Reverend Arthur Jones sits in the emptiness of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano on a Friday. Churches are not normally hubs of activity on Fridays, but the past year established something of an enduring, prominent emptiness for the freshly finished church building as a result of COVID-19. It’s a feeling many churches throughout the nation felt when March 2020 redefined what community, fellowship, and worship in a church setting would look like for a while.
But the conviction to serve one another — for Rev. Jones and many in his congregation of over 7,000 — rooted itself even more deeply as they learned to navigate 2020.
“There was nothing easy. But we’re not guaranteed easy.” Rev. Jones says.
Rev. Jones, a 5th generation Methodist minister, reveals that one of his favorite passages of Scripture is the account in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 11, where Jesus curses a fruitless fig tree he and his disciples encounter on the road leaving Jerusalem.
“The tree is out of season, and Jesus curses it anyway,” Rev. Jones says. “When my grandfather preached a sermon on this, his message was that being out of season is not an excuse to not bear fruit. And I think that’s what this last two years has been a lesson in.”
He reflects that it hasn’t been a conventional season for church gatherings, or for a lot of in-person community, or for the typical American church standard of doing things. “But that’s not an excuse to stop what we’re doing. Not ‘doing church’ is not an option.”
The “new” building of St. Andrew United Methodist Church is a year old. The “new” senior pastor, Rev. Arthur Jones — who arrived 11 years ago and is only now the second senior pastor in the 35-year history of the church — began a reinvention of the church’s presence in Plano.
This presence that’s been further redefined over the last 18 months will finally culminate into the 35th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, August 15, 2021.
This was a dedication and celebration that was originally meant to happen on March 22, 2020 — the day the church had to shut down.
“We had just spent years building the new Storehouse of Collin County space, the new students space, and an indoor children’s playground, and we were like, nine days away from dedicating this new space. Then we couldn’t use it all year,” Rev. Jones recalls. “We’d also hired new staff. We geared up for this new St. Andrew… and then we had to shut down. So we just kept reinventing throughout the last year.”
It’s difficult not to acknowledge the friction from within the faith community over COVID-19’s affect on the church experience with every new guideline the CDC rolled out over the last year and change.
Efforts such as mask policies and social distancing discouraged gatherings for worshiping in church. All of these restrictions garnered intense defiance from prominent faith leaders such as John MacArthur and Sean Feucht.
Most churches, however, adopted some form of caution in their practices, as well as assurance that their congregations’ health would be looked out for as best as possible — even if not everyone agreed whether that caution was merited.
“St. Andrew is a large church, so we have a lot of opinions in it,” Rev. Jones says after taking a long, careful breath. “A long-standing framework of St. Andrew is that we’re high on Jesus and low on politics. We try to keep the focus where the focus ought to be. We’re trying to stay open, we’re trying to keep everyone together, we’re trying to change the world… and we’re trying to do it with everyone here. That’s difficult in a world that’s become so politicized. But I care way more about Jesus than I do about politics, and I care way more about loving my neighbor than I care about politics.”
Like many churches, St. Andrew found ways to reinvent their community outreach and presence creatively. They live-streamed its sermons and hosted online Bible studies. The pastors within the church couldn’t do their regular hospital visits anymore, so they implemented a phone tree approach to call every member attending St. Andrew to check up on and minister to them.
Fun annual holiday events stayed as intact as possible to suit the needed safety and health precautions. For Christmas, St. Andrew transformed its entire church campus into an outdoor light show and showed a screening of a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
For Easter, the church hosted a socially distanced Easter egg hunt on the ballpark of Frisco RoughRiders stadium.
Yet perhaps the most impactful community-oriented ministry offering that was born from COVID-19 was the renewed presence of the Storehouse of Collin County — at a time this community has likely never needed it more.
“One of the best things that St. Andrew has ever done was to launch the Storehouse,” Rev. Jones says. “I’m just glad our building got done right before COVID hit.”
The Storehouse of Collin County was initially founded as Seven Loaves Food PAntry in 2009 by Sharon Hasley with the support of St. Andrew as an outside 501c3 non-profit, but housed at the church. Later, the Joseph’s Coat clothing project and the Project Hope relational program were added. The Storehouse’s mission is to “feed, clothe, and care as neighbors in one community.”
The space opened February, 2020. And according to Candace Winslow, executive director of The Storehouse of Collin County, the space and its service was going to be used and run in a completely different model than that which the pandemic would soon establish.
“We were going to have neighbors walk through part of the dry pantry, and they were gonna wait, get checked in at the lobby, etc.,” Candace says. “And I kid you not, in 24 hours [during March 2020] we had to re-engineer the whole process. We had no idea what we were facing, so we went to this complete outdoor model. Slowly but surely, we improved it. And then we realized it was so much faster, and more efficient, to do it in the model we’re doing now. So this is how we’re going to be forever, which is really a blessing.”
St. Andrew continues to house and support The Storehouse while it “finds additional sponsors and continues to grow outside of us,” according to Rev. Jones.
“It’s creating and finding partnerships like the Storehouse where we get to leverage everything we do for a better world, that makes it a huge joy for us.”
Rev. Jones has published a new book called Solid Souls through the publishing wing of the church, Invite Resources (also established during the pandemic!)
The basic message in Solid Souls is simple and powerful – “Your small, everyday choices have eternal effect.”
“The book is something I’ve been working on for a long time,” Rev. Jones says. “It’s my basic belief that you and I get to choose Heaven or not, every day. You don’t get to choose your circumstances, you do get to choose how you engage in them, and whether or not we choose something better.”
Rev. Jones wrote with his perspective drawn not just from working and parenting two toddlers in the middle of the pandemic, but from his time having worked with ZOE Ministry, a foundation that empowers orphans in Africa (also a program of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church).
“The orphans who are told they’re loved and are children of God, and are given means to support themselves and care for other orphans, hold their heads higher than any of the kids in the village,” Rev. Jones says. “They know that they didn’t get to choose where they were. The truth is, none of us do. What matters is what you do with that moment.”
Establishing Invite Resources to publish this book, and other resources yet to come, was part of the unprecedented reinvention of the church’s ministry and presence.
“I’ve been around large churches and the publishing world for a long time, and I wanted a model that fits our values,” Rev. Jones says. “We created the new publishing wing of St. Andrew to align with building together for the kingdom of heaven. I’m not getting paid for the book. Every square inch of our building, every mission of ministry, every dollar that comes in, goes back into missions ministry.”
A Building Refilled
Now, St. Andrew United Methodist Church prepares to welcome people to breathe life into its halls and sanctuary once more.
At the St. Andrew’s 35th Anniversary Celebration and Open House, church members and guests got to tour the church’s 21-acre campus, the indoor childrens’ play area themed like a storybook, the student center with basketball courts and hangout areas, and the stunning amphitheater-style sanctuary where modern meets classic (the organ and stained glass make for an incredible centerpiece in the worship space).
It was the first time the church had the full chancel choir back in traditional worship. A new hymn was introduced that was commissioned for the 35th anniversary of the first worship service of St. Andrew United Methodist Church, and in recognition of the servant ministry of the church’s founding pastor, Rev. Robert Hasley.
The hymn was titled, “In the Search for Open Spaces,” and the congregation sang it together for the first time at the celebration.
Rev. Jones looks at the celebration behind them and the year ahead of them with gratitude, hope, and caution in light of the new variants of the virus.
“I’m looking to continue the relationships and the missions that we’ve done, start new ones, and continue to leverage everything we have, for a better world,” he says. “And for people to live better lives, found in Jesus.”