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Black church’s versatile pandemic innovations foster broader community, online giving


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Black church’s versatile pandemic innovations foster broader community, online giving

News Story by Zachary Lee | Hartford Institute for Religion Research

In March 2020, Pastor Charles Tillman knew that his church would have to do their Sunday services differently in light of the pandemic, but he didn’t think it would require so much sweat. 

Pastor Charles Tillman

Tillman pastors the congregation of Woodville Church of the Nazarene, located in Richmond, Virginia, where he’s served for 38 years. His congregation was included in Understanding the Pandemic Impact on Black and Multiracial Congregations, co-authored by Dr. B. Clarvon Watts, a sociologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study was part of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 project.

Watts’ report in particular focused on the “similarities and differences between majority-Black, majority-white, and multiracial congregations in how they approached the pandemic and the extent of how they are impacted.” One of the main insights gleaned from the study was in the versatility of worship offerings that majority Black led congregations offered in comparison to their nonwhite peers. Religion News Service reporter Adelle M. Banks summarized that while “majority white congregations were the most likely to offer a virtual worship opportunity at least once a week (82%)” it was Black majority congregations who were “the most likely to offer multiple online worship opportunities throughout the week (27%), compared with 23% of multiracial congregations and 15% of white majority congregations.”

Maintaining a sense of community essential

Woodville Church of the Nazarene exemplified this versatility through an array of in-person and virtual options during the height of the pandemic. For Tillman, this approach was imperative to maintaining a sense of community with his congregation. He shared that the average attendance was about 140-150 members on any given Sunday although the pandemic impacted those numbers significantly. There was still a sense of community though through their implementation of outside services. 

This manifested in the form of Sunday services in the church’s parking lot. While there was a podium and mike set up for him and the choir to sing and preach, congregants could drive into the parking lot and participate in the comfort and, most importantly the safety, of their air-conditioned cars. This process continued through October when at that point, the church began to slowly phase back into having services in their building. Describing a typical Sunday service outside, Tillman’s memories immediately gravitate towards the hot Summer months.

“When I was preaching it was 90 degrees out there. We got a cooler full of water. People sat in their cars and rolled down the windows and listened to the service. There were also a few people who brought chairs and sat on the perimeter of the parking lot as well,” he said.

Tillman recalled how having those outdoor services outside of the daunting doors of a church building served to foster a stronger community with those who lived in the neighborhood.

“Neighbors came out and sat on the porch and they began listening to our services,” he said.

Virtual-only services in Black church would have been challenging

As much of an ordeal as these services were, he shared that the congregation appreciated it and that a transition straight into virtual only service would have been challenging at the start.

“We’re very vocal in the Black church. I’m accustomed to my congregation talking back to me. When I’m preaching there’s a lot of back and forth. It’s different than in the Anglo church,” he shared, adding that congregants as well as the new neighbors who joined were grateful for the outside services as they offered some semblance of embodied community.  

Learning how to foster community for their Wednesday Bible Study was a challenge to initially figure out. Prior to the pandemic the church had no live stream component but that changed when it came time to do their Wednesday night Bible studies, which were conducted via Zoom.

“That was new to me,” Tillman said.

He shared that he couldn’t directly translate what he did in person to the new format and that it required more imagination to keep people engaged.

“Given that many people were calling in on their phone I didn’t want the study to be a straight lecture,” he said. “I allowed input from the congregation. Throughout the lesson we interacted more than we had in person and had more of a discussion.”

Shorter services and greater connection from the comforts of home

Tillman braced himself for more pushback from the congregation but found that they were receptive to the new initiatives. By nature of the adjustments this resulted in shorter services, which Tillman joked was a highlight for the congregation.

“Inside the building our services would last about two hours but once we did the parking lot we were more in the one hour and 15 (minutes) to one hour and 20-minute range,” he said.

Additionally, congregants said that being able to attend Bible study in the comforts of their own homes was a big source of encouragement for his parishioners.

“Many of them told me ‘We can actually sit down, enjoy Bible study, while eating a McDonald’s burger or drinking a coffee from Wawa … it’s so much more comfortable!’” he said.

One parishioner described the new format as being much more “user friendly.” 

Adding online giving increased tithing

The benefits of extended and not always embodied community manifested in the form of increased tithing as well. He noted that prior to the pandemic, there was no method for online giving and that they would just pass around the offering tray in the middle of service. Even when they held outdoor services, at the start, they would pass the trays around to the vehicles. Seeing the congregation naturally expand prompted Tillman and his leadership team to consider alternative forms of giving. They settled on using CashApp and eventually Givelify.

“Even to this very day, we probably take in 40% of our tithes and offering through Givelify and that was not the case before the pandemic,” Tillman said.

He cited another example of how the expanded notion of community meant that more people were able to give as well, which in turn, helped the church channel those resources back to do new initiatives.

“I had a gentleman who last year did not step inside the church, lives in another state, watches us every week on YouTube and gave about $6,000 to the church in tithes and offerings. That was not happening pre-COVID,” he said.

Trade-offs and challenges

While Tillman is grateful for how Woodville Church of the Nazarene expanded their church family and stayed afloat in the pandemic, he also acknowledged the trade-offs and difficulties as well. The pandemic led to new developments that will remain staples of the church’s ministry going forth but it’s also presented some new challenges.

“I have many more adults now on Zoom than I had in person,” he beamed when talking about the Wednesday Bible study, “and I’m having a very difficult time trying to get them back in the building on Wednesday night.”

Once the church began to open, he recalled how even when he hired building cleaners, many were hesitant to come back. He said the main sanctuary comfortably seats more than 400 people (i.e. plenty of space for people to social distance).

“I’m trying to figure out a way where I can still have my online audience on Wednesday, but also meet in the sanctuary. And so we’re working on that now so that I can interact with both groups at the same time,” he said.

COVID helped Woodville do ministry better

Tillman remains excited at how Woodville Church of the Nazarene’s ministry can grow and evolve.

“I think all the changes that we’ve made actually have made us better and we have become more diversified in terms of how we reach people,” he said.

He said it’s fostered greater intergenerational relationships as well with his leadership team relying on the expertise and wisdom of the youth who are much savvier when it comes to technology.

“I’ve talked to my young people about doing TikTok,” he said.

Ultimately, he is excited for how he sees the church developing in four to five years. In the same way that they had to adapt because of COVID, that gave them the freedom to imagine how to grow their ministry and work even more.

“All these are things that we never would’ve even imagined had we not gone through COVID. So, in that regard, COVID has caused us to be better in terms of how we offer ministry. I see those areas expanding and allowing us to reach more people and be a stronger congregation because of it,” he said.

Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations
Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregationshttps://www.covidreligionresearch.org/
Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations is a multi-faceted and longitudinal research project designed to answer the following research questions. How did congregations respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on congregational life in the United States? What does congregational life look like post-pandemic?

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