Over the years, Pastor Michael Jordan of Mount Vernon Baptist Church has preached that a church is not a building – it’s the people of God.
This COVID-19 isolation “is the best opportunity I’ve ever seen in my lifetime to see how this works out in practice,” he said.
Since health officials have deemed it not safe for large groups to meet, Jordan has come up with a new type of workshop service: a drive-in, like the old form of showing movies outdoors.
The congregation would stay in their parked cars instead of going inside the sanctuary. He would stay on the steps of the church to lead the service. A form of technology would make it all possible.
“I have ordered this piece of equipment that looks pretty simple to me,” he said. “The way I understand it: Put a microphone to this piece of equipment. It will broadcast on an FM signal, like drive-through movies do. We’ll invite people to come here into the parking lot on Sunday morning and stay in their cars. Hopefully that’s enough social distance for us.”
That first 11 a.m. Sunday service will be quite an experiment, he said.
“We’re going to … try to sing some songs, do prayer requests. Instead of people yelling them out to me, I’ll invite them to text them to my phone.”
During the time of greeting, when people normally walk around to chat and hug each other, members will wave to each other from their cars, he said.
That’s just one of many alternatives area churches are coming up with in response to government recommendations of avoiding crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 12, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia, and on Tuesday he and State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver issued a public health emergency order banning more than 10 patrons in restaurants, fitness centers and theaters.
The Rev. Libby Grammer of First Baptist Church in Martinsville also has talked about doing a drive-in service. That might be a joint Maundy Thursday (April 9) service with Chatham Heights and Starling Avenue Baptist Churches.
Grammer is taking a multipronged approach to continuing to reach her congregation. First Baptist is suspending services until May 10 – “the full 8 weeks, per the CDC guidelines,” she said.
Her sermons will be prerecorded and posted on YouTube. She led a worship service over Facebook last week, but the quality wasn’t as good as she would like it to be, she said.
In her video, Grammer will have the help of a worship team of fewer than 10 people. It will include the minister of music, Becky Collins; Baxter Jennings playing organ; Grammer’s husband, William Underwood, reading Scripture; and Collins’ husband, Joe Collins (the chaplain for Good News Jail and Prison Ministry) recording the video.
DVD copies of the video will be distributed to members who don’t have internet.
Deacons are calling members to check on them and will help out homebound members by running errands for them, Grammer said.
Many other churches also are experimenting with broadcasting sermons and services over the internet.
At First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Mark Hinchcliff said he’s “not as tech savvy as some, so people are” helping out to get his sermons posted online.
Personal phone calls to shut-ins is an important part of the continuing ministry, Hinchcliff said.
First Presbyterian has cancelled all activity, including its preschool program, through March 28, he said, although “this 2-week furlough I’m pretty sure will be extended.”
Jordan of Mount Vernon has started with daily Facebook devotionals, and he has encouraged Sunday school teachers to lead their lessons over Facebook.
Andy Brock, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Fieldale and Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Rangeley, said he gave his first video sermon over Facebook on Sunday. It had more views than the average number of people who attend services at both churches on any given Sunday, he said.
St. Joseph Catholic Church is not having Mass or any type of gathering “for the foreseeable future,” but the church is remaining open for people to come in individually or in small groups for private prayer and confessions, Father Mark White said.
His homilies are being published daily on his blog, and the church’s Facebook page is used for communications. Many members also are making phone calls to the sick and shut-ins.
Not being able to take Communion “is a pretty painful thing,” White said. “The only people who can receive Communion right now are people who are in danger of death.”
However, church authorities are telling people that the “spiritual Communion” of being in the presence of the Lord in the church is valid, as long as a person says “some prayers that you want to receive him,” White said.
His church continues to look at other means of keeping contacts and worship going, such as conference calls, he added.
Charles Whitfield is both the pastor of First Baptist Church of East Martinsville and the president of the Virginia Baptist State Convention, which assists and advises about 750 churches across the commonwealth.
He’s hoping the VBSC still will be able to hold the annual session scheduled for May 11 in Williamsburg, he said. “We’re still being careful and watching, telling the convention and the church: It’s a difficult season but not impossible,” he said.
He recommended that churches “check with insurance companies and banks to see if there’s any relief due to the decline in giving.”
Churches also should make sure their databases are up to date, he said, and “use it as a way to reach out and keep members engaged.”
Social media provides ways for many churches to bridge the gap, Whitfield said, but for churches with older congregations, such as his, the telephone still rules.
First Baptist of East Martinsville has been having prayer and devotions over conference call on a regular basis since Ash Wednesday, and that format may continue for other purposes as well, he said. Whitfield added that churches should be thoroughly cleaned during these weeks that they are empty.
All of the pastors said that their congregations have been supportive of the decisions to suspend services and appreciative of the health concerns.
“Social distancing is ... a level of pastoral caring for the best interest of the congregation,” Whitfield said.
Still going — on faith
The Rev. Alan Preston said Refuge Temple Ministries will continue with services – following extreme cautions.
Refuge Temple started with the precautions last Sunday and plans to continue, he said. Ushers and greeters who are wearing gloves are the only people to open and shut doors – and they’ll push them open with their hips. They are at their posts at least half an hour before church begins.
The congregation will enter an extremely clean church which has undergone thorough cleaning and sanitizing during the week. People are asked not to touch handrails unless they have to, and those handrails are among the items regularly washed.
If it comes down to cancelling services, “we’re waiting to see what the governor is going to say,” Preston said. “I have seen some [churches] allow 10 people to come, then [have services] online.”
Looking around at the sanctuary with 25 pews, each large enough to seat at least 14 people, he said, “Before this virus our church is plumb full every Sunday.”
So far, it’s remained mostly full, although he thinks the virus concerns have “stopped a couple of my elderly,” he said.
He’s watching the pandemic updates and said he would cancel the in-person service if the pandemic were more of a problem in this area or churches were told to cancel.
Meanwhile, Preston said, he and his congregation are praying for people who are sick.
While the churches are looking at how to support their congregations during these times, there’s also the other side of how the people can support the churches – including financially, during Sundays the collection plate is not being passed around.
“Most churches save up for a rainy day,” Preston said, and should be able to get through it.
At First Presbyterian, not being able to take donations on Sunday morning is “not a big deal, because most of our financial support comes in pledges that are either mailed in or given at the beginning of the year and on an automatic withdrawal kind of thing,” Hinchcliff said. “Our plate collections are very minimal. That aspect is not really affecting us all that much.”
First Baptist East Martinsville uses an app called Givelify for online donations, Whitfield said.
Jordan said he had been recommending to the deacons to establish an online giving platform for Mt. Vernon, but that hasn’t happened yet. This shut-down may show the benefit of such a service.
Parishioners should start saving up the amount they’d normally drop into the collection plate into a piggy bank during the non-church weeks, White said, then “bring it in after all this is over.”
Hinchcliff said his wife, Tracy Hinchcliff, has her own worries about these coronavirus limitations – She is the director of Grace Network, which gets its support from local churches. Most of its volunteers are retirees, the very people who most are supposed to avoid being out in public.
They are still “doing the best they can to continue to serve the people in need,” Hinchcliff said.
Church members have to be vigilant on calling other people, especially the elderly who may not have family, Whitfield said.
Grammer suggested that people who are familiar with the internet and technology should help teach those who aren’t how to use it, so that the less experienced also can participate in the online forms of worship.
Church members “should stay connected to the church, and to the leadership … in the lines of good stewardship, the church has to continue to operate and do ministry,” Whitfield said.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.