Beyond the pews and pulpits: Churches adapt to the coronavirus

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“Church isn’t the building, the church is the people.”

That’s the position Jason Williams and many pastors across Harnett County took in the face of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams, who co-pastors with his wife Joanne at Hood Memorial Christian Church, decided to approach the current crisis in a creative and innovative way that ensures the needs of his congregation are met. With large public gatherings prohibited for the time being, Williams embarked on an ambitious technological endeavor that reaches his community while keeping people safe and mitigating any spread of the coronavirus.

Hood Memorial offered teleconferencing, as well as Facebook Live, to its congregation in an effort to deliver worship services without forcing people to expose themselves to large groups. Through a simple phone call, people had the opportunity to receive audio and video of Sunday’s service.

“With the technology we have today there are a lot of ways we can gather together even if not in physical person,” Williams said. “Some times we can become complacent in the ways we’ve always done things. It takes something like this for us to get creative and innovative. This may be a time of darkness, but the church is going to shine brighter than ever.”

Teleconferencing also expanded the daily reach of the church. Williams started conducting a teleconference every day at noon, offering prayer as well as resource and information sharing.

“We’re trying to offer encouragement and support and information,” said Williams. “We’re sharing the latest and most accurate information that we have about this COVID-19 pandemic because there is so much misinformation out there for folks who are concerned.”

In addition to the religious services, Williams said the church also is focused on providing for the congregation’s seniors. The church urged members over 65 to stay at home and called on healthy people under 50 to help out with running errands for those at greater risk of COVID-19 exposure.

“It’s a way we can protect those folks who are more at risk than the rest of us,” Williams said. “We’ve tried to open avenues for resource sharing. We know folks are going to retail stores and not finding the basic items they need, like cleaning supplies. We’ve invited folks to call and let us know that they can’t find something so we can engage the congregation to see if someone could share.”

A family event offered in the past could evolve into a new way of delivering Sunday services. Hood Memorial scheduled a service for this weekend that resembles a typical drive-in movie. Visitors can pull into the parking lot and never leave their vehicle as church leaders conduct service. Audio is available through a limited FM signal and pre-packaged communion will be offered.

“We hope it goes off well and smoothly,” said Williams. “It’s hard to anticipate because some folks don’t want to get out at all where some are antsy to get out. We’re hoping folks in the community will take advantage of this and be a part of a time where we’re going to be together.”

Like his contemporary, Josh Brown, co-pastor at Gospel Tabernacle, decided to approach the epidemic creatively. Gospel Tabernacle plans to offer a drive-thru prayer service on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. were people can pull up in their vehicle and have a staff member come out and pray with them. Sunday school follows with an online class with a livestream of the worship service after that. Brown said the church will forgo Wednesday night gathering for the time being.

“We are going to follow the recommendations of the governor, but we’re going to be creative about it,” Brown said. “We did live service this past week and nearly 1,700 people logged on for a minute or longer. We suspect that probably a third to half of those watched with another person. We typically have 400 viewers on a Sunday. We were able to minister to even more people than we do on a typical Sunday, it was just a different platform.”

While Gospel Tabernacle essentially closed its main office to the public due to a large volume of daily foot traffic, members continue their efforts to meet the needs of senior citizens. The church did have to close its daycare, but could find itself caring for the children of local hospital staff at Betsy Johnson.

“The hospital reached out to us and asked if we would be willing to be a daycare location for their workers,” said Brown. “They have nearly 1,000 employees at Betsy Johnson and they’ve asked to use our facility as kind of a babysit location. We’ve agreed to do that but I don’t know when that will start. That will just be for workers at Betsy Johnson.”

Pastor Floyd Ray with Midway Area Churches chose a more down-to-earth approach in an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy. Ray plans to follow all safety precautions, but felt like it’s important for people to go out and fellowship during difficult times.

“We’re going to be fine,” Ray said. “If you quit everything you’d be at a standstill. You’ve got to move. You’ve got to work and pay your bills. It doesn’t make sense in my book. We’ve still got to do church. Restaurants, churches close up, people out of their job, they can’t buy groceries, they can’t pay their bills, it’s crazy.”

Ray said he expects people will need to keep their distance and avoid physical contact during the service, but services are expected to continue.

“Everybody needs to pray and God’s people need to come together,” said Ray. “All this other crazy stuff don’t make no sense, not in my book. Nobody here is sick so we can come and not touch. We’ve still got to do church.”

Pastors face unprecedented times right now, and are finding outside-of-the-box solutions.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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