Gospel Grace Church has been renovating a building (pictured above) in Woodstock, Ill., since last year, preparing for their official launch this spring. A statewide stay-at-home order March 21 halted in-person gatherings for the new church, and most across Illinois, until further notice.
“Everything’s on hold,” said Pastor Nate Praytor, “but we also realize this is part of the Lord’s plan. It’s not caught him off-guard.”
Praytor’s church is one of dozens across the state currently engaged in the church planting process—now, amid a global pandemic. Illinois church planters are adapting their plans and trusting Christ to fulfill the promise from Matthew 16: he will build his church.
“Has it disrupted our rhythm? Sure,” said Mt. Vernon church planter Dustin Haile. “But I really have been encouraged about how the church has responded. How they’ve leaned into Jesus, and have leaned into each other.”
Haile’s congregation, Gateway Church, is planning to launch public worship services this fall, but the pastor realizes that date could be pushed back. He and his core team have talked about how, decades from now, the COVID-19 pandemic will be part of church’s early history.
The story, Haile said, will be that the pandemic didn’t destroy the church, but that the church came out stronger on the other side.
‘God has you here for a reason’
Lighthouse Community Church had planned to canvas the community of Okawville March 22, ahead of a March 29 launch of the church’s second campus. (Its original site is in nearby Nashville.) Instead, the meet-the-neighbors effort was canceled, and the would-be launch was streamed from a nearly empty building. Since then, the church has modified Sunday worship to better fit the current circumstances.
“Our services don’t look normal right now, and we’ve done that on purpose,” Pastor Danny Donato said. Instead of an opening song, he introduces the service, urging people to stay online and stay engaged, because “We believe God has you here for a reason.”
After the sermon, church leaders host a brief Q&A session. The church’s online audience has grown from 400-700 views a week, to 3,500, Donato said.
“He gave us way more influence that Sunday than we ever would have anticipated,” Donato said of the planned Okawville launch. The church is watching the gospel go forward, he added, through people who are inviting their friends to worship online.
They’re also looking for ways to help people in both communities. In Nashville, Lighthouse kids are sending cards and handmade gifts to residents of local nursing facilities. In Okawville, a member of the church’s team is part of the effort to deliver meals to kids who would usually eat at school.
“Hope isn’t as evident when everything’s calm,” Donato said, “but it can shine into chaos.”
‘The gospel is the only answer’
Amid the pandemic, training and pre-assessment of church planters is continuing, said IBSA’s mobilization director Brad Lovin. “Most of [the North American Mission Board’s] development tools for church planting and churches are web-based,” Lovin said. “Potential planters are also being moved through the pre-assessment process virtually so that they can be ready to assess in the future.” Currently, no assessments are scheduled before the final quarter of 2020.
In Woodstock, “We’re all kind of living life right now in the question mark,” Praytor said. But his church is planning for the day they’ll be able to meet in-person, and adapting their plan for a post-Coronavirus audience.
“What’s the best way we can make the gospel land right where people are?” is a question the church is asking now, the pastor said. They’re praying every day for the pandemic to end, but also recognizing the potential for the gospel to go forward in this unprecedented time.
“We do know that it does open a door, when we face our own mortality,” Praytor said. “The gospel is the only answer for that.”
In Mt. Vernon, Haile is working to balance meeting needs in the community with continuing to develop his church’s core team so that they’re ready for an eventual launch.
“You’re seeing a lot of communities and community leaders that are just more open to receive assistance right now,” he said, “and that’s where and churches and plants need to be willing to step in.”
For virtual discipleship, Lovin recommended NAMB’s Multiplication Pipeline as a valuable resource for church plants and existing congregations. The online leadership development tool is designed to help church members discover their calling, equip them to serve, and deploy them on mission.
For more information about Multiplication Pipeline, or how to partner with a new church in Illinois, contact Lovin at (217) 391-3131.