Innovative Church Teaches Members How to Find Meaningful Faith Experiences at Home During Pandemic
By Lindsay Peyton
While the coronavirus pandemic may have prevented church members from the routine of going to church,discipleship continued to thrive at Bellaire UMC. Innovation is the name of the game for the congregation led by Rev. Seann Duffin, Senior Pastor of Bellaire UMC. “The church isn’t the building; it’s who we are,” he said. “We’re forced to live that now.” His members are learning that they can still have meaningful experiences with faith at home – and that they don’t have to go anywhere to find God.
Lay leader Meghan Lutschg planted a butterfly garden after Hurricane Harvey, but in the family’s normally busy life, they only counted a few of the winged beauties that landed for a quick sip. When quarantine began, Lutschg ordered baby caterpillars to watch grow into butterflies as part of a science lesson.
What they did not realize what was already taking place in their garden. “Like a lot of us, they had to slow down,” Pastor Duffin said. “They started noticing the caterpillars in their own yard. Then, they turned into butterflies. They watched the whole thing unfold.”
Before, the family did not have the time to explore each branch. These days, they look for movement on their plants – and seeing the caterpillars turn into butterflies feels like a message of hope during these uncertain times.
Duffin said that the quarantine is an opportunity to see the work of God in nature. “It’s an opportunity to experience and notice God in your own backyard,” he said. “All of these ordinary places have been holy all along. We live in a season where we have to recognize that.”
The pastor has been sharing stories from members like the Lutschg family during lockdown on social media. It’s a way they can continue to connect to each other – and also an opportunity for inspiration.
Recently, Duffin shared the words of member John Riggs, a physician who has been pondering Christ’s lessons of solitude during this time. Riggs explained, “Jesus gave us an example for just this time. He often chose solitude rather than people to prepare, recharge, connect with God, in order to share what was most important. Now in my solitude I realize more than ever that it matters what I share through my breath.”
At first, Bellaire UMC was focused on learning to share services online. “We did the pivot with everyone else,” Duffin said. “We wanted to make worship a quality experience.”
The pandemic has been challenging on so many levels, the pastor said. “This catastrophic event was unfolding,” Duffin said. “It was on the types of events, in the past, when the church was important. But we couldn’t act as a church as we normally would in a national crisis.”
Members could not congregate or comfort each other as they usually would. “So, what could we do?” Duffin asked.
He went back to the basics and recalled Bellaire UMC’s pledge: connecting people to God, connecting people to peopleand connecting people to service.
Members could connect to God through online services, small groups that met on Zoom and reading scripture. Duffin wanted to find ways, however, to help connect members to each other.
Watching late night inspired the pastor to host Zoom interviews with different members of the church. There were college students who shared their experience of returning home in the middle of the year. Doctors and community leaders also made appearances.
Duffin asked them to share how God was still showing up in their lives. “We’re quarantined, but God is not,” he said.
The videos were also added to social media and the church’s YouTube channel. Then, Bellaire UMC asked members to also share written stories on Facebook and Instagram.
The church also created a way to continue connecting to service. Already, Bellaire UMC worked with the Christian Community Service Center (CCSC). The congregation created an online sign-up, allowing members to place donated groceries on their porches for community outreach volunteers to pick up and deliver.
In the lockdown, Duffin said that the church went from event producers to content creators. Its student ministry even started a podcast to delve into current topics and issues.
“Our church has been flexible and responsive,” the pastor said.
Director of Children’s Ministries Mingo Williamson even rethought VBS this year, looking outside the box for a way to continue these programs during the pandemic.
Williamson decided to offer “camp-in-a-bag,” packages full of science and art projects and devotionals to send home. She will later host families in the parking lot for science demonstrations.
Parents can pull into parking spots, and volunteers will tape off the space next to the car. Families are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and set up to watch. One experiment will demonstrate how big God’s love is as Williamson builds a foaming fountain that explodes.
Another day, she will use hex nuts and balloons to demonstrate centripetal force. “It also shows how God holds us in His hands,” she said.
Williamson will be on a stage where children can watch her and will deliver devotionals and prayers over a microphone. There will also be film canister rockets and geysers recreated with Mentos and Diet Coke.
“We’re just going to have as much hands-on fun as we can,” Williamson said. “God created science. The more you look at science the more you recognize how amazing God is.”
By offering innovative and creative summer programs, she wants children to stay connected and excited about church.
Williamson is also planning “Bible on a Blanket” Sunday School and a Christmas break VBS. “That way, we’re not canceling, we’re just postponing,” she said.
A retired elementary school teacher, Williamson hopes the demonstrations will provide ways children can get excited about learning. “The way to get kids hooked is to close the book,” she said. “The more it fizzles, sparkles and pops, the more they love it. It really sparks a lifelong interest in science and learning.”
Duffin said that, during his online services, he finds ways to bring the church to their homes. He asks them to light a candle before he starts and bring the light of Jesus into their space. Recently, he spoke of the importance of Baptism and instructed congregants to fill a bowl of water and place a few drops on their forehead.
“There are symbolic actions to reaffirm faith that you can do when we’re not in the same room,” Duffin said. “You can do them at home. You have an opportunity to do them in a new way and hopefully deepen your experience with God.”
He plans to continue offering online worship and seek new ways to experience faith at home. “Online worship is a cool new avenue for us to explore,” he said. “We’ve stepped into something good. We need to wade forward a little further.”
Worshiping at home and Zoom conferencing with pastors has brought church into the home in a new and exciting way, Duffin added. “There’s a fusion of home life and church that didn’t happen before,” he said. “People could go home and leave church behind, or they could go to church and forget what was happening at home. They were never supposed to be separate.”