OWENSBORO, Ky. (KT) – Pleasant Grove Baptist Church stared down COVID-19 and never blinked.
Oh, they respected the disease that has put a stranglehold on the world, wearing masks and keeping a proper social distance from each other. But they didn’t let COVID define them or even slow them down.
They made the adjustments and let God do the rest, says new pastor Jonathan Bonar. “I feel like it’s just a move of God really,” he said.
The Owensboro church has finished building a new $2.5 million sanctuary, hired a pastor, nearly doubled weekly giving and added dozens of new members – all during the past six months when COVID became the most frightening word in the world.
Pleasant Grove Baptist Church sure seems to be one of those places.
Sunday morning attendance has grown from 320 in June to 477 last Sunday morning. Two months ago, Bonar became their first pastor in nearly two years and his leadership came at a critical time with COVID-19 making decisions for churches more difficult by the day.
The confirmation from God that he received was eye-opening, too, making it obvious to him that he was here for such a time as this.
During the day he delivered his trial sermon, Bonar received 100% of the vote after the morning session. His wife, Cathryn, was so sure the call was coming that she made a call to a realtor – from the front row pew in the church - to put a bid on a home that was perfect for their family even before her husband spoke a second time. Oh, and he received 100% after that vote, too.
That hasn’t happened ever in the church’s history, a history that covers 185 years.
“I love it, absolutely love it in Kentucky,” Bonar said. “We feel at home. We felt at home immediately.”
They have three children and all of them have already taken to life in Kentucky. Bonar previously served at a megachurch in West Palm, Florida, but their daughter who is a freshman in college and sons who are a junior in high school and an eighth-grader, are in on the move.
“It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit works,” he said. “Even they were saying, ‘This is God, Dad.’’’
As for how the church has attacked COVID-19, the new pastor said they have done it with extreme caution but not fear.
“I think we’ve tried to be respectful of COVID sensitivities but not allowed it to keep us from pushing aggressively for the Great Commission and reaching people,” he said. “It’s been a delicate ballet of being careful and doing some of the things we’ve done in the past.”
The pastor said it was a “Genesis 50 thing, when Joseph told his brothers, ‘What the enemy meant for evil, God meant for good.’”
An example was a t-ball baseball league the church has always put on for the community. It typically reaches about 500 families, Bonar said, and the church was measuring the prospect of canceling it because of the coronavirus. Then they took a second look at it, he said.
“How can we just change the way we do things to accomplish COVID restrictions?” Bonar said. “We weren’t able to have as many kids as we normally do. At the end of the program, we (previously) have this huge celebration with everybody coming and it’s fairly long and drawn out.”
They decided to do it in a different way, bringing four teams at a time into the sanctuary for a smaller celebration with parents and friends of the families. During the time, they also did a major push to join with them at church with the kids in mind.
“We gave them a taste of the children’s ministry for kids, led them into some crazy worship and said, ‘Hey! Come join us!’ We were able to reach many families through that program.”
The lesson, Bonar said, was that while it may not look exactly like it did before COVID, the programs that were successful can still be done with some creativity.
They have also added services to keep the sanctuary spaced out and safe. It has grown so much that the church may soon have to add a third service. That’s OK with Bonar, who came from a church of 36,000 members which had five services every Sunday.
“We had a scary situation,” he said. “My first leadership call here was to shut down Sunday School. At the time, Gov. (Andy) Beshear was coming on saying we’ve got to do this and that. I tried to make it fun. We did recreate that a little bit. Everybody met on Sunday night. We’d begin the Sunday School lesson and then I handed it off to Sunday School teachers on Zoom. It added the energy and excitement of the worship pastor.”
Of course, like many churches, they have a strong online viewership especially with their older members, many of whom aren’t ready to come back to church.
“We’ve had a great balance of being careful and mindful of the pandemic, but at the same time we were motivated and aggressively pushing forward and not just waiting and sitting back,” he said. “We’re doing some of the same things, just in a different way.”
As for wearing/not wearing masks – a sticking point in most churches – the new pastor even had an answer for that. “We ask everyone to wear masks,” he said. “At first, we had a little concern from people about it. We had a mask competition in church. Who could have the best masks? The leaders of the church began taking pictures and the deacons judged. We gave away a prize to a child and an adult with the best mask. We were trying to have fun with it. Those people who were upset about it or didn’t want to do it felt like they were missing out because everybody was having fun and laughing.”
Bonar said they took the approach with the masks that “even if you think the mask is no help at all, you still have to wear it because you love other people.”
He commended the church for what they have been able to accomplish without a pastor for two years, including construction of a $2.5 million sanctuary. One of the rocks during the transition time was worship pastor David Rodgers, who has been at the church for a dozen years.
However, the new pastor has put fresh eyes on the church. Many visitors who had come were waiting to see what kind of new pastor the church was going to have before deciding if they wanted to become members.
Once the new pastor was on the scene and putting a voice to all the success, a swell of new members has followed.
“They didn’t have a strong membership process or guest followup,” Bonar said. “We’re trying to be changing how we did our first impressions, making sure we are jumping on anybody.”
One of Bonar’s first ministry positions was as an assistant to Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. at Liberty University. “One of the things he taught me was to saturate evangelism, you personally touch people as many times as you can after they visit your church. We created a robust system.”
The church also did a fireworks show on July 4 and reached more than 200 first-time guests from nearby neighborhoods through a door-to-door canvas invite. They did a children’s worship program at the event, inviting the kids to attend on Sunday.
Bonar also took lessons learned from the church in West Palm that had been through a second wave of COVID-19 that made members there even more leery of the coronavirus.
“How do you make it very safe for people to feel comfortable in church?” he said. “No handouts, open every door for them and we have reinforced online giving, and our giving has gone through the roof too. We had it but we weren’t giving it any oxygen or talking about it.”
The weekly donations have nearly doubled, Bonar said.
“God is doing something supernatural,” he said. “It can’t be traced to men. He provides the wave; we just steward that momentum and ride that wave as long as we can.”