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Churches aim for spiritual, virtual worship

The Rev. Julie Sterling of Suffolk Presbyterian Church has been walking her congregation through its new online world as the coronavirus pandemic has closed doors there and at many churches across the city and country.

She said her congregation was aware they might have to close and look at different ways of worshipping, but the suddenness of the change has taken them aback. Still, she said they have handled it with grace.

“It’s a hard time to have to deal with this type of issue of distancing yourself when we’re trying to teach during the season of Lent a kind of connecting, so that’s been interesting,” Sterling said.

Churches in the city have canceled services and events, as Gov. Ralph Northam has called for residents to avoid non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people and increase social distancing efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. With congregations unable to meet in person, many have been using social media, apps and other web-based means of providing worship services, study groups or simply communicating with them.

Sterling said her church has done little online ministry before now, but over the past week, they have established a platform to hold church meetings and study groups through the Zoom platform and expanded the use of its Facebook page.

In one video, Sterling walks through how to use Zoom, which she has used several times over the past week to meet with her congregation and her denomination. On Thursday, the church hosted a prayer group on the platform.

“A lot of people seem to enjoy it,” Sterling said. “They’re surprised at how connected they actually feel. People have been enjoying being able to meet with people from the congregation online. I think it adds a little bit of a pick-me-up in a week that’s been kind of hard.”

She plans to record her service prior to posting it online Sunday morning for members of her congregation to view. Because her husband is in a high-risk group to get coronavirus, she plans to record from home.

For The Mount Suffolk Pastor Karl Wilkins, his group of churches is planning online worship, which changes the dynamic of its service.

“With this pandemic, it really has changed the whole way that we do church,” Wilkins said, “because we’re at a time now where the church doors are starting to close, and we’ve got to find new innovative ways to be able to still spread the gospel. And technology is the only tool that we have right now to do that.”

But with that technology comes challenges, especially with engaging a senior population that doesn’t spend much time in the online world.

“The major concern for a lot of churches is that a lot of seniors are not technologically savvy, so they’re not able to have access to online streaming,” Wilkins said. “They don’t know how to work technology, so that’s a bit of a problem with them being connected and staying connected to the fellowship, so we’re trying to figure out how can we provide assistance for those seniors.”

Wilkins expects that pastors of churches who are not as comfortable using online tools to stream services or engage their congregations will need to reach out to those that are more comfortable in that space, so they can stay connected.

“Truth be told, all of us should be concerned about all of our congregants,” Wilkins said, “whether you’re a traditional church, non-traditional, small, large. All of us are affected by this and we’re all in this thing together. For those traditional churches who have not caught up with today’s times, I think it’s a great opportunity for them to reach out to some of the more modern churches and just get that assistance.”

In addition to establishing a means of connecting and worshipping, churches are also trying to assess the needs of their congregations in a new social distancing era.
Wilkins’ church has been making daily phone calls to assess congregational needs. It is also looking at ways it can still stay connected to the community through outreach, especially in helping the city’s senior population. His church fed lunch to seniors across Hampton Roads as part of that outreach.

Wilkins said members of his congregation have expressed concerns about not being at work and how to provide for their families and care for elderly parents.

At Suffolk Christian Church, there is a sign on the front door with the cell phone number for its pastor, the Rev. Michael Halley, to encourage anyone — church member of not — to call and let him know of any needs they have. Several have, he said.

There, they are making liberal use of the ChurchCast program, a web-based and mobile app notification system that allows church leaders to communicate with all of its members by phone or email. Halley is using it to post a daily devotional and note any illnesses or deaths.

The church is exploring a streaming option, perhaps posting videos on Facebook, but it has not decided on that.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job right now,” Halley said. “Now, going forward, we may have to come up with some more creative ways to reach out. For right now, we’re trying to be good citizens and not make this thing any worse.”

Like at other churches during this period, Halley and other members of his congregation have been assessing the needs of the most vulnerable among the church’s members and buying groceries or performing other errands for them. The church also has a food pantry and clothes closet for those who need items there.

Like pastors at congregations around the city, Halley is trying to comfort and reduce the anxiety that members of his congregation feel. He plans to email members Friday that even in crisis, God is still faithful.

“I’m emphasizing scripture verses that have to do with, that God is in control, that in everything, God works for the good of those who are called.”

Wilkins has been trying to reinforce the faith of his members, reminding them that God is in control and trying to encourage his members to stay the course, and that they will get through this time together.

“The same God that brought us through the last storm, it’s the same God that’ll bring us through this storm,” Wilkins said.

Sterling said her deacon’s group has been checking on vulnerable and older members of the Suffolk Presbyterian Church congregation, and it has a trio of nurses and a doctor among their members who are helping to answer questions and deal with concerns about COVID-19.

“The study that we’re doing … is on faithful citizenship, and really, just talking about how even though we have to be isolated for our protection, we need to find ways to be present in other people’s lives,” Sterling said. “And so really, having to do this is a good practice in being present, even when there are boundaries.”