Keeping the faith: Churches close, but services continue online

When it was announced last week that major sporting events, concerts and other large gatherings would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian Mills United Methodist Church Pastor Jack Orr thought of his 94-year-old mother living in central Pennsylvania. He thought about how he would feel if she was attending church in the midst of this health emergency, and he thought about his own church’s older congregation.

Then he decided it was time to shutter his Shamong church — at least for a while.

“It was better to err on the side of caution rather than risking the spread of the virus,” Orr explained via email, “which could have grave consequences for (older congregants).”

Indian Mills UMC suspended all gatherings on Friday, March 13, the same day schools in Burlington County closed through April 20.

In fact, it was around this time most houses of worship throughout the region were doing the same, going along with federal recommendations to avoid large gatherings in order to curb the spread of the highly contagious respiratory virus. But when one door closes, another opens — or, more specifically in this case, a virtual door.

Buildings may be closed, but services are continuing. Churches, synagogues and other religious institutions have been turning toward live streaming, social media platforms and other virtual technology to reach and support congregations. For some, they are experimenting in the media for the first time. For others, it’s old hat, having been live streaming for years. Regardless of experience level, one thing is the same: Area religious leaders are doing their best to support their flocks during this tumultuous, unprecedented time.

Streaming live

The virtual realm is nothing new for Haddonfield United Methodist Church.

“We have a pretty significant digital footprint,” Rev. Chris Heckert said.

The church has its own app (Haddonfield UMC in the App Store) and is “very active” on Instagram and Facebook (both @haddonfieldumc). There is also a Vimeo channel — www.vimeo.com/humcvideoministry.

Live streaming services for about three years now, the church has an archive of its contemporary services, which are streamed at 9 a.m. on Sundays via Facebook Live. The 10:30 a.m. traditional Sunday services are live streamed through the church’s free app and on the website. Religious music copyright laws have kept Haddonfield UMC from digitally archiving its traditional services — that is, until now. Due to church music copyright giant One License loosening its reins because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haddonfield UMC will, for the time being, be able to archive its traditional services, too.

“One License came out this past weekend and they’re giving away temporary subscriptions so that people can stream worship music,” Heckert said. “We jumped on that, and that’s how we’re able to archive our traditional services.”

In nearby Moorestown, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church will offer its first live Sunday service this weekend after closing the church to the public last week. Not yet equipped to jump into Facebook Live or Vimeo, Pastor Margaret Marks said the plan was to start with a podcast and then work from there. Marks is recording the podcast with Deacon Bill Lawrence, and it will be available through the church website at www.stmatthew-lutheran.org.

“We’re learning new things. We’re trying to do more,” she said, adding the church has been recording services for about 20 years to send in CD format to church members who are shut-in without web access. “They get it and really appreciate it. We’ll continue to do that.”

Live streaming was not a foreign concept to Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, which has offered various events via live stream in the past. Regular services, however, were never streamed until this past week.

“People responded well,” Co-Pastor Charles Clark III said via email.

In addition to live streaming Sunday morning and evening services, Solid Rock is also live streaming its Thursday night prayer meeting. All live-streams are accessible through the church website at www.solidrockbaptist.org.

After consulting with colleagues and checking his laptop camera, Orr decided to try live streaming to stay connected to the Indian Mills UMC community — and beyond.

“I decided to attempt live streaming to give people in our community some assurance of God’s grace in the midst of this crisis and, through technology, keep connected with each other and with others all around the world who are also experiencing this crisis,” Orr said.

The live stream is through the church’s Facebook page @indianmillsumc. Both the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services are live streamed, and they are available for replay. The stream is coming from music director Floss Tavani’s home, since Floss and her husband Dan are equipped with both an organ and WiFi, of which the church does not have the latter.

“We had over 128 responses during the livestream, which is way above our weekly attendance average,” Orr said of the church’s first recording on Sunday, March 15. “Hopefully the need to connect and the convenience of church at home will keep people tuning in.

“We also had people watching our live stream from Mexico and Italy,” Orr added. “The Tavanis’ daughter and her family were watching from Rome. My wife Debi and I went on a mission trip to LaPalmilla Mexico in 2017, and our host family tuned in.”

Indian Mills UMC is looking to utilize social media beyond live streaming.

