Ministry created by tornadoes, pandemic dominate year’s top stories
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — The year 2020 began on a positive note with giving through the Cooperative Program at a high level for the first four months of the fiscal year and after a record-breaking year for gifts through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions in 2019.
Then came March — and life turned upside down, not only for the nation, but for Tennessee Baptist churches as well.
The year 2020 will forever be known for the coronavirus (COVID-19). Word began to spread toward the end of February about a virus that apparently began in China and was beginning to spread rapidly.
Chris Turner, director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, wrote the first article about COVID-19 (“Should we fear the Coronavirus?”) in the March 4 issue of the Baptist and Reflector.
The article quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (in an interview with the Washington Post). He said, “Right now, the risk to the American public is low.” As it turns out, Dr. Fauci was wrong. There have been over 300,000 deaths from COVID across the United States and more than 5,400 in Tennessee, as of mid-December.
In Turner’s March 4 article, Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB, encouraged churches to “double-down” on prevention. A list of practical tips for preventing the spread of viruses was published in the issue as well.
Davis assured Tennessee Baptists that TBMB staff “are following the issue on a daily basis and how it might impact our churches. As warranted, the TBMB will pass on practical responses in helping churches deal with a crisis.”
And, the TBMB followed through on that promise throughout 2020 through information published on the website and the Baptist and Reflector.
Tornadoes strike state
But even before the pandemic started to spread across Tennessee, Tennesseans, especially those in Middle Tennessee, were dealt a blow by tornadoes that struck much of the area in early March.
In the early morning hours of March 3, tornadoes swept through Middle Tennessee leaving behind at least 24 fatalities and a path of destruction from Benton to Putnam counties. Nashville, Mount Juliet, Lebanon and Cookeville were impacted greatly.
Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers were ready to respond at first light, said Wes Jones, TBMB disaster relief specialist.
Among the volunteers were a large contingent of volunteers from the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Tennessee Tech University. “When there’s a need, people come together in this town,” said BCM specialist Ben Maddox.
As for the destruction in Cookeville, Maddox said, “I have never seen anything this bad. Literally, total houses were removed off foundations. To hear miracle stories of how God protected some of those people is amazing,” he observed.
“Then at the same time, there are sad realities that there were other people who weren’t as fortunate who died.”
Then, in mid-April, southeast Tennessee was hit by more tornadoes, with most of the damage in the Cleveland and Chattanooga areas and surrounding communities. DR efforts there were then impacted by COVID-19 restrictions which included wearing masks and social distancing. Still, volunteers continued to mask up and meet needs.
Disaster relief continued for several months after the March and April tornadoes. In addition, Tennessee volunteers responded in record number to various hurricane responses and an ice storm in Oklahoma during the summer and early fall.
During 2020, there were 11,816 volunteer days and 103,018 volunteer hours reported, Jones said.
“This does not include much of the work teams have done locally. I know of one team that has built 30 ramps and responded to each callout we have had,” Jones said. Others have done different tree jobs and many other things to assist in their local communities, he added. “If all was recorded, we would be well over 12,000 volunteer days.”
Jones stressed that Tennessee Baptist DR “has some tremendous volunteers. Praise the Lord for what He has done through them as at least 15 people have come to know Christ as Savior.”
In an unprecedented move, TBMB leaders made a decision on March 11 to suspend the Woman’s Missionary Union’s annual Get-Together in Gatlinburg and the Youth Evangelism Conference in Nashville.
Davis stressed that the decisions were not made “lightly.” He noted that “we’ve never really seen anything like this situation, so we are plowing new territory.
Nearly two weeks later, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention announced they were canceling the annual meeting which was scheduled for June 9-10 in Orlando, Fla. Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, noted that continued uncertainty over whether large groups should gather or not prompted the decision to cancel.
Noting that SBC leaders were “faced with a decision that none of us believed we would ever face,” Floyd described the cancelation as “heartbreaking,” but added that “the reality around us nationally and globally cannot be ignored.”
The Baptist and Reflector provided numerous features, columns and other information pieces designed to help churches navigate territory that had never been traveled before.
One of the primary issues was helping churches to transition quickly from in-person services to online services.
“We are helping churches — who have never previously had online streaming — to get up and running as quickly as possible,” said Chris Turner. “It is easier than someone may think and in most cases there is no cost if you have a smart phone, a church Facebook page and an internet connection. It gives even the smallest church an unprecedented opportunity to literally preach the gospel to the whole world” (refer to the April 1, 2020 issue which contained a four-page pullout of resources for churches).
