As a child, Tolan Morgan, after hearing his father preach at church, would come home and take the garden hose and use the end of it as his microphone. In his mind’s eye, he could see the audience, hear the organ and the chorus of amen, amen — but he was having “church” all by himself in his driveway. Little did he know that preaching in his driveway was preparing him for what he’s experiencing during the shutdown of the church during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before I was preaching to somebody, I was preaching to nobody,” Pastor Morgan said. “I had the whole church in my head. It’s interesting how history is not behind the future, it’s actually ahead of the future. It prepares you for the future. That part of it, from a substance standpoint, I was OK with. But from my ego, and from my own psychology, it has been an adjustment. Once you actually yield to God and do what he wants you to do, the purpose of it is to glorify him and impact people. So, when you take the people away, that poses a psychological challenge. I wasn’t called to preach to empty chairs. God doesn’t call anybody to preach to an empty room.
“No. 1, preaching in the African-American tradition is not designed for this. This is not how we do this — at all. Preaching in the African American tradition is a ‘call and response’ event. Whether you are Church Of God (COG), Baptist, Apostolic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist; if you are black in a Christian church, unless you go to a Catholic church, that worship experience is a call and response event. This (preaching to an empty church) was not designed for black preaching at all. However, if God really called you to preach, you should have been preaching to nobody before you were preaching to somebody.”
Pastor Morgan reflected on adjustments to his preaching style. “It has been a psychological adjustment, No. 1, and No. 2, it’s has been a pace adjustment, because when people are there responding, there is room in the sermon for their response. There are fillers that naturally come with the preaching congregation dynamic. And those fillers are gone. The approvals are gone. The amens are gone. The pushing the preacher is gone. The visible sign they are understanding and receiving The Word is gone. There is no praise. There is no worship. There is no corporate gathering.”
Pastor Morgan also said there is another aspect of having an empty church for a pastor: Grief. “If I am Willie Reid, who has spent a majority of his ministry building a church — a physical building that glorifies God and brings in people, and then all of a sudden, you turn the switch and now there’s no people to put in this building and I’ve spent my life manifesting this vision for people to be in this building, there is a degree of disappointment and frustration.”
Fellowship Bible Baptist Church ceased live Sunday services beginning with the March 15 service and transitioned to its digital platforms before any state or local edicts to do so. Pastor Morgan realized how vulnerable his congregation was to the COVID-19 virus. “For me this was not (closing the church) a difficult decision, it was a cumulative decision. We’ve got people, former veterans, whose bodies are compromised in a multiplicity of ways, and we have a significant portion of our congregation that fits the most vulnerable demographic (to the virus).”
Pastor Morgan explained that after we come through all of this, we’re going to need counseling. “Our people are going to have to talk to somebody. Your loved ones have died, you couldn’t get to them. You have stressed out during this season because you have lost employment and don’t know if you’re going to get it back, but you still gotta to live every day. All of those dynamics are the real symptoms of this matter. It really exposes, what was our lives before?”
During this time FBBC has stepped up. Ship TV was born and has featured the women, men’s and youth ministries, a look at the board of directors of FBBC, four pastors to talk about how to get through this pandemic, “Ask the Doctor” featuring FBBC’s own Dr. Samuel Palmer answering COVID related questions and another segment with members of FBBC who have survived COVID-19. All of this, though electronically, has kept FBBC members — and plenty of guests (Sunday services during April averaged 2,298 viewers in 50 states and 10 foreign countries) connected.
Pastor Morgan explained that Ship TV was not about entertainment, but for ministry and information. “Our people have a very serious fear factor,” Pastor Morgan said. “The African American community trust their churches more than the government. One group has been our oppressors, the other a lifeline. Which one do you think they’ll go to?”
Pastor Morgan said, God has put people in Fellowship who have been able to marry skill and ministry. “All of our staff — these people are otherworldly. They never missed a beat, and God has kept us to the point where we could keep them and work them, and still be able to do what we need to do. It has been an expression of God’s favor.”
Pastor Morgan unlocked the secret for survival for other ministries. “Your church will survive this season — depending on what your church does — during this season. About two or three weeks into this season, I resolved that we were just going to take a hit. And during taking the hit, the focus shifted to what can we do for people while taking the hit. Don’t worry about the money, as long as we are still reaching out to people, doing what we can, within this context, to help people, that’s where my head has been.”
FBBC deacons have delivered food to people’s homes and ministered to bereaved families and served food to the third shift at Houston Healthcare. If you’ve been concerned about people, Pastor Morgan said, “God will take care of you, he’ll take care of them, just feed my sheep. Make them the focus.
Written by Charles E. Richardson