“We are working on providing words of comfort and encouragement on social media,” Orr said, “as well as inviting prayer requests from our community and around the world.”

Beyond services

Haddonfield UMC leadership made the decision to cancel in-person worship last week. Despite its already well established hold in the digital world, the church is using this time to expand upon its offerings and reach its congregants in any and every way.

“I’m going to pay attention to needs and opportunities, what I’m hearing, recommendations,” Heckert said. “Things that will help us expand on what we’re doing.”

The church’s mission is to embody the love of Jesus Christ through grace-filled community, inspired worship and transformational mission, and leaders are now examining how to carry and embody that mission with the current COVID-19 recommendations and restrictions.

Heckert is looking to utilize video conferencing platform Zoom to host small groups. He experimented with a colleague in hosting a group meditative prayer session on Zoom, in which participants would be encouraged to light a candle, listen to a book excerpt and take five or 10 minutes of silence in unison.

Heckert is also planning to post more devotional and inspirational videos online.

“We’re trying to encourage virtual connections, encourage people to call on each other, check in on each other,” Heckert said, adding he has been getting overwhelmingly positive feedback. “Elementary school-aged kids to age 99 have been engaged with the church in some way or another.”

At Solid Rock Baptist, church members can submit prayer requests on the website, and the plan is to soon have information online for parishioners to call and speak to someone, offering prayer together and receiving counsel from the Bible, according to Clark. Solid Rock is using direct mailings to inform the public of the online church services and other ways to receive assistance and support.

Other missions continue

Solid Rock Baptist is largely closed to the public at this point, with some staff members there during the day and a few “mostly necessary” people in attendance at services. As of last week, Solid Rock was also continuing its Friday evening Reformers Unanimous Addictions Ministry.

“Because of the nature of addictions,” Clark said, “it is critical that we are here to assist those in need.”

While not in the virtual realm, Saint Matthew is also finding a way to continue supporting the community with the Live Civilly Moorestown Ministerium Food Pantry, housed on site and supported by the town’s ministerium of churches and Live Civilly group. The pantry is typically open the first and third Mondays of each month, although it had to close on March 16.

“Our problem that I’m learning other congregations are also having,” Marks said, “is getting volunteers to do the work.”

Regardless, the pantry will be open on Sunday, April 5, from noon to 2 p.m. and again from 5 to 7 p.m. For safety, bags will be assembled and distributed outside, and anyone who is facing a need can take advantage of the pantry.

The food pantry at Indian Mills UMC is also still available for those in need. Orr suggests patrons reach out via call or text to the pantry coordinator at (609) 534-6495 to coordinate.

Haddonfield UMC does not have a pantry on site, but in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Heckert put out a call on Facebook promoting a new mission — collecting for the Cherry Hill Food Pantry. Within a day, the video had reached more than 4,000 people, and the donation receptacle outside the church had to be emptied.

“The food pantry has been really hit hard. Fewer people are donating, fewer people are volunteering and, of course, the demand has gone up,” Heckert said. “We’re trying to find relevant content that will become viral for a positive reason. So we’re trying to use this food collection as something positive people can get behind. But the goal is not to get views — the goal is to get food donated.”

The coming weeks

“We are continuing to monitor the situation and will have online services until we feel it is safe to do otherwise,” Clark said. “We feel this is a public health issue, so we will continue to examine the health order directives.”

Orr echoed those sentiments, saying Indian Mills UMC will likely be continuing like this for the “unseeable future.” Church activities will continue to be suspended for the health and well being of the community, and they will continue to worship via Facebook, including services for Holy Week and Easter.

Marks noted Saint Matthew is following the Burlington County school closing schedule, as means the church will stay closed through at least Easter as well.

“If they close longer, we will close longer,” she said.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Heckert said there are four major points to remember.

“One, take this seriously. Two, we have to do everything we can to flatten the curve. Three, we have to stay engaged in ministry; people have never needed us more than now. And four, we have to innovate,” Heckert said. “What ministry looked like (two weeks ago) is not what it looks like now. We just have to keep trying things.

“Now’s the time for us to do what we do best,” he continued, “and to offer people hope and care.”

Is your religious institution continuing services online due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there other mission-based activities continuing in some way? Let The Sun know and we will share your information.