Churches adapt services to social distancing

Ogden Newspapers

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. —  The writer of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament admonishes early Christians against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,” emphasizing the importance of communal worship.

It’s a charge that contemporary Christians are adapting to meet in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some congregations gather in parking lots, while others livestream worship services and various activities online.

“In place of ‘amens,’ people have just impromptu taken to honking their amens,” said the Rev. Kenn Sickle, with First Presbyterian Church in St. Clairsville, Ohio, which is entering its fifth week of drive-in services.

Some still gather together, but they work to follow social-distancing guidelines when they do. A few churches have even challenged bans on religious gatherings in court.

To the Rev. Scott Hanks, senior pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Lawrence, Kansas, online viewing and remaining in vehicles doesn’t meet the mandate found in Hebrews 10:25.

“People are supposed to assemble together,” he said.

His church raised eyebrows in its community when it continued to hold outdoor, in-person services after Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order banning gatherings of 10 or more people. Heritage isn’t one of the churches challenging the order in court, but Hanks questions its constitutionality.

The outdoor services meet the provisions of the governor’s order, Hanks said. Prior to each service, those in attendance are reminded to stay at least 6 feet apart, with families living together being the exception, he said.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do the social distancing and we don’t want to follow the law,” Hanks said. “It’s just that the Bible mandate to me is more important than the governor’s mandate not to meet.”

Hanks noted there have been no coronavirus deaths reported in Kansas’ Douglas County. If that was not the case, he said, he might have to figure out a different way to continue meeting while keeping parishioners safe.

The 19th Street Church of God in Parkersburg, W.Va., offered an online service the first week it had to cancel traditional worship, but that just didn’t hit the right notes for the Rev. Jimmie Cox.

“I really didn’t care for preaching to a camera,” he said.

So on March 29, after clearing his plans with city officials, the church organized a drive-in service in its parking lot. Cox preached from a trailer while his son, Trey, played acoustic guitar and worship leader Chris Lewis led songs. Parishioners listened in their cars on a localized radio signal.

Afterward, the pastor set up a stool and waved as dozens of cars exited the lot.

“You at least get a wave, even though you don’t get a handshake or a hug,” Cox said.

The church has continued offering drive-in services since then, averaging about 75 cars a time, except for Easter Sunday, when nearly 100 rolled in.

First Presbyterian in St. Clairsville drew about 50 cars on Easter with two or three people to a car. The next Sunday saw 41 cars.

It’s not just members of the church showing up, Sickle said.

“We’ve made new friends and gained possible new members from this,” he explained.

In Parkersburg and St. Clairsville, the drive-in services have made such an impression that the pastors think they’ll be sticking around, even when restrictions on gathering are lifted.

“Even when we get the OK, that doesn’t mean we have to jump back in because we want to remain safe,” Cox said.

Sickle sees drive-in services as a potential once-a-month event in addition to regular services in the future.

Defying government orders “doesn’t show how spiritual we are; it shows how disobedient we are,” Cox said. “I think being the church, we’re supposed to operate in love and extend hope.”

Harvest Chapel Free Methodist Church in Fredonia, N.Y., is streaming worship services and holding virtual prayer gatherings and online Bible studies, along with “good old-fashioned telephone calls to check in on our members and help all find hope in Jesus through these challenging days,” the Rev. Jim LaBarr, lead pastor, said via email.

“Of course it’s disappointing that we cannot currently meet together for worship in our facility, but church has never been about the building anyway,” he added. “Church is the people of God on a mission together carrying the message of hope found in Jesus to a world in need. And we can and will still accomplish that mission even if we can’t meet together in our building.”

In Marietta, Ohio, the Church at Second Street never stopped meeting because the numbers didn’t require them to, Evangelist Tom Fagan said.

“There were only a handful of people who felt comfortable coming out,” he said.

They try to keep attendance to 10 people or less, with families sitting well apart from each other, even in the 2,300-square-foot, non-denominational church.

“There’s only three families coming anyway, so that gives us quite a bit of room,” Fagan said.

Services are then uploaded to YouTube about a day later for those who don’t attend.

Fagan cited the Hebrews verse about meeting together and said he feels the element of interaction can be lost if worship is conducted online only. With no parking lot, drive-in services weren’t an option, he noted.

“I think that’s something every congregation needs to establish for themselves,” he said.


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