COVID-19. Until a few months ago, I hadn’t heard this name. Now I’d like to forget it! But COVID-19 hasn’t been all bad for our churches. In fact, I’m asking the question, “Could COVID-19 usher in an era of church growth”? It has the potential to do that, and based on another terrible pandemic our nation faced in 1918, it may do just that. I am praying that history repeats itself. Let me explain.
In 1918-1919, Americans faced the Spanish Flu pandemic. Over 50 million people died worldwide. The death toll was very high here in America. Spanish Flu ravaged our country and many other nations. Here is what the CDC reports about this pandemic:
The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html).
The SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) Connection
My denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, held an annual meeting in 1919 just like it does today every year. The Book of Reports from that convention can be found online in digital format. It is fascinating to read what the Convention reported in regards to the affect of the Spanish Flu on the SBC and its Sunday Schools. My colleague, Dwayne McCrary, had the forethought to go and see what was reported, and I took a look at the 1919 report, too. Here is what Dr. I.J. Van Ness told the SBC delegates who met in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1919:
“At the very time of greatest stress came the epidemic of influenza, and this was perhaps the most far-reaching hindrance to Sunday-school work which has been known in a generation…The influence of the epidemic stayed with us through December, but the bright sun-shiny months of the opening year gave reassurance. Our Sunday schools rallied, business became more normal, conditions improved, and the working force of the Board resumed its normal operations. We had anticipated that it would take many months for the Sunday schools to rally, but they came back in March. There flowed in a steady stream of orders, which indicated that the Sunday-school hosts were well organized, full of purpose, and had rallied themselves. As a result, the year, which had been so trying for many months, ended full of hope and promise.” (pp.449-450)
This is an encouraging report about the country’s resilience and fortitude. America came through a terrible two-year period in which many citizens died. Many more survived. And as Dr. Van Ness reported, things began to return to normal, churches rebounded, and Sunday Schools began thriving in the wake of a terrible pandemic. The country was hopeful and it was healing in 1919. And then there came 1920 and the man, Arthur Flake.
The Arthur Flake Connection
In 1919 America was recovering from the Spanish Flu and almost 700,000 deaths. As things began to return to normal, Arthur Flake was hired by the Sunday School Board in 1920, right on the heels of the Spanish Flu. It would be a new day for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Arthur Flake is known to many of us as “the Father of the Sunday School movement.” He was hired by the Sunday School Board (now called LifeWay Christian Resources) to train church leaders and provide leadership to the brand new Sunday School department. He became a prolific writer whose books set the standards for Sunday Schools in the Southern Baptist Convention. He led that department until 1936, and ushered in an era of growth that fueled the SBC for decades.
As the Spanish Flu ravaged the country, people returned to church. They returned to Bible study groups. Churches needed trained workers because of the renewed interest in spiritual matters on the part of untold Americans. Arthur Flake helped churches prepare to assimilate millions of new people into their congregations. His method for doing that? Sunday School. Bible study groups. Smaller gatherings of people within the church. Call it what you will, it was these smaller Bible study groups with trained workers that help spread the gospel, teach the Bible, and assimilate spiritually hungry people into the church.
Might history repeat? I hope it does. It already looks like it may. I hope the trend we see today during COVID-19 with more people participating in online worship, and in online Bible study groups, continues. As a people, we tend to turn to God during times of upheaval. When we feel unsure and not in control, God uses that to draw people to Himself. People return. New people discover the Lord. May history repeat!
COVID-19 is bad, but it’s not all bad.