Steve and his small church stay connected when forced apart

When they are allowed to meet on a Sunday, the congregation is small at Calvary Baptist Church, Wamberal, on the New South Wales Central Coast.

On a full week, there are 25 people, and the average age is about 70. Perhaps your church community is similar, where half of your core membership are widows or widowers who live alone.

“In lockdown, they are completely isolated, so that’s been a challenge for them,” says minister Steve Mayo about the Calvary congregation being caught up in the latest Sydney COVID crisis.

“Many of them, their children and extended family are on the Northern Beaches [Sydney] – and when that area was locked down at Christmas, it was like they were locked down too.”

Being back under ‘Stay at Home’ orders once again is a big blow to the Calvary flock, then. “It is,” Mayo simply agrees, “but they are taking it patiently and they encourage one another, and they encourage us. They post comments on the [sermons] and they share them around.”

Before the COVID pandemic and the on-again, off-again, on-again restrictions on places of worship, Calvary Baptist was one of Australia’s small, local churches that virtually did nothing online. It had a website and Facebook page but the prime channel for regular communication was the monthly newsletter that was printed and handed out.

Now, it’s a different communication story, as many other church families are experiencing across NSW – and again in Victoria this weekend, due to its latest snap lockdown.

“There is a bright side to the pandemic, but we’ll be glad when we see the other side.” – Steve Mayo

With in-person Sunday Services not allowed and a tight cap on household visitors, the Calvary congregation has had to return again to the adjusted ways it has stayed connected throughout the pandemic.

Mayo – who has been a minister for 40 years – taught himself basic skills to use video editing software, records his sermon with his phone and adds other elements including music that his family helps him put together. It is intentionally filmed so that Mayo is inviting the Calvary family into his own home, but these videos are not the extent of this congregation’s regular contact throughout lockdown.

Three of Calvary’s leaders have divided the congregation between them and they call each church member every week (at least). Mayo sends two emails and a text per week to every member, who also are in steady contact with each other.

Being part of the Calvary flock really does help this tight-knit Christian community to cope with lockdown, says Mayo. They build on existing bonds and don’t allow physical distance to smash their fellowship: “They are well connected with one another … The people have good, strong relationships.”

In sharp contrast to the stereotype of a regional congregation of older members who only show up on Sunday out of habit, not personal investment, Mayo says Calvary Baptists “love being together” as fellow believers. He has even noticed that after periods of lockdown, there are higher levels of church attendance, as well as a big increase in volunteers for the monthly working bees.

“There is a bright side to the pandemic, but we’ll be glad when we see the other side,” jokes Mayo with seriousness.

Another bright side for Calvary Baptist is how their numbers swelled notably from 18 to 25 last year when four couples joined after finding the church online. That’s right – being forced to have a greater online presence by the pandemic helped Calvary to grow.

“Helping out” is how Mayo describes his involvement at Calvary Baptist for six years, but that’s an understatement. Having been the weekly preacher at Calvary for five years – commuting with his wife Sue from their Sydney home – Mayo agreed to take on a “leadership role” last year.

“I can’t imagine how bad it would be without the Lord.” – Steve Mayo

Originally from Michigan, USA, Mayo and his wife Sue moved to Australia 24 years ago to plant a church at Erskine Park, Sydney, with the international mission organisation ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelism).

Did we mention that Mayo’s full-time job is as ABWE’s Asia Pacific Regional Director? He oversees church planting teams in eight countries in the Asia Pacific region but Mayo offers no suggestion that his service at Calvary Baptist is a burden.

He’s pained that he cannot connect in-person with the small but faithful congregation, yet he describes still feeling intimately united with them – due to the hope they all share.

“We’re thankful that we’ve got the Lord and no-one is truly in isolation because the Lord is always present,” says Mayo.

“I can’t imagine how bad it would be without the Lord. We know he is always present and he hears us and his grace is sufficient, and that’s being proved out during this testing time of the pandemic.”

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