It was a surreal feeling for Shawn Vandop, delivering a sermon to an empty room.
The lead pastor at Main Street would normally speak to 1,400 or so people during two Sunday morning services, but because of a provincial ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, he found himself talking to a few hundred chairs instead.
“It was pretty unique, having just myself and a handful of technical staff in the room,” he admitted. “Preaching normally, you’d feed off the energy of the people in the room. But I knew there were going to be people listening to it when it went online later that day, so that was my focus.
“My thinking was, ‘I know there are people, maybe they’re not here right now but they are going to hear this message, so invest into the message as if they were here.’”
Vandop usually lines up a series of sermons covering different topics or books from the Bible.
He changed the playbook Sunday, moving away from an ongoing series called ‘This is Us,’ studying Ephesians.
Instead, he talked about overcoming fears.
“Because we live in a culture that is kind of fed and led by our fears, we thought we should address that issue,” he explained. “Fear is real. It’s a normal emotion, but it doesn’t have to control us. So we walked through a passage in the gospel of Mark where Jesus takes his disciples across the sea and they enter into a storm, and how he calms that storm and how he does the same for us.
“We want people to understand that you don’t have to be dictated to by your fears. You have to be focused and responsible, but we’re not going to be defined by fear. We didn’t cancel the live service because we were fearful. We did it because we’re responsible.”
Vandop used the term ‘new normal’ several times as he talked about the unfolding COVID-19 crisis.
There’s far more that local churches must adapt to beyond Sunday services.
Inside their walls there are gatherings several times a week, and outside the walls there are small group bible studies and community outreach programs. All over the city, discussions are ongoing about how to continue bringing people together even as coronavirus precautions push them apart.
“How do we help people stay connected even though we’re isolated?” Vandop said. “What are the things we can do to stay engaged in our community, and be a resource, help and encouragement?
“I’d never have thought we’d be making these decisions because of a virus. It feels like a TV show right? But the reality is this is what we have to do, so we’re doing it.”
“Isolation is the total opposite of what we’re all about, and we see this as an opportunity to be creative and think outside the box.”
Vandop said COVID-19 is, in a way, turning the church into what it was meant to be.
It’s not a building, it’s people, and while the people may be scattered, there are still chances to make a positive impact.
“We get to be what we’re supposed to be as the Bible defines it, in the way we relate to our neighbors, encourage the people around us and look for opportunities to help.
“So how do we model the peace and calmness of God? A big way we can minister to the people around us is to say, ‘You know what? It’s going to be OK. We’re going to be alright. This too shall pass, but in the meantime, how can I help you?’”
Vandop said his church will be meeting to talk about how to assist the elderly and carry on with valuable programs like the meals ministry.
It’s just a matter of figuring out what that looks like over the next few weeks.
“We either believe that God is faithful, able, helpful and with us or we don’t,” Vandop said. “These are the moments when the rubber hits the road in terms of what we believe.”