Churches adapt as virus shuts down services

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Ministers and churches in Walker County are trying to figure out the best way to deal with the coronavirus, ranging from Facebook Live webcasts to a drive-in church service that will help isolate parishioners. 

But for Christian churches which promote fellowship and congregation, the deadly spread of the virus and the orders for large meetings not to happen have thrown major challenges for Sunday worship. And then others are seeing the health crisis as an opportunity for ministry and outreach. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has ordered that meetings with 25 or more people, where people cannot be spread out by 6 feet, are prohibited in order to prevent the spread of the virus. The order lasts until April 5. 

The Rev. David Miller, head of the Walker Baptist Association, serving Southern Baptist churches in Walker County, said a number of association churches did have services on Sunday, although some also did Facebook Live streaming. Many have discussed the situation since then and are now shutting down meeting in person for Sunday. 

"The majority of our churches, it looks like they are going to do Facebook Live services," he said. "We have a few small churches which are going to meet, which have 25 or less and they will keep their distance - just worship service only. No Sunday schools or closed quarter meetings, keeping a distance from everybody." 

He said some churches will meet, clean the building and then do a Wednesday night worship service, and then clean it again for Sunday. 

Miller said in terms of evaluating what is the long-term normal, pastors and church leaders are looking to see what school systems will decide on April 6 as far as coming back. 

The association's April crusade, scheduled to take place at Jasper High School, is also somewhat on hold until those decisions. An April 5 prayer meeting at Jasper's courthouse square, which was planned for 1,000 people, has already been cancelled as the county would still be under the rule of not having 25 or more people to congregate, he said, adding that crusade organizers understand that situation.

He said the Rev. Lee Taylor of Crossway Baptist Church of Aldridge, in the Aldridge community of Parrish, was planning a drive-in church for Sunday. 

"I said, 'You are the leading guy in the county. That's the best idea I've heard yet,'" Miller quoted himself telling Taylor. 

Taylor said the church, which has 60 to 85 people attend on a typical Sunday, is at 1160 Aldridge Road, although it is usually better to look for the very short Lane Drive on the GPS, as the road takes you to the church. 

He said his boss at his full-time job made the suggestion, noting many would rather be at church. His deacons agreed. 

"We're just trying to give people multiple opportunities that they can choose from," Taylor said, noting it will also do a Facebook Live stream of their 11 a.m. outdoor service, available at the Crossway Baptist Church of Aldridge Facebook page. 

"We're going to use our church parking lot," he said. "We'll have people directing them how to park. They are going to face their cars toward our church." Taylor and a praise team will be set up, and speakers in the parking lot will amplify the sound, so one may crack their windows or roll them all the way down. Lawn chairs will be allowed, as long as people keep their distance. 

To lighten up the serious situation, "sand-type nets you would use at the beach with sticks on them" will be used to take up the offering. 

However, he said the service will still not "take away from the seriousness of worship, because that is why we are there." However, he said he wants elements of the event to bring a smile to people in a serious time. 

"I think we need some out-of-the-box thinking," he said, and he said the crisis is going to cause people to be more open to the Gospel. "My hope and prayer is for our church and for every other church is that we prepared to step up and meet those needs, physical and spiritual needs, and emotional needs on top of that." 

People can go to the Facebook page or they may call Taylor at 205-208-2643. 

Meanwhile, Desperation Church, which has campuses in Jasper, Cullman, Arab, and Hayden, is moving its services and mass gatherings to online only until further notice, due to the virus. All in-person events and activities are being paused at all of the church's physical locations. 

"We will continue to monitor the situation week by week, and hope to resume normal weekend and midweek services as soon as we are able," the church said in a statement. "Anyone can join our online family this weekend, and every weekend, as we broadcast live on Sunday at 10 a.m. (CDT) on Facebook Live (@dccampusnews), or YouTube (Desperation Church). Desperation Kids online content will also be available." 

Adam Hicks, who leads the Jasper congregation, said he told his church, "The coronavirus did not cancel church. It activated the church." 

The church now has a "huge opportunity where we can actually be the hands and feet of Christ," Hicks said. He said he was seeing the entire county come together through organizations, churches, and non-profits. 

"It's amazing to see the unity that is happening. It has caused us to get creative, and it has caused other churches to get creative as well," he said, noting the church values people's health and it wants to be part of the solution and not the problem. As a result, he said Desperation was creating "an awesome online experience," as well as serve in the community each day. 

"Our community groups are all online now," Hicks said. "There is an app called Zoom where they are meeting together. It has created this huge virtual community" that has shown him that "nothing can ever stop God's church." 

He said after the crisis passes, he believes "every single church is going to explode because people don't realize how much they desire and need community face to face until it is taken away from them." He said God created people to be with other people. 

"I just think God is going to do something big through this," he said. 

The Rev. Robin Hinkle, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, said all Sunday services and events have been cancelled, but that the church is working on food bank needs daily. "We have ramped up from doing 200 bags of groceries a week to 500, 600, maybe upwards to 1,000 bags of groceries a day," she said. 

Jasper First United Methodist Church posted on Facebook all meetings and activities have been suspended throughout the week, although the church will remain open and continue to serve others. Services will be taped or streamed live on Facebook. 

Pastor Victor Massey of the Sumiton Church of God announced on Facebook that, unless other changes take place, services for the next three weeks were expected to be available only online, with meetings at the church on hold due to meeting prohibitions from the state. The church's pastor asked senior citizens to contact the church if they need anything, including groceries and prescriptions.  

On Friday, Massey released on Facebook a March 19 letter to church members noting someone who tested positive for the virus had attended the church March 8. He recommended those who attended the service take extra steps to isolate themselves even if they were not displaying symptoms. 

Miller said ministers are thrown off their normal schedules during the week, as they cannot go into hospitals and nursing homes to visit, even if someone is having surgery. "All they can really do is work from a telephone," he said. "My pastor (Scott Argent, Edgil Grove Baptist Church) is calling senior adults and I've had a pastor telling me he is driving around checking on his senior adults, not going inside but going up to the house and seeing if they need anything." 

Miller said churches have seen ways to minister in the health scare. "Our church will be meeting every day next week in Nauvoo to feed lunches for school children. I think that program is going on in Carbon Hill," he said. Also, First Baptist Church of Carbon Hill had a successful Miracle Day program last Sunday in spite of the coronavirus. 

In the meantime, the efforts to quickly adapt to the virus situation will likely lead to permanent innovations, Miller said.

"The ones who do Facebook Live, I think you might see some possibilities that they may continue that after they go back to regular services after the virus is over," he said, noting it may be a new way to reach out to others. One pastor told him he had more views on Facebook than he has people coming to the church. 

Miller said he thinks people in general are in a similar mood after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

"They know there is a God and they need to reach out to Him. They are desperate," he said. "I hope people, while having the opportunity for them to realize how much they need God in their life, they will take the time to make a change in their life and do that, and have a relationship with Him. Then we will see a greater change. I think we can grow our faith community during this difficult time rather than seeing the faith community suffer." 

Miller said he has told other pastors the church has been inside for a long time, but now it has an opportunity to minister outside. He said in Acts, the church spent much time together and uplifted each other, giving a model in how Christians can be involved in each other's daily life.