On 13 March 2020, the United States of America suffered under two deadly pandemics—COVID-19 and systemic racial injustice. Consequently, the universal church was thrust abruptly into wrestling with, “How to Be the Church” during pandemics. This entailed how to gather for worship, spiritual formation programs, youth groups, and in-person forums. In the midst of racial unrest exacerbated by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in the span of two weeks, the church wrestled with how to attack systemic injustice and racism while standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable. As churches faithfully endeavored to give witness to a liberative gospel and serve its communities, they were forced to respond and be church in innovative, creative and unfamiliar ways.
Future generations will look back in wonder and study how the church journeyed through these pandemics and in some ways thrived. It is important to capture and chronicle now the church’s witness. In capturing the witness, we explore how the church interpreted and responded to the still speaking God in this generation. In doing so, future generations will reflect upon this historic period and see how the church made the faith its own. Just as churches looked back at how we survived other historical periods—civil war, revolutionary war, etc.—as a means to inform their decision making, so will future generations look back at this historical period.
Over the course of this project, the Southern New England Conference (SNEC) has endeavored to capture and document the experiences of churches within the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ. The SNEC consists of over six hundred churches in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The churches are diverse in cultural identity, theological roots, geography, membership size, and budget, thus adding to the richness of diverse ministry approaches/programs and witness during the sustained pandemic season.
Project leaders studied and investigated church experiences for this project in varied and diverse ways, including requests for multi-media presentations of ministry events and programs, collection of artifacts, and written and video interviews of pastors, church leaders and selected congregants and ministry partners/organizations. In 2021, all SNEC Area Conference Ministers were asked to recommend churches that they believed would be interested in sharing their stories for the Time Capsule project. SNEC staff attempted to contact all 50 churches that were recommended and asked them to share descriptions of their challenges, innovations, and experiences during 2020.
Of those churches contacted, 25 completed an initial written description detailing their church's experiences during the pandemic. Responses from these narratives were thematically coded, from which four Key Themes emerged:
- Innovations During COVID and Impact on the Future
- Racial Injustice
- Impact Towards Mission
- Frustrations & Lessons Learned
Specific questions targeting each of these areas were developed for each church, drawing on the experiences and information shared during the written narrative portion of the project. Those churches who participated in the narrative portion of the project were contacted again in early 2022 and asked to participate in a video interview, to help capture their experiences in a multimedia format. Of those invited, 20 participated in follow-up video interviews, with recordings sent to a contracted documentarian for editing. The documentarian utilized footage from each interview to craft four specific documentary videos that speak to the Key Themes identified in this project.
It is our hope that this project will encourage churches to explore transformative and creative ministry that is relevant and more agile in meeting contemporary and social needs of its social location and community context. We hope this project will equip churches to embrace how these pandemics have challenged and changed them, and yet they have created new ministry space, new ministry programs and expanded their community of faith. We hope that churches will continue on this new path of ministry rather than focusing on “when can we go back to normal."