IRVINE—As Pastor Bogdan Kipko shared the Gospel in a Facebook Live worship service, Adolfo submitted a comment in the chat: “Please pray for me so I can … worship God and change my whole life around.” Immediately, a volunteer from Forward Church in Irvine jumped into the chat to offer spiritual guidance and assure Adolfo of God’s love. Half a minute later, Adolfo wrote, “I surrender to Him. Amen.” Adolfo has since joined one of Forward’s Zoom small groups and is being discipled.
Forward Church, Irvine
His story is not an isolated incident. Forward, a 3-year-old church plant averaging 50-70 in worship before the COVID-19 shutdown, has seen at least 20 people accept Christ and become involved with the church through its online ministry during the pandemic. Two hundred people have filled out digital connect cards indicating a desire to plug into the church.
“Even though the COVID-19 pandemic created significantly more work,” Kipko said, it “also brought about a significantly larger harvest than we’ve ever seen before.”
While some churches have sought merely to survive the coronavirus pandemic, Forward is among four California Southern Baptist church plants that have harnessed the transition to online ministry for growth. Cumulatively, they have reached hundreds of formerly unchurched people during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I am proud of all our California Southern Baptist Convention church planters during this unique time in history,” said Ross Shepherd, leader of the CSBC Church Planting Initiatives Team. “I am proud of their tenacity, commitment and creativity in the mission of reaching the millions of lost people in California with the Gospel.”
Now, church planters like Kipko are seeking to determine whether they can continue the momentum as their congregations begin to regather.
“We have over 200 new people” who “live in a 10-mile vicinity of Forward Church in Irvine,” Kipko said. “We need to help them have a trajectory of spiritual growth.”
Ridgeview Church, North Fontana
The story is similar at Ridgeview Church in North Fontana. When the shutdown began in March, the congregation had just celebrated its first anniversary and was averaging 90 in worship. But coronavirus forced Pastor Alex Barrett and the leadership team to develop a new ministry structure in the span of three days.
They formed weekly Zoom small groups to discuss and apply the online Sunday sermons, developed a “care team” to meet needs in practical ways and launched prayer groups to interceded for the congregation and community. The reformulated ministry structure has led to two first-time professions of faith in Christ and six or seven new families joining the church.
“As the pastor,” Barrett said, I sought to “equip our people to do the ministry. This pandemic has actually allowed us, and in some ways forced us, to do this.”
Going forward, Ridgeview’s main challenge will be finding a place to regather. The church won’t be able to return to the school in which it formerly met until September, if at all, and Barrett requested prayer for “space for us to gather.”
Rise Church, Fresno
For Rise Church in Fresno, the pandemic shutdown was a catalyst to launch Zoom small groups and invest in better video and sound equipment for online worship services. The result has been 35-40 new weekly attendees at a congregation launched in 2017 and averaging 115 in worship before coronavirus.
The pandemic “has pushed us to evangelize in a different way,” Rise Pastor Tito Villegas said. “In the beginning it was rough,” but “we’re getting more experience and trying to improve every week.”
Rise will reopen in phases, Villegas said, “and relaunch our church” with a new look to worship services as well as more small group offerings.
CenterSet Church, San Jose
CenterSet Church in San Jose focused on increasing its online footprint during the pandemic. Upon regathering, it plans to forge a hybrid model of in-person and virtual ministry. The 2-year-old church plant averaged 190 in worship before the shutdown but now sees 900 weekly online worship attendees. Twenty-six people have made first-time professions of faith, three have been baptized and 10 have joined the church since all activities were driven online.
“The thinking pattern as a church is that we have just launched a second campus” online “whether we wanted to or not,” CenterSet Pastor Ali Roohi said. “We can’t kill that second campus. We have to keep it going after we come back to a physical building.”
Since small groups went to a Zoom format, attendance has jumped from 50 to 150. Part of the reason for the increase, Roohi believes, is that online groups remove the “emotional burden” of a long commute from work to a weeknight small group at someone’s home. Continuing Zoom groups is one way CenterSet plans to leverage ministry insights gained during the pandemic.
“The method always has to change,” Roohi said. “It’s the message that can never change.”
Shepherd commended all CSBC church planters for “their heart for service in meeting the needs of people in their churches and communities.”
“I am also proud,” he said, “that these planters have joined our existing churches in maintaining a commitment to giving to the Cooperative Program and the California Mission Offering.”