Camaraderie, Closures Bring Churches Together for Lakeside Baptisms
By Julie Campbell
On a warm August morning, rays of hope glimmered off the waters of the lake behind Madison Park Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. Worship filled the air outside as the voices of the diverse crowd, featuring four congregations, blended in sweet notes of praise. Because the four church buildings in Anderson had been closed for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic, this moment was more than just an outdoor baptism service. It was a celebration.
For Pastor Paul Strozier (Madison Park Church of God), Pastor Darnell Williams (New Purpose Ministries), Pastor Louis Jackson (United in Christ Church), and Pastor Jay Harvey (City Church), it was also the tangible outcome of an ongoing dialogue.
“As the events of the past few months heightened the public’s awareness of racial justice issues, we four pastors increased our personal connections and also began to open our conversation to others to invite engagement, education, and understanding,” said Strozier. “It felt like a natural extension of our conversations and relationships to join together for worship.”
Each summer Madison Park has a tradition of outdoor baptisms in the lake, so they invited the other congregations—one primarily white and two primarily black—to join them. The response was more than anyone could have anticipated.
“We had eight candidates for baptism when the day began, but several people came to Christ in the course of the morning, and a few others made a decision in the moment to make their faith public through baptism. We ended up baptizing fourteen people that day,” Strozier explained, adding that another individual came back to the church later that day and accepted Christ.
The day was an encouragement for Strozier, who said the most difficult part of this unprecedented season has been “sensing the loneliness, uncertainty, struggles, and fear of the people in our congregation and community.”
Although the coronavirus has affected daily life in many ways, it hasn’t changed the way Strozier and his congregation think about “church.”
“We have been sharing for some time that the church is not the building and cannot be contained by a building. The true Church is the living, breathing body of Christ incarnate in the world,” he explained. “Many people contacted me to say, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been learning, Pastor—we are the Church in the world.’”
Now that Madison Park has resumed in-person services, the church staff has seen a shift in the way they connect with the congregation, at least for the time being.
“We now see ourselves as a ‘hybrid’ church—a merging of digital and physical…. Whereas we used to be primarily in-person with online options, that positioning is now reversed. Even though we are offering in-person worship again, online is our primary point of connection now.”
Like many of his pastoral peers, Strozier said he’s seeing a mix of around one-third of his weekly congregation attending in person and two-thirds connecting online. For in-person services, Madison Park has clearly defined, one-way entrances and exits, and has also closed half of the seating in the sanctuary. In between services, all surfaces are thoroughly and professionally sanitized.
“We have reduced the length of our services to limit exposure. And, of course, we wear and encourage masks. We recently resumed youth gatherings on Sunday evening with required masks and enforced distancing,” Strozier explained. “And we are planning to resume ministry to children on Sunday mornings in September following a greatly modified format.”
Although he admits only God knows the future, Strozier looks forward with hope.
“We know what God wants to do in his world. Our challenge is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and serve him faithfully in the present context. There are indications of a drastic change in the methodology we use to carry out our mission of making disciples. Praise God that our security is not found in our methodology, but in the character and person of a God who never changes.”
Julie Campbell is an editor at Warner Christian Resources (formerly Warner Press) and a freelance journalist. A former city girl from Chicago, she enjoys country life with her husband, Russ, on a five-acre apple orchard in Madison County, Indiana. She is a blessed mom of three wonderful young adult children and one very spoiled white boxer.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
*Feature (top) photo: Senior pastor Paul Strozier and youth pastor Rondale Bloome enjoy the blessing of performing a baptism in the lake. Credit: Sarah Jackson.