Pandemic Lessons Learnt in Mississippi
Although joint mission between UK and Mississippi churches was put on hold this summer, the desire for mission hasn’t faltered.
Here are the words of Mike Ray, Director of Missions Mobilization for the Mississippi Baptist Convention:
“Our heart and intention is to continue connecting with the church in the UK”
So many churches have benefited both from the warm-hearted generosity of our Mississippi brothers and sisters as they have thrown themselves into serving the church here in the UK, as well as enjoying such great fellowship as we’ve worked together for the extension of God’s kingdom.
This summer several churches were looking forward to re-connecting established links, or to exploring the possibilities for the first time, through ‘Connect for Growth’.
Connect for Growth exists to connect FIEC churches and their leaders with those belonging to the Mississippi Baptist Convention. The aim of these connections is to resource churches to be more effective in reaching the lost, to create greater mission mindedness, to bring encouragement in the faith, and to refresh incentive for service.
When the coronavirus crisis took hold, however, everything had to be put on hold.
Lockdown in Mississippi
I had a great ‘meeting’ with Mike Ray and Webb Armstrong recently using the new universal form of communication, Zoom, and we were able to talk about how they’re coping with restrictions arising from COVID-19 in Mississippi. Many of their churches returned in mid-June so they’re a little ahead of us and it was interesting to hear how this pandemic has affected the church culture in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the deep south.
Lockdown began in mid-March for Mississippi and since then the state has seen more than 100,000 cases with 3,000 deaths out of a population of just under 3 million. The restrictions were not dissimilar to what we’ve experienced in the UK but, in general, they were eased sooner than they have been for us. My friend Webb pastors a church in Crystal Springs (pictured above) and he resumed most of the church programs in September following some weeks of reduced activity.
It appears that they have experienced many of the frustrations as we have in the UK, both as a society and as a church: confusion over how the virus spreads and how best to control it; disinformation spread by the media and on social media; frustration at the unfair way the restrictions have been applied - for example, protests that have gone ahead and casinos and night clubs which have been allowed to open, whilst weddings, funerals, and church gatherings have faced severe restrictions.
Church after lockdown
Mississippi has long enjoyed a strong cultural Christianity and church attendance has been part of the culture. This has been changing for some time but the coronavirus crisis has greatly accelerated the process: it is anticipated that between 20-25% of people will not return to attending church on Sundays (only 60-65% of pre-lockdown congregation have so far returned). There is an increase in people identifying as ‘nones’: no longer claiming allegiance to a specific religion and using that as a reason to no longer attend church.
They’re also seeing a significant number of people who are simply tuning in to the provision of online services; some because they are genuinely afraid but others because it is more convenient and they don’t appreciate the important benefits of face-to-face fellowship.
It is causing sadness that these people are no longer coming under the sound of the gospel week by week but it also means the returning church is a better reflection of the true body of Christ. This has been an important lesson the church in the UK has been teaching the church in Mississippi and a way in which we can now support our brothers and sisters there.
The initial optimism at the increase of interest from a fearful populace, as well as the increase in views for online church services, has sadly failed to materialise in greater church attendance or a significant increase in gospel opportunities.
However, Mississippi, along with many states in the US, have long been generous mission supporters and this doesn’t seem to have changed: giving has not been affected much and churches seem to still be keen to serve in mission.
Webb gave a very clear response when I asked what lessons the church is learning as a result of this time.
His prayer is that the Lord would open the eyes of the church that it is not programs, buildings, or facilities but a greater dependence on the gospel and on the Lord to build his church that matters.
That very simple fact is true for his church wherever she is!
We can sit in our arm chairs and marvel at the inventive ways churches and church leaders are making use of media platforms to share the gospel, but it is Jesus who will build his church and the gospel is his power to transform lives.
If you had hoped to connect with a church in Mississippi this summer, they are still very keen that these opportunities for fellowship should continue, if the Lord wills, and given time, fellowship across the pond will resume!
If you would like to know more about ‘Connect for Growth’ please do not hesitate to get in touch via email.