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Empty churches

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Churches adjust to delivering services in the age of the coronavirus

By Gerard Flanagan

Empty pews.

Silent sanctuaries.

Church members unable to gather together

Sunday mornings for many Marion Countians are vastly different.

Instead of getting ready for church, they are staying home, with nearly all churches no longer holding in-person services due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The vast majority of churches are conducting online services, and the transition from in-person to online has been quite the adjustment, said Chris Howlett, pastor at Lebanon United Methodist Church (LUMC).

“The only thing we did before was an audio recording of sermons that we posted online,” Howlett said.

Howlett admitted he scrambled to figure out how to broadcast services on Facebook once Leonard Fairley, bishop of the Kentucky Annual Conference, strongly urged churches to suspend in-person worship and church gatherings.

“First, we were doing Facebook Live,” Howlett said. “That was not ideal because of problem with internet connections or broader problems of Facebook. The audio quality was poor.”

Currently, Howlett and LUMC are using higher quality cameras to pre-record their services on Saturday and then broadcast them via Facebook every Sunday at 10 a.m.

Like all pastors and churchgoers, the in-person gathering is something Howlett sorely misses.

“I miss just being able to see people and shake people’s hands,” Howlett said. “We are reaching people through video, and that’s a good thing. We might even be reaching more people, but the in-person gathering is essential to who the church is and what the church does.”

Howlett said the technology has been a true blessing, as it allows churchgoers to stay connected.

“The technology is a real blessing,” Howlett said. “During the 1918 Spanish flu, there was no Facebook, and the churches were shut down. There was no opportunity for connection. Technology has progressed, and we’re able to utilize these tools to communicate the Gospel and gather in a virtual way and gather in faith.”

David Whitlock, pastor at Lebanon Baptist Church, is also having to adjust to using technology to broadcast services.

“You can’t plan for something like this,” said Whitlock.

Whitlock has coordinated with Alex Peake to broadcast the church’s services and other events, like prayer meetings, via Facebook.

“He’s been able to help immensely,” Whitlock said.

Technology, Whitlock said, has allowed the members of Lebanon Baptist to stay connected emotionally and spiritually while being separated physically.

“It gives people a sense of continuity in the flux of this environment,” he said.

However, nothing can replace the in-person gathering that takes place at church services.

“We definitely miss the human interaction,” Whitlock said. “You can’t replace that. You see the faces of people, and you read their expressions. You can look into their eyes. That is irreplaceable. It gives you a sense of being together.”

Whitlock understands the necessity of social distancing. He said it would be “selfish” to gather together, knowing that individuals could possibly be exposed to the coronavirus.

“We love our brother and sister enough not to meet,” he said. “To me, it’s a very selfish thing for me to have a meeting that’s going to endanger not just my flock, but others.”

Not meeting together temporarily, Whitlock said, comes down to sacrificing for the greater good.

“It’s not about us,” he said. “It’s about Christ and how do we love other people? Of course, we want to meet and be with one another, but for a brief period of time, we need to suspend our personal desires for a greater cause.”

Whitlock referenced other scenarios when his church hasn’t been able to meet, such as severe storms or winter weather. The coronavirus is similar, yet different, to that.

“We’ve had times when we weren’t able to meet, like a severe storm,” he said. “We don’t do that because of the danger. This is a silent storm. We’ve never encountered this before.”

Certainly, when Whitlock and his church can once again gather for services, it will be a wonderful day, he said.

“We’re going to appreciate being together,” Whitlock said. “We will have learned people are the church, not the building. You don’t have to have the building to have church. I think we will more deeply appreciate our face-to-face interactions with one another and not take that so much for granted.”

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