“Don’t live in fear anymore,” Lisa Cohen Huff recalls hearing while half asleep in bed one morning at her Hattiesburg home. “Here’s the door. All you’ve got to do is step through,” she heard the next morning.
Huff grew up Jewish. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic largely shut down onsite worship, she had begun watching live streamed worship and devotionals by First Baptist Church in Gulfport, an hour south of her home. The pastor there, Jimmy Stewart, was a childhood friend of her husband Pope Huff, who was a Christian.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve texted Jimmy … ‘You made me cry again,'” she said. “The services were like, ‘Did you write this for me? I feel like you’re talking to me.'”
Lisa insisted on accepting Jesus on the phone after an Easter night Zoom session. Stewart led her in the sinner’s prayer. She drove to Gulfport weeks later to be baptized.
“I’m on the phone with her Easter Sunday night, and I mean, she was not getting off the phone with me until she prayed to receive Christ,” Stewart said. He tried to put her in touch with a pastor closer to her home but, “She wasn’t having it.”
Lisa’s story is among the fruit of First Gulfport’s expanded online ministry during the coronavirus pandemic. A Kentucky deacon looking to boost his spiritual growth, a longtime believer named Faith in Virginia who wasn’t living for the Lord, and people in the Philippines and Germany have been worshiping and studying with First Gulfport. Viewers are inviting friends and sharing videos.
“[Faith’s] trying to figure out how to get down here with her husband so I can baptize her down here,” Stewart said. “I tried to direct her to some churches up there, and she said, ‘For right now, I just need to be a part of your church.'”
Faith participates in a First Gulfport online women’s life group on Tuesday nights. She is developing a friendship with Lisa and is sharing online worship with a friend who has doubts about Christianity.
Stewart gives God credit for the outreach.
“It’s not about me, and it’s not about First Gulfport,” Stewart said. “What is He doing in the Kingdom? What are we beginning to see right now of networking? … This technology is not new. What we’re doing right now, what we’re seeing is God is pushing this in a new direction. It’s the only way I can describe it, and we’re just trying to keep up with Him.”
Before the pandemic, First Gulfport averaged about 450 in Sunday attendance from a membership of 1,057, according to the Annual Church Profile. At the same time, Stewart said, the church had an online presence of between 600 and 1,000 views. The church expanded its online options during the pandemic by adding an 8 p.m. Saturday worship service, daily devotionals and Zoom small group sessions, while continuing the 10:30 a.m. Sunday worship. Worship is pre-recorded and offered during the established time slots and remains available online.
Stewart baptizes people during the week, sanitizing his hands and standing outside the baptismal pool. A small number of witnesses maintain social distance. The church includes videos of the baptisms in its pre-recorded weekend services.
“We’re trying to keep our distance,” Stewart said. “We know that the CDC guidelines are important. We’re doing our best to follow them, but it is so hard in the context of community and fellowship and faith to do that.
“The greater question that’s come to me has been one of theological practice. There are some who just believe that the baptism should only happen when the church is gathered.”
First Gulfport has begun a phased-in return of life groups to the campus on several weekdays, using indoor and outdoor spaces and social distancing. A date to return to onsite worship has not been scheduled.
“God’s in charge of when we are going to get together again,” Stewart announced Wednesday on the church Facebook page. “We have a plan moving forward; ultimately though, we are depending on God and for Him to reveal the plan to all of us. …
“I recognize that there are pastors who are making decisions to go back into the worship setting. We want to do that as soon as we can, but we also want to recognize that not all of our members are comfortable coming back to the worship center now.”
After the church resumes onsite worship, Stewart plans to continue both the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. The Saturday evening worship has proven as popular as the Sunday service.
“I’ll fight for that. … With our numbers being roughly 50/50 in terms of views Saturday night and Sunday morning, I think we’ll have to. It’s dictated by response.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)