Here’s one more silver lining to the dark cloud of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic: “The level of new and intensified social outreach and community ministry undertaken by the nation’s churches is monumental.”
So reports the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in the latest data from the collaborative effort it leads called Faith Communities Today and the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project. The survey includes data from eight denominational groups and a random sampling of congregations in other denominations for a total of 38 Christian denominational groups. The survey of church leaders was conducted in November 2021.
The resulting report, released Dec. 21, speaks of the “resilience, creativity and convictions” of U.S. congregations that have allowed them “to better address the needs of their local communities in times of suffering and hardship.”
More than half (54%) of U.S. congregations have started a new ministry or expanded and increased an existing one during the pandemic. On average, these churches began or expanded at least three ministries.
Further, “many of these churches also did not feel constrained or limited by their resources to try something new, with 46% of congregations responding that they felt they had the resources to pursue new ministry opportunities.”
These innovations and expansions have included strengthening member connections, making better use of church buildings, distributing food and monetary resources, and engaging in direct pandemic response. However, the researchers noted they found a huge variety of distinctly local adaptions, illustrated by 20 pages of open-ended responses that describe “anything but ordinary ministry efforts.”
One surprising finding is that although the pandemic shut down most in-person church gatherings for about a year, some churches managed to make greater use of their facilities for pandemic care. The study found 25% of congregations expanded use of their properties for community outreach.
For example, during the lockdown one congregation expanded its outdoor space to provide a place for families to bring young children to play safely. This church added a playground, walking trail, and Little Free Library, and now has plans to add a picnic shelter.
Other church buildings became staging areas for food distribution, tutoring and other outward-focused activities, such as making masks, hosting vaccine clinics. offering support to medical workers, hosting wellness checks and blood drives. Other churches created community gardens.
The report summarized: “It was inspiring to see all the outreach and ministry efforts undertaken by these congregations over the past months. One church’s comments sum up the attitudes expressed by many, ‘We simply said yes to new things and discontinued tired ministries based on guidance from the Holy Spirit.’”