When the Pandemic Hit, Our Leaders Went to Work to Discover the Best Ways for Us to Serve Our Community . . .
One of our pastors, while addressing the coaching staff at a local college last year, described Ekklesia Christian Church as opportunists. Any time God cracks open a door, even slightly, and we see a target that aligns with our core values and seems beneficial for the kingdom, we run at it.
In our six years as a church, God has opened doors that have brought about immeasurably more than all we asked or imagined. Perhaps that’s why Saturday, March 14, seemed to stand in such stark contrast. The day before, a group of Ekklesia women had driven a couple hundred miles to attend a conference. A few hours before it was to start, we learned the event was canceled due to the novel coronavirus. We were already settled into hotel rooms, so we spent the night and drove home that Saturday. All the way home, I watched social media posts from church after church announcing service cancellations. I pictured doors closing, one after another. It was surreal.
Ekklesia was one of the few churches in our county to gather the next day, but with a notable drop in attendance. That week, city-imposed restrictions forced the cessation of our in-person services. It was the most disheartening door closure I can remember in our church’s story. As a group, we mourned for a few minutes, and then we started looking for opportunities.
Our most immediate and obvious need was to boost and improve our mediocre livestream of our weekend service into a legitimate online campus. We added a preshow, postshow, more cameras, an upgraded streaming platform, better sound equipment, and a back-of-house studio to run production. We received incredible coaching and assistance in this from Jerry Harris and his media staff at The Crossing, a church with multiple locations in and around Quincy, Illinois.
The percentage of church income given online almost immediately increased 32 percent and we saw a 10 percent increase in overall average weekly giving. Two specific factors—an online forum that directed people toward next steps and a focus on individual pastoral care—helped lead directly to 12 baptisms during our eight weeks of online-only services.
We eventually reopened for in-person services, but some closures in the community continued. This scenario presented Ekklesia with several opportunities to minister. One of Ekklesia’s goals is to know the needs of our community and to meet them, and then to use those connections to point people to Jesus. To quote Carey Nieuwhof from the 2020 Spire Conference, “Nobody can out-local the local church.”
Through social media engagement, Ekklesia opened discussions about the best ways for the church to serve the community during this challenging time. It became very clear the greatest need of local families was educational support for kids.
It turned out, God had spent the previous 15 months positioning Ekklesia to thrive during such a time as this, for he had guided us in laying the groundwork for three programs to help fill that educational space and serve families of our community: City Camp Kids, The Homeschool Hub, and REACH.
City Camp Kids
City Camp Kids was established in 2019 as a summer day camp for kindergartners through sixth-graders. It’s like other day camp programs in that we offer field trips, outdoor play time, and a summer filled with fun. Two things set it apart: It is faith-based and the teachers function more as mentors than babysitters. Age-appropriate Bible teaching and discipleship occur every day. Aside from the spiritual benefits, the City Camp Kids program stands out because of its location in our beautiful new church facility that boasts some amenities not offered elsewhere.
When schools abruptly closed in spring 2020, however, City Camp Kids’ after-school camp closed as well . . . but only for a time. As families realized school closings would last more than a few days or weeks, they began seeking long-term solutions. By mid-May, as local schools abandoned attempts at virtual learning and brought the academic year to an early end, the need to reopen City Camp Kids was incredibly apparent, and so we did. The program quickly regained its prior enrollment, plus more.
Shortly thereafter, our county announced that summer camps operated by local recreation departments would not be reopening in 2020. That meant a whole new wave of families faced an urgent need for childcare, and City Camp Kids quickly reached its enrollment cap of 100 students.
Among those we served over the summer were children of men and women who work in the medical field and as first responders. Our state Department of Social Services paid the tuition of the children of these essential workers so the parents could carry out their duties.
With a fee of $100 per student per week, City Camp Kids brought a welcome boost to the income of the church during summer months.
School reopening plans in our county have been very murky, so Ekklesia has been able to continue serving our community well by offering parents clear solutions to fill gaps left by the school district. Currently, City Camp Kids operates a distance learning center from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday for families who have opted for virtual school. There also is an after-school camp from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays for students who have returned to school in person. Those students who returned to school were offered only a part-time schedule; they attend only two or three days per week.
Parents have been incredibly grateful for our program’s flexibility in offering children a place whenever school was not an option during this season.
The Homeschool Hub
Ekklesia has always had a disproportionally high number of homeschooling families. Even as a mobile church—from 2015 to 2018—we offered homeschool support programs by partnering with other churches and utilizing their facilities. After moving into our own building, we opened a homeschool cooperative in the fall of 2019. Approximately 40 kids enrolled that first season. COVID-19 forced an early closure of the homeschool co-op in spring 2020, but the ministry has made an audacious comeback in the new school year. Over the summer, many families opted to withdraw their students from the local school system due to the district’s lack of clarity. As a result, we now have more than 200 homeschoolers attending our weekly co-op, doing their best to share a space with more than 60 virtual learners enrolled with City Camp Kids.
The co-op charges only a registration fee, which covers the consumables for the semester. All classes are taught by parent volunteers who have specialized skills and expertise in certain areas. This wildly popular program does not produce income for the church, but it brings in many new volunteers. (At Ekklesia, we call them “world changers.”) The co-op also offers Bible studies for moms while their kids are in classes, creating a great opportunity to disciple newcomers.
In South Carolina, homeschoolers are required to register for legal coverage through a group approved by the state board of education. Ekklesia has been approved for this designation, and now most of our students are registered for coverage through our accountability association.
REACH is another of Ekklesia’s educational offerings to become even more valuable due to COVID-19. REACH is a ministry to underserved youth in our area that helps them overcome cultural and academic inequities. We carry out this mission by connecting with families in the subsidized housing complex nearest our building. We get to know families there by hosting summertime cookouts, during which we sign up kids for weekly programming that takes place during the school year.
After school starts, we pick up students from their neighborhood and bring them to our facility in the afternoon. We provide tutoring and homework help, and children take classes in music, dance, cooking, video production, and more. They also meet in small groups for a Bible lesson and discipleship led by their mentor, who remains with them for the whole year. After that, we serve dinner and eat with the students before taking them back home.
Ekklesia hosts this ministry and has staff members who serve on the board of directors. REACH is an independent 501(c)3 organization that is led by three churches represented on the board. It is a stand-alone ministry that we hope will grow into more neighborhoods and eventually will involve churches in those communities.
REACH’s fall and spring semesters close with a showcase. Parents come and watch students share the music, dance, and other skills they’ve learned during the term. Artwork is displayed, and children prepare and serve a meal for their families and others who come to see their performances. The last REACH showcase ended with six students being baptized into Christ.
This ministry has become more essential than ever in the context of the coronavirus, because those who are likely to suffer the most due to long-term school closures are children in communities and families already considered at risk. REACH is supported by monthly donations from the partnership of local churches.
While coronavirus has presented many unwanted challenges, it has also opened doors for Christ’s church to become his hands and feet in spaces we would’ve never thought possible. In our case, for example, we never expected such a large portion of the unchurched community would turn to the church over the government to meet kids’ educational needs.
As the communities where your church serves continue to feel the effects of this pandemic, I encourage you to recognize their needs and find open doors you can walk through to serve them well, all the while pointing people to Jesus.