Commentary: The Digital Stairway to Heaven, Black Churches and the Pandemic
The role of the church in African American life is fundamental and long-standing.
In early times, once gatherings could be negotiated, the first Black churches served as anchors for the enslaved African American community. Initially, these gatherings took place in what were called Praise Houses. These houses of worship operated covertly and served as a place of spiritual healing, community building, inspiration and upliftment.
Praise Houses evolved into what we now know as the Black Church, a communal institution that continues to serve as a religious anchor for the African American community. It remains a resource for, and spiritual connection between, black people through fellowship, organization, community building, health, civil activism, education, political guidance and spiritual/mental relief. It is as well a symbol of collective strength.
According to the Pew Research Center1, African Americans are more religious than whites and Latinos by many measures of religious commitment. For instance, three-quarters of Black Americans say religion is very important in their lives, compared with smaller shares of whites (49%) and Hispanics (59%); African Americans also are more likely to attend services at least once a week and to pray regularly. Black Americans (83%) are more likely to say they believe in God with absolute certainty than whites (61%) and Latinos (59%). Consequently, anything affecting Black ministries directly impacts African American lives.
What about the Pandemic?
The COVID-19 Pandemic has been difficult for all people and organizations, and Black churches were not excluded. This article provides research on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted several African American ministries – surveying consequences and response. On the one hand, the Black Church has coped with the consequences as we all have – masks, social distancing and cancelled operations. But African American houses of worship also had some unique problems; consequently, some clerics applied creative solutions. After all, said one pastor, “We are supposed to provide hope and counsel to our congregation. How can we do God’s bidding if we are closed?”
Interestingly, a common thread among those interviewed was that though God’s will is always first and foremost in their decision-making, a collaboration between church and science has been necessary. It continues to be so as they consider how to be a safe space for worship and a community resource. As one interviewee related, “A combination of spiritual knowledge and scientific understanding has been helpful in how we have moved forward. Because they actually do align with each other.”
Navigating through the pandemic, Black Americans are rediscovering the importance of the Black Church to the community as a spiritual and informational hub.
This article describes how the pandemic has impacted several African American ministries and lessons learned. We interviewed the pastors from several African American houses of worship during summer 2021. The churches are in Michigan, New York, Texas, Washington DC and Florida; the number of individual church congregants range from dozens to hundreds. Pastors were male and female.
There were many individual reactions but also much in common in their responses, despite their diverse locations across the U.S. All pastors were forthcoming and appreciative of our efforts to listen to them. Each hoped their story would help others.
In our survey, we found some common reactions such as “Our Elders joined the virtual services; they figured it out!” We also learned that responses could vary widely: some churches never physically closed; other churches shut down the sanctuary and remain closed. But no one, not even the two ministers who caught COVID-19, ever lost faith in God or humanity.
We present our results in the words of the Pastors themselves. Direct extracts from our interviews are in quotation marks.
How is the Church different since the pandemic?
Most if not all the churches surveyed reported the “usual” adjustments, including closings, partial openings, halting/rescheduling events, online/virtual services and pastoral care, shifting to social media to communicate and accommodate membership, services outside and in tents, mask policy and requirements, social distancing, sanitization, family clustering, as you would expect.
Some interesting results:
– One ministry immediately adopted an outdoor concept where church people would drive up and stay in their cars. It was basically a Drive-In Church (“Say ‘Amen’ with a Beep”).
– There was more than usual communication and coordination within and among church leadership, “We actually had to learn how to talk TO each other, not AT each other.”
– Recommendations to “stay at home” if possible and especially for those who know themselves to be “high risk” or “immuno-compromised.” Of course, they had to discourage hugging, kissing, and touching each other during this new normal.
– “We really had to maintain transparency and share information via social media outlets on our plans to reopen the doors of the Church.”
The Digital Stairway to Heaven
All ministries developed new perspectives on the importance of digital communications for their members and congregants. They had to become creative and imaginative, especially to reinforce the idea that their congregants were not abandoned.
“We needed to shift into doing things differently.”
Many responders stated that they had to learn how to preach and teach through the lens of a camera.
“Preaching to a camera is not the same as preaching to a congregation. I call it a ‘Psychological Booster’ – for me, to preach as if the sanctuary is jam-packed. I share with those joining in that ‘I can’t see you, but I can feel you.”
Said another, “We increased our social media platform to enhance our website, set up Zoom capability, live streaming, expanded our presence on Facebook to include the church profiles, and my personal profile.” Some set up an adult Zoom and a children’s Zoom to accommodate different aspects of their congregation.
Interestingly, in some domains church attendance has actually improved since the advent of online services and social media outreach. Congregants in locations that were previously too far away from a physical location were now able to engage from the comfort of their homes.
“This was actually a good thing as far as reaching potential new members. Our numbers are better than ever.”
Curiously, clothing became an issue.
“I have to think about being camera-ready, making sure that my wardrobe allows for the type of presentation that is intended. So, I now have to be mindful of what I wear; I have to present as a representation of Jesus Christ.”
He chuckled and said, “I am currently working on my new wardrobe!” Another minister pointed out that congregants got too casual with getting dressed for church. The Zoom attendees didn’t wear ties or suit jackets and often just had on sweatsuits. “I am looking forward to dressing for church again!”
One might argue that the pandemic is God’s Will. But these representatives of the Black Church took the events as God’s challenge. And each proved they were up to the challenge.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited for brevity.
Ms. Asha Rivers has over 20 years business experience in retail and health care administration. The former vice president of government affairs for Macy’s Inc., she is currently a business strategy consultant in Washington, D.C. Ms. Rivers may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Steven B. Goldman is senior lecturer with MIT Professional Education and the director of the “Crisis Management & Business Resiliency” Courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has 35 plus years’ experience in all aspects of crisis management, crisis communications, and crisis leadership. Dr. Steve may be contacted at Goldmans@MIT.edu.