When the shutdown happened in March, COVID-19 offered challenges to the way churches operate.
Winterville Baptist Church’s new pastor had just started at the church March 3. He preached one sermon before the quarantine started.
“I’m learning to do ministry in ways I have never imagined during my 30 years in the ministry,” said Mike Dixon, who had previously served as senior pastor of Oakdale Baptist Church in Rocky Mount for four years.
“Immediately so much changed, including how we are able to do ministry. The church … went into action with livestream Bible study services, a CD ministry, and a drive-in Sunday morning worship service in the parking lot using an FM transmitter.”
The members wanted to stay active and connected with their community. They began a food distribution ministry, which has served more than 100 families with groceries so far.
A layman in the church, Willard Joyner, built a roadside food pantry and free library lending box “just to be a blessing,” Dixon said. “There are currently over 200 food items being picked up every week from the pantry. In these unusual days we must seek new, and sometimes unusual ways, to continue being the hands and feet of Jesus.”
The church placed the boxes on the church property May 3 facing the main street in Winterville.
Submitted photos Mike Dixon, pastor of Winterville Baptist Church, preaches for drive-in Sunday morning worship services in the parking lot using an FM transmitter during the COVID-19 pandemic. Church members set up a roadside food pantry and library box and prepare both a livestream Bible study services and a CD ministry for the community.
“The pantry is designed for nonperishable food items only,” he said. “Plexiglass on the doors are weather sealed to keep out moisture. The wood construction is salt-treated lumber to withstand the elements.”
He said the food pantry is utilized daily.
The church’s food distribution responds to local families in need by contacting the family, shopping at the store for items needed and delivering those to the homes of those who have requested help.
The drive-in service each Sunday has taken some adjustment. In April, the service was at 10 a.m. but as the temperature got hotter, the service moved to an hour earlier. Volunteers built a wooden staging area in the parking lot; the audio-visual team added software to “polish up our live streaming abilities,” Dixon said.
Musicians and singers are back to weekly practice for the service.
Early on, Dixon said they realized not everyone has access to the services they were live streaming. The church set up a hotline for people to call to listen to the service at any time. Members are also making CDs of the service for people to pick up from the church office.
“I would stand in an empty sanctuary, with my two-man audio-visual team in the sound booth, and I would preach and teach as if the sanctuary was full,” he said. “That took some getting used to for me.”
Dixon has not been the only one stepping out of his comfort zone. Sunday School teachers are regularly recording their lessons and posting them online, and one teacher, Carolyn Tyndall, has learned how to livestream and “has been faithful each week to produce a Bible study for everyone to enjoy online,” Dixon said.
The church purchased an FM transmitter so the audio is not only transmitted through an outdoor system, but also through car stereos.
“It has been amazing how God has blessed these services,” Dixon said.
More people are tuning in than the number that attended church before. Winterville Baptist recently added a couple to its membership as a direct result of the drive-in services. “They saw us having outdoor services, decided to spontaneously join us, and have been in every service since,” he said.
The church plans to continue its services as long as they are needed.
“We are past the hottest months of the year now so there is no rush (weather-related anyway) to return into the building,” he said. “We have several medical professionals in our congregation who are excellent resources for the church leadership as we look at returning to inside services.”
A limited number of people are allowed inside on Wednesday nights for Bible study. The church added a Wednesday morning study to accommodate more people.
Even though COVID-19 has changed ministry for churches, Dixon said “we are reaching more people with the gospel right now than we ever have before.
“God is moving, fulfilling prophecy, giving the world a chance to come to Him in faith. I have seen God move His people out from behind the walls of the church building.”
Dixon said it’s not about the beauty of the building, special lighting or expensive audio equipment, “it’s about being the hands and feet of Christ, being the church. I believe God has been pushing the church to change, whether they have wanted to or not; there has been little choice during this pandemic.”
The choice has been to either get online with technology for the sake of the gospel or allow your ministry to cease.
“I have seen God move people to pull over beside the road in order to check out our Sunday services,” he said. “I have seen God moving in drawing guests into our services every week. I have seen God moving as God’s people have stepped up to serve.
Now that Dixon and his wife, Melissa, have been with Winterville six months now, the couple is having to find new ways to meet and love church members. Dixon has led churches for almost 30 years. He has learned how to Zoom, how to teleconference, how to livestream over several different social media sites at once, how to do video and audio editing, “how to stay cooler standing on a wooden stage in an asphalt parking lot in the middle of the summer to preach,” and how to visit people at a distance. He has been on the phone with members more than ever before in his ministry.
Because he is on social media, “there are many more people who know us than we know them,” he said.
“We have learned other ways to love on our church family instead of a hug or a handshake,” Dixon said. “I have learned that no matter what changes, God remains the same. I have learned that nothing can stop the church from moving forward unless we allow it to.”