LINCOLN -- What's a pastor to do when his congregation dwindles and the church he shepherds closes its doors?
Turning his back and walking away from the faith wasn't an option for Ricky Koonz when Grace Covenant Church of Lincoln held its final service and closed in late 2022. Koonz served as pastor for six years.
Koonz said what happened differs from the public perception.
"People think it was a big falling out. It wasn't a big falling out. It just comes to a lot of people aren't going to church anymore so the attendance fell off," Koonz said.
He's quick to put a positive spin on the church closure.
"The Lord's helping us to move forward in other ministries and learning; it's a time to grow. Each one of us in the church I think has got an opportunity to grow elsewhere, which is a great thing," Koonz said.
Koonz grew up in Morrow and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1995. An electrician by trade, he got into ministry 10 years ago and was elected as chairman of the Lincoln Area Ministerial Brotherhood beginning in 2022.
Koonz still functions from a relational viewpoint. He relates to families where the husband, the bread winner, gets laid off and all of a sudden the family's without income or a single mom who finds herself in that situation.
"You might have a thought that God has forgotten you if you're in that position of being laid off or broke and you're the one providing; you might start to believe the lie that God doesn't see you but he does see you," Koonz said. "He is your provider. You will make it. Don't give up. Continue to press forward. God has got his eye on you and he loves you that much."
Churches across the nation shut their doors when governors in some states deemed them "nonessential" while implementing social distancing policies during the covid pandemic in 2020 while at the same time casinos and bars operated without restriction. Many churches shifted to conducting services on social media platforms that have since censored or even banned the broadcasts of church services.
Much of the censorship occurs over a debate over whether or not there are moral absolutes which, according to Koonz, the word of God is clear on.
"There are moral absolutes. Today's world, the culture we live in, doesn't believe that but it don't change the word of God. The word of God doesn't change to fit society. It's the same," Koonz said. "Society is veering away from the word of God because it doesn't fit their expectations of what they want for themselves, to appeal to their flesh -- so they deny that."
Koonz says there's more to church closures than the excuses offered by covid.
"Personally, I'm under the belief that, although we use covid a lot in the decline as an excuse, the truth really is I don't think people see church as valuable as they used to in today's society," Koonz said.
Churches have been hit head on with a flood of cultural things that show up throughout society, some of which Koonz said contradict the word of God. He uses a compare/contrast analogy to evaluate how a Christian should respond.
"The culture that we live in is a culture that says, 'If it makes you happy, do it. If it pleases the flesh, do it,' which is exactly contradictory to what the word of God says," Koonz said. "Our goal should always be to please him and, when we're pleasing him, our flesh isn't getting pleased. The stance I take is you have to please the Lord and the only way to do that is to serve him and obey his word."
Koonz said staying faithful presents one of the biggest challenges for today's pastors. Koonz endeavors to maintain an understanding that God works out a divine plan that may not be obvious in the face of the disappointment of dealing with a church closure or for other pastors experiencing declining attendance.
"It's not anything that I can do to make it grow, to make something happen, to fabricate, but God has to be in control and we have to let him [work out his plan]," Koonz said. 'As humans and as a pastor that's probably the biggest obstacle to try to get over."
Koonz relates to individuals who have been a part of a body of believers in a congregation and things aren't going the way the way they used to. He said they must not allow themselves to become stale or stagnant.
According to Koonz there could be a tendency for somebody just sitting in the congregation to think, "Well, I'm just a part of the church. I just come and I sit so I can easily go somewhere else." He said that's not always the solution and rarely provides the answer.
Koonz emphasizes showing the love of Christ to those who might offend them within the church house. He said this is where a Christian's responsibility starts, by showing the love of Christ and forgiveness that Christ showed mankind inside the church.
"Always look to grow in Christ, always look to grow with those that God has placed you with, and be willing to love and forgive when somebody seemingly hurts you," Koonz said. "The odds of them even knowing they hurt you are slim and if they do know it's still our responsibility to forgive and move forward."