What Church Looks Like in the Epicenter of the Outbreak

By   •   April 16, 2020   •   Topics: ,

James Roberson, lead pastor of The Bridge Church NYC, preaches to an empty room during a recent livestream service. The Bridge is one of many churches in the city and around the world that has rewritten its playbook to reach people in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

On March 8, Jason and Rachel Atkins and their 3-year-old son James walked through the doors of The Bridge Church NYC in Brooklyn, New York. At a glance, it looked like any other Sunday, but for Jason and Rachel, this service felt different. COVID-19, which had seemed so distant just a few weeks earlier, was beginning to make its way through the city.

“We took it very seriously,” Jason said. “Rachel’s pregnant, and we didn’t know much about what impact, if any, COVID-19 would have on our unborn child.”

When they decided to cautiously participate in church that Sunday, it turned out to be the last service they would attend in person for a long time. The following week, a stay-at-home order was announced for New York, but the virus had already spread across the city.

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On March 26, Jason’s mom was hospitalized with double pneumonia. The following week, his uncle checked into the hospital with similar symptoms. On April 9, Jason’s father was hospitalized, too. All three tested positive for the virus that has killed more than 10,000 people in New York City.

Jason, James and Rachel Atkins in Brooklyn. Jason’s mother, father and uncle have all been hospitalized with COVID-19.

“I was really scared,” Jason said as he described the days of waiting and praying after his mom went to the emergency room. He had trouble getting in touch with her after her phone died during the seven-hour wait to see a doctor. For several days, there was very little contact between her and her family. When Jason did speak with his mom, she didn’t sound like herself. His mind wandered to the worst-case scenario.

“If the absolute worst happened, my mom would not get the kind of funeral that she deserved,” Jason thought at the time.

“When I think of my mom, I think of the life she’s lived and the people she’s impacted, so my mind went to that place, and I felt like I was in stages of grief when I wasn’t hearing anything back. And then I was very much concerned for my dad’s emotional health. She’s his wife. They said their vows, and they are life partners. They’ve been together since 1973. They’ve known each other for their entire life.”

Joy in the Midst of Grief

Jason was overjoyed when his mom was released from the hospital four days after being admitted. Then his uncle was released after a week of treatment.  Knowing two of his family members had survived the illness encouraged Jason that his dad would make it, too. On April 16, he went home to recover with his wife.

For Jason and Rachel, joy and thankfulness have been mixed with sorrow as they watch others in the city go through grief.

“A friend of mine, she lost her mother on April 2 and she lost her father on April 4,” Jason said. “When I go on Facebook, every third or fourth post I see from my friends from Brooklyn, it’s someone who’s experienced some degree of heartbreak or someone who’s own mother or father is in the hospital.

“There’s absolutely a space to be grateful for what God has done in my mom’s life, but I am also wanting to be a friend and a brother and a prayer warrior for my friends who are going through exactly what I went through and potentially worse.”

Church at the Epicenter of the Coronavirus

Rachel and Jason have leaned into God and their church family these past few weeks. They’ve been watching Sunday services on Facebook Live and chatting back and forth on group message apps to share prayer requests and praises. They even started an online meetup for married couples.

“Church is different, but I still feel like there’s a community of people who are still living life together, praying for one another, bearing one another’s burdens—physically at a distance, but emotionally very close,” Jason said.

Worship at The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, before COVID-19 caused services to be moved online.

The Bridge Church was planted six years ago, and the average attender is 27 years old. Most of the church community is healthy, but a growing number of people have lost a parent, relative or friend. And just about everyone has experienced the secondary disruptions caused by the virus.

“Financially, people have lost jobs; artists have lost gigs,” said Josh Edney, executive pastor of The Bridge. “Socially, those who were battling depression before, I think that has probably heightened. Spiritually, we’re waking up with fear and anxiety; we’re waking up with anguish every morning, wondering about God’s sovereignty.”

The church has responded by starting an online service, offering free virtual counseling with a pastor, creating a fund for Brooklyn residents who need financial help, and establishing a daily time for people to connect.

Each of these steps is meant to keep the church unified and focused on Jesus in the midst of a pandemic that has hit New York City harder than any other place on the planet.

‘We Couldn’t Hold Them in Our Building’

The Bridge’s first online service went live on Facebook at 4 p.m. on March 15. Before COVID-19, the church had an average of about 275 people attending services each Sunday. The first livestream has logged more than 6,000 views.

“The people who are tuning in on a Sunday and watching it—we couldn’t hold them in our building,” Edney said.

A small team has been leading worship each Sunday, which is streamed online via Facebook Live.

“We have people commenting. Somebody will jump in and say, ‘My mom is here, and it’s been 10 years since she’s stepped into a church.’ People who were skeptical about a church or people who were nervous or fearful about coming into a church, now they can watch from afar. They can check us out in a safer way,” he said.

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“These are people who might have never walked through the physical front doors of our church, but they’re walking through the online doors of our church.”

Staying Connected Online

Along with Sunday services, The Bridge quickly transitioned their mid-week city groups to an online format—a move the church had been hesitant to make before the coronavirus outbreak.

“Two or three months ago, I was turning my nose up at online groups, saying, ‘This is not real community,’” Edney said. Then he watched the church’s five in-person groups, typically held in apartments across the city, explode into 12 online groups, reaching people who didn’t participate in the past.

Small living spaces, late-night subway commutes, roommate issues—just about every barrier that once kept people out of a group—has been eliminated.

“I think a church in New York—it’s like I’m talking to myself from like a month ago—how can a church in New York City not offer online groups, given the dynamics of the city?” Edney said.

All hugs are virtual now, as city groups have moved online, resulting in more people choosing to participate.

The Bridge also rolled out Project 12:10, which is meant to foster daily connections.

“Every day we take the spirit of Romans 12:10–‘Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor,’” Edney said. “We’ve asked our church every day at 12:10 p.m. to set an alarm on your phone and call, FaceTime or text one person.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:10 p.m., one of the pastors shares a short devotional via Facebook Live. It’s one more way to stay connected in this new era of social distance. Based on the hundreds of views and comments coming in each week, the project is resonating within the church community and beyond.

“We started this church to reach people that don’t go to church,” Edney said.“We’re called Bridge Church because we want to reach people. Like a bridge will connect two parts of land, we want to be a church that reaches people.”

Praying for True Hope in NYC

As Rachel and Jason continue to praise God for three COVID-19 healings in one family, they’re praying for all the people of New York City, from those who are grieving to those who are serving the public. As they pray for healing and strength, they’re also praying that this extraordinary time in modern history will draw people to God.

“I think it’ll be impossible for people to walk away and not consider how fragile life is,” Rachel said. “I pray that this would just cause people to ask some big and difficult questions, and that God’s church would be ready and equipped to go and share the Gospel. Not to be ashamed of the truth, but to know that God’s Word, that the Gospel, is the power of God unto salvation.

“My prayer is that people would come to know Jesus as Lord, to know the true hope that is to be found in Jesus.”

Josh Edney, executive pastor of The Bridge Church NYC, conducts a baptism before the COVID-19 outbreak.