Celebrating its seventh year as a church during a worldwide pandemic was the last thing on the minds of Pastor Michael S. Carlton and Bloom Church of Branson, Missouri. This was a small community of faith that began with 21 people and now blooms upward to 2,000 worshippers each weekend over two campuses. Yet Michael’s high octane personality and love for people couldn’t have better prepared their church for life amid COVID-19.
“A normal Sunday, not a special event Sunday, we’re running about 1,500,” Michael said. “We now have 2,000 to 3,000 unique users online, and we’re hitting about 9,000 to 10,000 times a service has been viewed on various platforms.”
Michael’s team, since the distancing measures went into place, has worked extremely hard to not only make their online church experience more engaging and enriching, they’ve also worked around the clock to find ways to serve and engage their community throughout the week. Michael explained that the work has been tiresome, but his people have been filled with so much joy doing Kingdom work.
“This is why we are leaders. If you can only lead in the good times, then that’s what everybody does.”—Michael Carlton
“It’s busy, but morale is high,” Michael explained. “Our church morale is high, and everyone feels like they’re clicking. The fact that we’re so out there in the community, it’s been such a faith booster for our church.”
When asked about the church leadership’s initial reaction to COVID-19 and the tasks required to properly care for their community, Michael enthusiastically remarked that they seemed to have been set up for a time like this.
“This is why we are leaders. If you can only lead in the good times, then that’s what everybody does,” Michael said. “It gives us the opportunity to rally troops. My personal opinion is, people don’t need to know that you know all the answers, but they need to know that you have a thought process of where you’re going. So immediately, we were asking, ‘What would it look like only online for the next four to five months?’”
Phase 1: Producing Interactive Content
Michael’s team tackled the pandemic in phases. He knew the task was already overwhelming, so the leadership team at Bloom had to find ways to ease the pressures of their response to the crisis. Michael attributes the joy in serving to the church’s ability to phase their responses and to provide a near stress-free experience.
Bloom Church started phase 1 of their pandemic response by developing online content that was intentionally engaging. Rather than creating videos for pure viewership, Bloom produced content that required viewer participation.
“Knowing people are stuck at home, we started saying, ‘First off, they need hope, and they need practical conversation,’” Michael explained. “We started putting up morning devotionals for people to follow along with, but also practical conversations we called Table Talks.”
Table Talks is a series of daily videos that inspires, challenges, and empowers people in various areas of life. Each day has a different theme, and each video runs anywhere between five to ten minutes long. They’ve addressed issues ranging from parenting to mental health and spiritual disciples from discipleship to prayer. Michael commented that Bloom Church and the larger community are receiving more daily care and more interaction with the staff than before the pandemic hit.
Phase 2: Distributing Hope & Resources
Phase 2 for the church’s response to the health crisis focused on tangible acts of service. Once the leadership dialed in their level of pastoral care for its members and with their cups overflowing with godly love, Michael said they were ready to hit the ground running to serve the greater community.
“About 75% to 80% of my people are in the service industry, so they’re going to go jobless,” Michael said. He also noted that there are many people being rejected for food stamps. “Immediately I got on the phone with Convoy of Hope and got a semi-truck full of goods sent to our church within a week.”
Convoy of Hope is a faith-based, nonprofit organization based out of Springfield, Missouri that offers children’s feeding initiatives, community outreaches, and disaster response. After teaming with Convoy of Hope to provide resources for a great number of people who were affected by the crisis, Michael and his team started dreaming bigger. They began considering ways that their church could become a place of hope, where the community could receive practical care.
“We started strategically putting together a plan on being a distribution center,” Michael said. “I wanted to become a distribution center of hope for our community.”
“I think we can become so event driven as a church, not on purpose, not with bad hearts, but you forget that we’re pastors and that we shepherd people.”—Michael Carlton
Bloom Church began collecting goods and enlisting the help of its members. They started stockpiling perishable and nonperishable foods, as well as paper products and other practical items of need. Michael’s dreams of being a place of hope was immediately unfolding as soon as he gave the vision to his team.
“We started by sending out what we’ve called Boxes of Hope,” Michael explained with excitement. “We’ve sent out boxes to 300 different families in the last week and a half, and we’re just pumping them out.”
And just like that, Boxes of Hope was birthed.
“I partnered with one of my pastors out in New Jersey,” Michael said. “And we actually created a national website and organization.”
The vision for Boxes of Hope is simply “to see hope spread faster than COVID-19.” According to its website, Boxes of Hope is a tangible way to stretch out a hand to those who are affected either through illness, quarantine, or the uncertainty of this pandemic. It goes on to say that “the world all around us may change, but God’s love remains the same, and this is the hope that we have to share.”
Since its inception, Boxes of Hope has been able to maintain a distribution average that has matched its early grassroots efforts. They’ve seen roughly 300 families each week and have blessed each one with food, paper products, and inspirational print material. Their volunteers are also held to a high standard of personal health and hygiene. They each wear gloves and masks while working. No more than 10 volunteers are packing at one time and are stationed at least 8 feet apart. Michael also said that each item that’s placed in the boxes is wiped down with disinfectant before packing.
Phase 3: Engaging Every Member
Phase 3 of Bloom Church’s response to COVID-19 was the details of their Sunday online church experience.
“People aren’t going to watch church on Sunday the way they’re going to watch it online,” Michael said. “So every week we tinkered with it a little bit more. How can we make it a little more engaging?”
In an effort to be more engaging and more impactful, the church decided to scrap the typical format of four worship songs and 45-minute sermon. They began breaking up the song set and weaving them throughout the service to create a better flow more conducive to screen viewership.
“I’ve started shifting, and we’re not even filming on site,” Michael explained. “I’m going to different locations. I was on a boat in a lake filming for Easter. We’re trying to make our online experience more engaging.”
“The world all around us may change, but God’s love remains the same, and this is the hope that we have to share.”
Bloom Church has also been more intentional about making personal phone calls throughout the week to each of its members. Each of their staff members is checking in with their members every day and spending time praying with them over the phone. They’ve also implemented virtual life groups to keep their membership engaged.
“The shift is a good one. I think we can become so event driven as a church, not on purpose, not with bad hearts, but you forget that we’re pastors and that we shepherd people,” Michael commented.
In many ways, Bloom Church has found it easy to get acclimated to their “new normal.” They’ve developed healthy rhythms of humanitarian efforts, as well as spiritual fulfillment. They’ve discovered joy amid the hard work of caring for people in crisis. To be able to serve and provide hope to people is where his elation comes from.
“The goods are great, and they need the goods, but the fact that someone said, ‘I see you,’ changes everything,” Michael said.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve called, and they start crying just because I called them,” he continued. “And they just can’t believe I’m reaching out to them.”
The Church Together
Bloom Church has also begun to plan for life after the dust of COVID-19 has settled. They’re already thinking long-term and what the church at large is going to look like. Michael has realized that the church is primed to truly be a shining light for people of all walks of life.
“If anything, this should cause the church to quit competing with each other and start completing each other,” Michael said. “We’re the body of Christ, and if we’re going to be what God called us to be, we have to be a united church, the big C church. We’ve got to be the church together in this time. And if we are, we’ll come out stronger, not weaker, at the end of it.”