College Church

Virtual Tour

College Church’s congregation attending a Sunday service outdoors in the back of the church.

Two students sat in a room. It wasn’t just any room, though. It was an online Zoom personal meeting room. Soon after, a third participant appeared, a pastor. Pastor Bill Hodgeman of College Church, a non-denominational church with evangelical roots in Northampton, Massachusetts, was there to converse with and explain to us, the students, how the church is adapting to the current global pandemic. Social isolation is central to staying safe in the pandemic, but the pastor told us all about how the community provided at a church is so central to so many people, especially during times like this. College Church has always been dedicated to bringing people together, and through many initiatives, programs, and planning, they are continuing to foster their sense of community despite the difficulty. 

During the pandemic, there are numerous interactions that would normally take place that no longer do. In our interview with him, the pastor reminisced about the little things– bumping into someone in the Fellowship Hall, sharing a coffee, or lingering in the parking lot after worship to chat. In addition to these smaller interactions, the deeper ties between members of the church have become harder to maintain. College Church has a program that the pastor refers to as one of the “heartbeats” of the church: small groups of about 8 to 30 people. In these groups, people share meals, discuss scripture, and find their place in the community. Although some have continued to gather outdoors, many have not. Community is absolutely central to College Church, and as can be seen through how they have adapted to the difficult circumstances, they have been putting in a lot of effort to maintain it. The pastor mentioned how one of the first statements by God in the book of Genesis is that it was not good for the man to be alone. At the same time, College Church is dedicated to keeping every person safe. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one they have put a lot of thought and effort into. 

In their commitment to safety, College Church immediately closed its church office in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, stopping all gatherings, moving leadership meetings online, shifting to online services, and re-purposing its custodial staff. In the spring of 2020, the church pulled together a task force to plan accordingly and put ideas into action. Because the church is an independent church, leadership took cues from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. College Church also consulted medical professionals, community leaders, and project managers to develop a plan that would be compliant with local and state guidelines. The church shifted to online services and later, socially distanced outdoor services. 

Of course online and socially distanced services were not all the church needed to do. They needed to maintain the community they had before the pandemic and keep anyone from being left behind. Just before interviewing Pastor Bill Hodgeman, he sent us a document that outlined the church’s pandemic response. To say the least, it was extensive. There were 40 different bullet points, each outlining a unique idea, initiative, or program. Patio gatherings to keep people connected, care packages for families with children and the vulnerable, creating online gatherings for the small 8 to 30 person groups, a campaign for a “Gentle Answer” in these polarizing times, promoting radical generosity, and numerous supports for wider community organizations like nursing homes, children’s and educational organizations, and social services are among the examples. 

Through planning, care, and creativity, College Church has created a space and community to help its members through these isolating times. The key to balancing the difficult act that the church has employed is physical distance, but not social distance. Utilization of technology and community networks have proven to be the most important aspects of surviving this, and creativity has been necessary. Going forward, the pastor said the church will be more creative after this experience. He believes that, across America, technology is heavily underutilized in churches. College Church plans on continuing its online services even after the pandemic to be able to reach a larger audience. The church continues to allocate resources towards the community and has adapted unique methods to unify its members. Although the events of 2020 have brought on hardship for religious institutions like College Church, the creativity incited will create lasting changes that can promote the community atmosphere the church is so dedicated to. 

A virtual service from Sunday, November 22, 2020. Notably, due to increased COVID cases going into November, the church switched from hybrid in-person outdoor services/online services to completely online services, as seen in the video.