About 8:58 a.m., March 22, Pastor Tim Wilson brought his team in for a prayer. They would normally hold hands, but in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, they stayed an appropriate distance apart. At 9 a.m., the group of six kicked off Sunday’s online service for Water’s Edge Church in Milton, broadcasting it live on Facebook and YouTube.
While the seats were empty, the team knew the congregation was at home watching. With gatherings limited to 10 or fewer people, churches have had to adapt. That means taking advantage of technology to offer the week’s message to people who really need it during these difficult times.
“Just like the rest of society, we’re all dealing with it. Churches are no exception,” Wilson said. “Most pastors would say that we get our feedback from people’s faces, their tears, their laughter. It’s so different to preach to empty pews. It’s been a challenge, but I know I’m not alone.”
As far as members of the congregation, Wilson said, some wish they could attend in person.
“I talked to a gentleman that’s been in the church for many years,” Wilson said. “He said he had listened to eight or nine televangelists last week, and when it was all said and done, he said he felt half full. He said he gets so much from the interaction with other people and being here. So it’s been a challenge for a lot of people.”
At St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in downtown Lewes, the clergy has put together a Sunday service in the parish chapel. They also provide a daily prayer at 5 p.m. on Facebook.
“It’s easy to say that this is not something they teach you to do in seminary,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Ross, rector and pastor.
To stay connected with the parish, Ross said the clergy has created a call list; he and his colleagues call members regularly to check in, particularly on those who live alone.
St. Peter’s Minister of Music T.J. Thomas is someone who typically works with groups of parishioners on a daily and weekly basis.
“It's been painful not being able to sing and make music together,” Thomas said. “I miss the choirs and robust congregational hymn singing at St. Peter's.”
Ross said this unprecedented situation has created challenges for him outside regular services.
“We have had a couple parishioners go into the hospital, and I cannot visit them,” he said. “It’s been particularly challenging to try to bring comfort to folks through a phone call.”
Although members and staff cannot physically meet, the church has created a Zoom account to continue things like Bible study, book clubs and other meetings.
At Bethel United Methodist Church in Lewes, the Rev. Earle Baker said his March 22 broadcast had more viewers than the average in-person attendance on Sundays. He said church members who spend the winter months in Florida and Louisiana were among those who tuned in.
“We simplified the service,” he said. “We’re not able to do music very well yet, so we had a soloist who sang beautifully at the beginning and the end.”
Bethel typically offers three services every Sunday, but due to the coronavirus outbreak will have one at 11 a.m. Baker said the service is rehearsed ahead of time to ensure it goes smoothly.
What Baker is very proud of is the church’s online Sunday school, which includes music, a lesson and a craft to do at home.
“My wife, a former preschool teacher, looked at it, and it was so impressive that she cried,” Baker said.
An online youth ministry is also offered, using the same curriculum that was already being used prior to the outbreak.
Bethel will be polling the congregation this week to ask about needs and ask for members to cook meals or deliver groceries to those in need.
Like other churches, Zoom and Skype are being used to hold committee meetings to ensure church business moves ahead.
Eagle’s Nest Church in Milton has taken a different approach to its services in recent weeks. Rather than offer a regular service live online, the staff films bits and pieces throughout the week, edits it together and releases it Sunday at its regular time. Associate Pastor Jay Flack said it increases the production value of the service, particularly with the music, while also keeping staff separated as much as possible.
“What we’re trying to do is re-create the feeling of a Sunday morning, just virtually,” he said. “So many people really appreciated service in the same format. It felt more normal.”
The online service is organized to follow a typical Sunday service, and, Flack said, feedback from the church’s congregation has been positive so far. Eagle’s Nest added a Wednesday night service this week too.
One of the challenges, Flack said, has been staying in contact with people.
“It’s really important that we’re putting live videos up,” he said. “Just snippets – 30- to 60-second Bible devotions people can see and read. Our theme is worship, connect, serve. What that is for us is to be together to do those three things. It’s really challenging in this environment because we’re so used to having each other, but lately, it’s all been through texting, email and videos.”