Pepperell, Mass., population 12,000, is about an hour northwest of Boston and has what Pastor Stephen Witmer described as a “rural vibe.” Although not as isolated as some towns, it still fits the small-town stereotype: “White steepled church on the town green … . One post office, one elementary school, one library, one grocery store, one hardware store … . One of everything.”
Still, the pandemic has touched his town.
Among his own congregation of about 250 at Pepperell Christian Fellowship, some have had pay cuts, three have lost parents to COVID-19, and many have expressed anxiety about the pandemic. Along with physical separation, Witmer said political controversy over the pandemic has affected his congregation, and it concerns him: “If we’re not unified in the gospel … I could really see splintering and fracturing that would come.”
In a recent email, one woman from Witmer’s congregation told him she was “terrified” about the virus and struggled to see God’s hand in the situation. Another congregant worried about government overreach. Witmer said the best thing he can do for these people is “reorient” them to the needs of their small community and ask them where they’re spending most of their time and effort. Instead of being frustrated with something a governing official says, “Pick up the phone and call 10 people,” Witmer suggested.
Pepperell Christian Fellowship has found other ways to help its small congregation refocus on serving:
- One woman in the congregation came up with the idea of running a socially distanced Easter scavenger hunt. The goal: Find all the letters in an unknown, Easter-themed phrase that organizers posted outside several congregants’ homes. To win a prize, participants drove around to find the letters and then rearranged them into the correct phrase: “He is risen.”
- Witmer and the elders went through the church directory and each claimed a certain number of people to check on. They then contacted each person to see how everyone was doing. By now, they’ve gone through the directory a couple of times, calling, texting, and emailing every attendee.
- A woman at the church didn’t have a camera or microphone on her computer. Although she could see and hear the rest of the congregation during Zoom calls, they couldn’t see or hear her. So a younger, more tech savvy attendee bought an external camera and installed it for her.
- In June, the church plans to kick off a Chronicles of Narnia book club for both children and parents. Starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, participants will read a book a month and discuss via Zoom. Discussions will include the life of C.S. Lewis and the books’ Biblical themes.