COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Pastor John Sears of Newberg-Norton Bible Church near Marcellus records a recent sermon in the empty sanctuary of his church. Many area churches, Newberg-Norton included, have moved to online, pre-taped and livestreamed services in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.Photo provided - Riverside Church Connections Pastor Jamey Smith helps deliver a box of activity packs as part of their church’s outreach efforts to help out the community during the COVID-19 outbreak. The activity packs were distributed to students during meal pick-ups and seniors at nursing homes.

Faith and the pandemic

Area churches adjust to new reality in midst of COVID-19 pandemic

THREE RIVERS — Pastor John Sears of Newberg-Norton Bible Church walked up to his pulpit on a recent weekend, shuffled his notes a bit, looked into the small camera placed in the middle of the sanctuary’s center aisle, and got ready to deliver his weekly sermon.

Normally, the rows of wooden and cushioned pews in the small country church, located in Cass County south of Marcellus and several miles west of Three Rivers between farmland and rolling hillsides, would be filled with somewhere around 40 to 60 worshippers. They would sing hymns, recite some memory verses, and listen to Sears’ weekly sermon during the one-hour services every Sunday.

This time, however, there was no one in the sanctuary, save for himself and the camera operator. There were no hymns to sing. There was no one there to recite memory verses. There was only Sears, a camera, and a sermon.

“This is the first time for many of us to have a video broadcast instead of a regular service,” Sears slightly chuckled as he began his message. “But we didn’t want to take any chances of passing on or catching the coronavirus.”

This is the new reality for many churches, big and small, not just in St. Joseph County or the state of Michigan, but for thousands of churches and places of worship around the country. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought almost everything in the United States to a grinding halt, many churches have had to adjust almost seemingly on the fly to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, state governments and the White House that limited large gatherings.

While the restrictions on large gatherings in Michigan exempt churches and places of religious worship, many churches still decided to close to the public, including some closed until mid-May, with only a very small handful remaining open for regular Sunday services. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a Fox News interview soon after the order went into effect that the separation of church and state and requests from the state’s Republican legislature went into crafting the exemption, but still encouraged people not to congregate.

Sears said, at first, he wasn’t going to worry about closing either, saying they would “just do our services and go on.”

“We're not as big of a church like some of the big ones, but we have a lot of senior citizens, and they're the ones being affected,” Sears said. “Many of the area churches have done this, so I decided before the Lord that we better, because it is a strange thing. But I would rather be safe than sorry.”

Many pastors agreed the situation has been strange, weird, abnormal, and other similar descriptors. Rich Saunders, pastor at the Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, said it was “odd” to not be meeting in-person.

“The whole situation has definitely been way out of the normal,” Saunders said.

Some pastors tried to be proactive prior to the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, such as James Smith, the pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church and the rector at Trinity Episcopal Church. He said his churches had taken measures a couple of weeks prior to the order to make sure there was hand sanitizer “everywhere,” and changed up communion practices to keep that aspect safer. However, it was not enough.

“Around mid-March, it became clear based on what we were hearing, the guidelines from the CDC and guidelines from the Episcopal and Lutheran regional bodies, that that wasn't enough and that we were going to have to stop worshipping for the time being,” Smith said.

Quickly, many churches had to turn to alternative ways to deliver their Sunday sermons and continue to reach out to their congregation and the community. The most popular way so far has been to livestream or record their sermons, whether it’s on Facebook, YouTube, or another streaming service.

Many churches have been set up to do these types of livestreams in the past several years, including Riverside Church, one of the largest churches in St. Joseph County. Pastor Paul Booko said, however, for as long as they’ve been doing livestreams, it was “challenging” to do a service without an audience.

“It's been pretty challenging; I get on stage and speak to an empty room,” Booko said. “It's been quite a unique experience, and it's a first for me after 45 years in ministry speaking to an empty auditorium. I just picture all of our people and give it my best shot.”

Sears shared a similar sentiment.

“I had my usual message, but it is strange not having anyone in the pews,” Sears said. “I never even think about our tech guy recording it when I'm here on Sunday, I never think about it because the people are here and I'm speaking to them and he records it, but when he's the only one here, it makes me admire those pastors that do it all the time, that do podcasts and live broadcasts and stick it on video.”

For some churches adjusting to online for the first time, it has had a learning curve in and of itself. Smith said there has been a “learning curve” in the first week, since his churches haven’t done a ton of recording in the past, but has also made videos with messages throughout the week.

“I've been trying to do more messages throughout the week to A) just give people something to do while at home, and B) give them something to hold on to,” Smith said. “Because if you're like me, and you're reading the news, there's not a lot of good news right now. Anything we can do to give people a sense of hope, reminding people of God's promises of eternal life and to be with us always, even in really scary times, that's what I've been trying to do online.”