Throughout the year Davis sought to challenge and encourage Tennessee Baptists. In a March 16 conference call to pastors and later to TBMB staff, he challenged them “to look at this moment as the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to do something great for God. We will simply not do the best we can and we will not simply survive. … Our goal is more than just surviving as a ministry, but to thrive on our mission.”
TBMB staff members took to the phone and within a few months after COVID-19 hit, staff members had personally contacted every Tennessee Baptist church (more than 3,000 calls) to see how they were doing and to pray for the pastors and church leaders.
In the April 29 issue, TBMB leaders addressed the major question churches asked during the time they had to cease in-person services, “When should we open for worship?”
Davis continually stressed that the decision had to be made by each church. He encouraged churches to be prudent and to make decisions based on the best available information. Davis also encouraged churches to consider the potential risks to members and visitors, especially those who were in high risk categories, before making a decision to reopen.
Throughout the year, Tennessee Baptists learned how to continue meeting “without meeting.” Technology such as Zoom have become a part of the language that will no doubt continue in the years to come.
Also during 2020, Tennessee Baptists continued to give generously to meet missions and ministry needs in the state and around the world. At the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 31, Tennessee Baptists gave $2,824,225 through the Cooperative Program. The amount was just 2.28 percent below the budget goal.
Davis noted that when COVID-19 first hit, leadership was prepared to see a dip of 20 to 40 percent in CP gifts. Instead, “during this year of global pandemic and economic shutdown, our missions and ministry glass is right at 98 percent filled. Praise the Lord.”
In addition, Tennessee Baptists gave a record $1,948,324 to the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions during the pandemic. “This is a miraculous testimony to the generosity of folks in our churches, even in the midst of a global pandemic,” Davis said.
Other news of note in 2020
- Racial tension in the United States. The death of George Floyd in Minnesota in May brought increasing awareness to calls for the end of “racial inequality in the distribution of justice in our country.” TBMB staff members Ternae Jordan, Charles Grant and Thomas Bester jointly wrote a column in the June 10 issue of the B&R noting that “something must come from this moment that changes the future.” In addition, Jordan and Murfreesboro pastor Grant Gaines held a “barbershop conversation” during the Virtual Summit in November that focused on the topic of racial justice.
- Tennessee Baptists dedicated the Janet Bearden Welcome Center at Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center on July 25.
- The Baptist and Reflector celebrated its 185th anniversary with a special edition on Aug. 19. The B&R is one of the longest continually published newspapers in the country.
- Amid COVID-19 concerns, directors of the TBMB, officers of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the convention’s Committee on Arrangements voted overwhelmingly Aug. 27 to “postpone indefinitely” the annual meeting (Summit), scheduled for Nov. 8-11 at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood.
- Tennessee Baptist DR recorded the 250th response in its 42-year history when volunteers responded in November to an ice storm in Oklahoma.
- Tennessee Baptists held its first ever Virtual Summit on Nov. 10. According to an early estimate, more than 2,000 viewers watched the livestream of the Summit. That number does not include those who downloaded the video and watched it later.
- The board of directors of the TBMB met Nov. 11 via Zoom and adopted a $35 million Cooperative Program allocation budget. The directors acted as Convention ad interim, in accordance to the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s Constitution and Bylaws.
- On Dec. 2, Randy C. Davis released a column on the B&R website (later published in the Dec. 30 issue) in which he proclaimed “there is absolutely no denominational hierarchy when it comes to the Southern Baptist Convention.” Davis wrote the column in response to an amicus brief signed on to by the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which said a denominational hierarchy existed in the convention.
In a letter to Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, Davis wrote that he was “deeply distressed that our Southern Baptist polity, our historical practice and our SBC constitutionally-protected relationships were so blatantly misstated and misrepresented.” The ERLC filed the amicus brief on behalf of the North American Mission Board which is involved in a lawsuit with Will McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.
The ERLC later issued an apology and an explanation for why they filed the amicus brief.
- Also, in December, the TBMB announced that Tennessee Baptists had contributed 5,826 Christmas Backpacks filled with school supplies, hygiene supplies and other items to be distributed to low income families around the state. The number was a slight increase over last year’s total which made it even more amazing, said Joe Sorah, compassion ministries specialist for the TBMB.
“For us to see these numbers, with all that has gone on in 2020, is just amazing. It is further proof of how much Tennessee Baptists care about impoverished children in Tennessee,” he said.
— This story also includes reporting by Chris Turner, David Dawson and Baptist Press.