A new way of worship: Local churches respond  to COVID-19 challenges

The sign at Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville located on US 79 East lets the congregation and those passing by know that services will only be online until the end of the month.

Churches throughout the nation are finding creative ways to serve their congregations, amidst a government mandate for social distancing to help prevent the spread of novel coronavirus.

“We can’t go to church right now, but we can be the church, so that is what we’re doing. And we believe that God is completely in control and absolutely good, so we are trusting Him with our present and our future,” said Mike Miller, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville.

Transitioning to an electronic ministry during this phrase gives church leaders an opportunity to share the Gospel while encouraging hope, added Doug Wintermute, pastor of Jacksonville's First United Methodist Church.

“I think it gives them hope by pointing them to the ultimate hope, Jesus Christ,” he said. “The Bible tells us many times that being Christians, we're going to face troubles, but (Jesus also) says I give you my peace.”

A number of churches in the community have suspended services as a result of an executive order issued March 19 by Texas Governor Greg Abbott that effectively bans social gatherings of groups of 10 or more.

For the two pastors – like a number of their fellow ministers – broadcasting services via live social media, through church websites and even on local cable TV, means their ministry continues uninterrupted.

“The great commission is to make disciples, and we're trying get the word out,” Wintermute said.

Several years ago, his church began taping Sunday services, which are broadcast at 10 a.m. Sundays on Suddenlink Cable Channel 19.

The decision to offer the broadcast – which is a taped, one-week delayed video – came about several years ago when church leaders “decided there was probably a number of people at home, unable to get out,” who would benefit most from the electronic ministry, he said.

Two weeks ago, FUMC launched live streaming of its 10:30 a.m. Sunday service in response to the pandemic. “The first week wasn't real smooth, but we learned from it,” Wintermute said.

For several years, Central Baptist's electronic ministry initially involved Facebook live videos and taped sermons on the church's YouTube channel. Last week, the church began live streaming its Sunday service at churchonline.org.

“These platforms enable us to interact in real time with our viewers, and people have been very responsive so far,” Miller said. “We not only had church members and others from our community tune in, but we had viewers from several states and other countries, too.”

He added that additional content is being made available, “much of it specifically geared to children, students and parents.

“We are currently working on ways to improve on this kind of information in ways that will be helpful, but not overwhelming,” Miller said. “Our terrific staff has worked very hard and with positive attitudes to adapt to this new ministry environment. And our member and others have expressed appreciation for all of this.”

Another Jacksonville church utilizing electronic media to share the Gospel is Southside Church of Christ.

In an emailed message March 19 to members of the congregation, Southside Elder Rick Turner acknowledged it was “difficult to describe just how much all of our lives have changed over the last two weeks.

“Aside from the economic impact this is having on all of us, I took for granted that I would always be able to gather with my brethren at Southside,” he wrote. “I miss being able to do that, and encourage each of you to hold fast to our trust in the Lord. His plan is much greater than ours.”

Church elders canceled Sunday worship services and events through April 1.

However, Turner said, “we encourage you to gather with your family to study His word and worship Him.”

In the meantime, the church reached out to members with a recorded lesson for the March 22 worship service, accessible by an emailed link, which is something the church team hopes to do on a continual basis.

And, in meeting the needs of those who wish to receive Communion, “Southside has purchased individually wrapped Bread and Fruit of the Vine,” which was to be made available to interested church members before the Sunday service, Turner said.

Services at Jacksonville's Trinity Episcopal Church also are on hiatus, “cancelled for two weeks (through the end of March) per Bishop C. Andrew Doyle of the Diocese of Texas, due to the Coronavirus,” according to a Facebook post.

This year, Trinity Episcopal was the host church for a weekly Lenten Bible study on “Courage,” with guest presenters, along with Stations of the Cross on Fridays. Both events have been canceled.

And while Trinity Church “will not be doing live services via internet or Facebook,” it will share links of live services from other East Texas churches, along with those with the small church network, the site noted.

In a taped message to members of the Diocese of Texas – which consists of congregations in the southeastern quarter of Texas, including Cherokee County – Doyle encouraged people to sustain hope in the face of worry triggered by this pandemic.

“This is the whole framework of Lent, as we head into Holy Week and Easter (reminds us) that illness, sickness, disease – even death – none of that can separate us from the love of God. At the end of the day, God is victorious in Christ Jesus. This is our faith, that is what we place our hope in. This is the moment for us … to trust, to find in the doubt, our hope and our trust in Christ.

“So, I encourage you, do not be afraid – God is with us,” the bishop added. “We have been preparing for this moment. Have hope and know that you're not doing this alone.”

Wintermute agreed.

“Our true hope doesn't come from worldly things” but from God, he said, as Miller noted, “while we all struggle from time to time, we know that God has not given us a spirit of fear?

“We are trying to focus on the positives and express gratitude for our blessings,” Miller said. “We also are seeing this situation as more of an opportunity than and obstacle, and right now, we have the opportunity to rise to a challenge and meet physical and spiritual needs in new and creative ways.”

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