized that missionary life had developed within me a perseverance of serving God in difficult situations. The stress of “illegally” ministering in a country where I risked being arrested and deported on a daily basis made pastoring through a pandemic pale in comparison. I think this is one of God’s gifts in disguise when we are going through difficult times. Once we come out on the other end, God has developed the ability to make it through other storms in life. I encourage anyone going through a hard time to understand God’s redemptive nature in allowing suffering. Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance, and perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” James 1:2-4

Third, obedient and faithful choices made are rewarded by God. God honors faithful obedience and the more difficult and sacrificial the decision, the greater God’s blessing. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac in faithful obedience, therefore God blessed him and his descendants. Many churches struggled to reopen to in-person services with their members not coming back. CUMC, despite the risks involved in opening up too soon, was the first church to reopen in our district. This was difficult and required a level of faithful obedience. But we not only provided in-person services but also expanded online ministries of bible study, prayer meetings, and small groups. 

Another example of faithful obedience is in financial giving. I heard from many of my peers that during the lockdown, giving diminished greatly. As you may recall with our church, we lost over 50% of our revenue from the school and other rentals when our building closed. Many hired staff willingly accepted a 50% reduction in pay and over half our staff was let go. Yet, the response in terms of giving was extremely generous. Because of the diminished avenues of income, members in the congregation filled in the void and actually gave more during the pandemic! Even for myself, I chose to reduce my salary in half despite the fact that by church law, my salary was guaranteed and could not be changed. Anytime people make difficult yet faithful decisions for Christ, God will bless the path of that congregation. 

Fourth, expanding ministry outside the walls of CUMC to our community. In our church council, the question revolved around what we can be doing for our community in the midst of the pandemic. Ministries like our monthly food distribution expanded from feeding 50 people a month, to close to 200-300 people a month. We also made considerable donations toward victims of the fire that burned down a nearby apartment complex. When the war broke out in Ukraine, we raised over $6,000 to help Ukrainian United Methodist churches who were providing shelters for refugees. I believe a church that only looks within its walls will slowly die but a church that understands that Christ has called it to be a “light to the world” will continue to shine from the inside out. My prayer is that we continue to find more ways to provide for the growing needs of our community. 

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord (Zech 4:6) Our God is an awesome God and I know that it is only by the grace and power of God that anything fruitful emerges. I also admit that as a church, there are a lot of areas where we fall short of the kingdom of God. We have a long way to go. But I conclude by quoting Ephesians 3:20-21 20 Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power that is at work within us, 21 to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Pastor Kim