Saunders said his church is doing all it can to keep their congregation connected throughout the shutdown.

“Our worship team, the ones that are willing and as long as we adhere to the social distancing norms, they're still leading worship, so we're pretty much doing a whole service online for people to connect,” Saunders said. “Then we're doing some other things, my wife's starting a bible study online. We’re just finding ways to connect, whether it’s texting, emailing, or making videos. Just all sorts of stuff.”

Some churches have done community outreach efforts in addition to their online sermons. Saunders said his wife Tracey has led an effort where some of their members have helped seniors and those who are immunocompromised with groceries and errands since the shutdown began. He said this effort is a way to let the community know about the population that is most vulnerable to the virus.

“We want to find a way to take care of them and provide a need so they don't have to go out and feel like they have to be in a situation where they could possibly catch something that they wouldn't have the strength to fight through,” Saunders said. “The motivation is to help people, connect with people and to provide for needs that we may or may not know are out there.”

Over at Riverside, the outreach they have done include creating activity packs for local students and seniors, crafting over 150 homemade facemasks for healthcare workers and assisting with Meals on Wheels to deliver food to seniors in need. Booko said this outreach fits into his church’s overall mission and helping to serve the community.

“We’re encouraging our people that they were created to make a difference, and now is the time to look for random acts of kindness, get out and make a difference while still honoring our government's order to stay at home,” Booko said. “I've contacted community leaders and asked what needs are, and have been networking with other leaders, saying we're here to serve, and we have many people looking for ways to help out.”

There have been numerous other effects the pandemic has had on area churches, ranging from attendance to get-togethers and even funerals, as Smith described.

“Both of our churches have a large percentage who are elderly, so as a pastor, I've gotten to know these people, to love these people, and you're a bit afraid of what this will bring,” Smith said. “So far, the impacts have been that we can't meet for worship, we can't have our prayer breakfast at L.A.'s, bible studies are harder, and I've had to tell families preparing for a loved one to die that we can't do a funeral service until after May 10. I think the families kind of get it, but at the same they're already in a state of grieving, and that's one more hard thing if we can't provide the comfort we usually do.”

The biggest impact the pandemic may ultimately have on churches, however, is in finances. While some churches have online giving options, others do not, such as Newberg-Norton.

“I was looking at last week's offering when we had slim attendance, and it was a financial hit,” Sears said. “I don't know how well people are in the church that give the offering, because I don't get into that part. I just read the afterwords of our deacons doing that. I think this will have some affect, though.”

While finances have been an issue for some churches, Saunders said his church’s number one concern during this time is the people of their congregation.

“The giving's going to go down, which makes sense. People are afraid or they perhaps lost their jobs and the income isn't there, and we get that, and that's not our focus. We're not trying to make sure our finances are taken care of over somebody else,” Saunders said. “I told our church board and some of our church family if we ended up going under because we were trying to help meet needs and not take care of our own obligations, I'd rather have that than anything else.”

One of the other big casualties in the holy calendar the virus is affecting are Easter services, one of the biggest services every year for any church. All of the pastors interviewed said this year’s services would take place online, which Sears called “strange.”

“Usually Easter and Christmas are two of the busiest times at church, but not this one,” Sears said.

Smith said his churches are planning an online service, but also an in-person Easter service once restrictions are fully lifted and their congregation can meet again.

“Easter is about Jesus' love for the world, it's about bringing new life out of death. So in a way, when we finally do gather again, it'd be the most powerful Easter ever, because it's going to live out that new life and new beginning,” Smith said. “It hurts, but ultimately, it's a date on the calendar versus saving lives. It’s not really a hard call.”

Long-term, many pastors see things returning to normal…eventually.

“I’m confident we’ll get back to normal,” Sears said. “The emphasis right now is on those who died, but we don't see the thousands who have survived the virus. Once people do, they'll start functioning again. As a nation, I don't know, but as a church, we will.”

“We know it's going to go back to normal, it’s just a matter of time,” Booko said. “I'm just encouraging people to keep this in perspective, that we've been through things like this before, and the bottom line is we've gotten through it, and we will live through this as well, and not to panic. Now's the time to lean into our faith and God, and to see that when everything’s stripped away, what's important? The three F's: Faith, family and friends.”

“I don't believe this'll last forever, for sure,” Saunders said. “I don't know how long it'll last, but I'm confident that God's already been working behind the scenes before this even happened putting people in places where they need to be for a situation like this, and I believe that there will be a brighter day on the other side.”

If your church has special plans for an Easter service, please email the information to us at news@threeriversnews.com so we can help you inform the public.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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