Mark E. Richline
New Horizons: July 2021
Also in this issue
by H. James Folkerts
by David P. Nakhla
Our family had only been back in Montevideo from our brief furlough for about a month. We had just started enjoying worship again with our church family at Iglesia Presbiteriana Salvos por Gracia. Two new visitors came to our service the second Sunday we were back. Our new audio and video equipment was in place to transmit our services better than ever. Our congregation had embraced the session’s 2021 vision for the church. We were ready to begin meeting for worship twice every Lord’s Day. A church barbecue was scheduled, and a marriage conference was being planned as an evangelistic outreach to couples.
And then, in April 2021, we had to do a complete one-eighty turn, closing our doors and moving all our church activities back online.
As our Uruguayan friends like to put it, “the coronavirus here se complica todo.” The situation has become much more serious over the past few months. Positive cases have increased dramatically. Hospital ICUs are filled to overflowing, and a number of doctors have died from the virus even as the overall death rate continues to rise. Schools have gone back to virtual classes. Churches have reverted to online activities. The Uruguayan borders remain closed to all but citizens and residents.
Our congregation of just twenty-two people is being affected by COVID-19 more than before. One of our members nearly died and is now undergoing intense physical therapy to regain the use of his legs and feet. Another of our members was shaken when her aunt died from the virus, and now she and her family have tested positive. A good friend of one of our members just died from the virus. One family came down with symptoms but now appears to be doing well. A husband and wife in our congregation are grieving the death of their former pastor from COVID. I have received a flood of prayer requests for friends or relatives of our members who have tested positive.
Moving back online was a difficult decision as our leadership had to weigh the society’s heightened sensitivity to COVID-19—along with our congregation’s growing nervousness—against the obvious damage affecting our communion as one body of Christ. (Most of our families must take the bus to church and want to avoid close personal contact as much as possible.) We know that nothing can ever replace personal corporate worship: raising our hearts as one to pray, lifting our voices as one to praise God, and listening as one to his Word proclaimed. And to spur one another on to love and good deeds, we must be meeting together. Yet meeting online is still meeting. Building one another up with a Bible verse or a link to a Reformed sermon is still building one another up.
Being back online has required me to become a “digital pastor.” I am reminded of Paul’s profound love for the gospel that drove his ministry:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them … To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19, 22–23)
To a pandemic-weary congregation, I have made myself a digitally diligent shepherd. There are numerous challenges to face. For one, I do not like interacting online. I am more of a people person than a tech person. I only started using a smartphone because my kids bought one for me. Now I find myself being the one not only motivating myself but also motivating others to put aside their personal preferences and, instead of withdrawing from all interaction, engage others online and preserve the unity of our church.
Then there are the technical difficulties: being unable to hear others, wondering whether they hear you, having to repeat yourself, losing connections, hearing your own voice echo, etc. Last Sunday, just as I was warming up and getting excited in my sermon, my son had to interrupt me because the video for our YouTube channel had stopped recording. How exactly was I supposed to pick up where I had left off with the same passion?
Yet, for the time being, I am happy to be a pastor who must communicate online. Thankfully, long before the pandemic, our congregation was connected through a WhatsApp chat group, and this made for an easier transition. Two or three times a week, I post Reformed devotionals on the church’s chat group. I often record myself reading from Charles Spurgeon. Brief messages on the subjects of marriage and wisdom also form part of my repertoire. I hope to begin including devotionals focused on God’s daily grace.
As much as possible, I minister in person—whether by visiting with members outside their homes or by building relationships with visitors as I meet with them in the park next to our church. I also block out time daily to interact online with our members and learn how to be praying for them. Having a small church allows me to keep in touch weekly with every member and visitor. Lately, we have been engaging online in good discussions on subjects such as infant baptism, Roman Catholic baptism, Christians who commit suicide, believers blessing one another, and how to view the Apocrypha.
Shepherding people online also requires me to keep a pastoral eye on our various WhatsApp groups. While encouraging members to participate, I also remain aware as to how they participate. At times, we all leave messages without realizing how we sound. Other times posted music or messages may contain teaching that’s not in line with our church’s doctrine. At such times, our ruling elder and I intervene, trying to make the most of these opportunities to instruct and encourage our members.
We recently initiated Apoyándonos en Cristo (Leaning on Christ), a ministry designed to mutually support one another while we are not meeting in person. Our session grouped each brother with another brother, and each sister with another sister, for one month. We asked them to especially focus on that person, praying for him or her and sharing prayer requests. Scripture verses, sermons, songs, and other videos were also suggested forms of support. Each month, the pairs are rearranged to promote greater interaction within the body.
Our new membership class meets as a WhatsApp group. One of our participants had begun attending services through our YouTube channel. By the time he made his very first in-person visit to our church, he already wanted to become a member! I keep this group updated with church news and devotionals as well as PowerPoint presentations that they can review if desired before each class.
Our monthly men’s book study started at the beginning of 2020 and then was forced to move online because of COVID-19. Despite that, most of our men attend and, at times, bring friends. We now meet twice monthly to review a chapter of A. W. Pink’s The Attributes of God. Thankfully, those who take turns leading are unhindered by the online challenges.
Now that our Reformed seminary classes are online, the Romans study has been my best-attended class yet, with nine students. Though the difficulties of online instruction are always palpable, we have grown comfortable interacting with one another. Once I master Zoom’s breakout rooms, I will be able to make the class more interesting! I am still working out details for teaching a homiletics course online next semester.
While I am adjusting to online teaching and pastoring, I still need to consider effective strategies for online evangelism. At this point, evangelistic activities remain planned for when we meet again in person. Meanwhile, during the week, I sit outside the church at our book table to engage passersby. When doing follow-up with online visitors, I hope to determine if more than one are located in the same area and then meet with them about starting a group Bible study in their neighborhood.
As 2021 continues to unfold, we rest in our Lord’s sovereign plans for his church. We pray that he would keep us at Iglesia Presbiteriana Salvos por Gracia growing as one body in Christ, that we would grow to appreciate the tremendous value of personal communion, and that he would soon reunite us in person.
New Horizons: July 2021
Also in this issue
by H. James Folkerts
by David P. Nakhla
© 2021 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church