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By BRENNA GRITEMAN
For the Review Times
While some area churches are cautiously reopening their doors for public worship, most have opted to stick with remote services.
Even when they do reopen, pastors say remote worship options, such as Facebook Live or YouTube presentations, will remain. It’s one of the many long-term changes COVID-19 has brought to our society, but it’s one most congregations have found is for the better.
The Rev. Jeffrey Motter, pastor at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, said remote worship will continue at the church until June at the earliest.
“We’re not in any hurry to reopen,” he said, adding his top priority is assuring that when parishioners do return, they feel comfortable and confident that they are in a safe environment.
Motter said the church’s bishop has offered some recommended guidelines to use as markers when considering reopening, but St. Andrew’s is taking the decision on a month by month basis.
“We’re taking all these steps to protect people, because we see that as Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Motter said.
Thankfully for St. Andrew’s, the church had offered a livestreamed worship option for about a year before a global pandemic made it a necessity. Still, there was a bit of a learning curve when worship switched abruptly to an entirely remote format. Motter said church staff patiently talked older members through the process of locating the services on Facebook, and he himself has had to adjust his preaching style to being alone in the church with just the person filming.
“I’ve had to discipline myself to make eye contact with the camera,” he said, noting he typically would scan the congregation to make eye contact with individual parishioners.
Because services have been livestreamed for a year, Motter has a library of previous services to call upon. He has not replayed any sermons, but has added previous children’s choir and bell choir performances to the remote services. “Our folks have really appreciated that added touch,” he said.
And, other staff members have recorded their own contributions — such as the family ministries director addressing children in the congregation from home — to help incorporate some additional familiar faces to the Sunday morning lineup.
Overall, Motter said church members have responded positively to the remote format. Many have said they’re finding the services meaningful and grounding, and are thankful to have something familiar to connect with during these uncertain times. Others have said they appreciate being able to watch live, then return to a particular song or prayer that resonated.
The Rev. Jessica Commeret, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, said in-person worship will likely be put on hold until July. She said the church has many members from the medical field, who are helping to advise elders and others on a committee tasked with recommending coronavirus guidelines. That includes setting a reopening date.
“Our primary concern is, we have older adults, and we want to look out for the health of the most vulnerable,” she said, adding that a typical Sunday attracts 150 or more worshippers.
A specific concern is public singing — central to just about any church service — and new data that shows that aerosols (tiny particles that can float in the air) can spray up to 20 feet when singing. She said a church service without singing is a challenge, and leaders are considering alternatives such as bells, chanting or prerecorded songs.
“It is such an important part of worship, and to not be able to sing is going to be extremely difficult,” Commeret said.
While remote worship has been incredibly popular, she said leaders do recognize a need for the church family to gather and celebrate in some way. The church will host a drive-in worship service on May 31.
In the meantime, services will “absolutely” continue via Facebook Live and on the church’s YouTube channel. Commeret said each recorded service receives several hundred views by the end of Sunday, noting that many households are watching together.
“We have people all over the country that are worshipping with us,” she said, citing snowbirds and former churchgoers who have moved away.
The Rev. Bill Bentley, pastor at Fostoria’s Wesley United Methodist Church, has been recording Sunday morning Scripture readings, The Lord’s Prayer, the day’s message and instrumental performances for worship via Facebook. A Zoom video conference after the service has proven particularly popular, allowing parishioners to chat and share prayer concerns.
“They’re together, but they’re not together” Bentley said, adding the remote worship will continue even after in-person worship resumes, for those who do not feel comfortable returning to traditional worship.
No reopening date has been set.
“We’d like to reopen, but we have to do so safely,” Bentley said. “We’re a long way back from being safe to gather back together and meet all the sanitation needs.”
Bentley attended an ROTC college in Texas, where he developed a love and respect for the medical field. He is also an asthma sufferer. Both instances keep him especially in tune with the news surrounding the coronavirus and the need to keep people safe and healthy during this time.
Just because churches are now “allowed” to be open, he said, “that doesn’t change anything with the virus. The virus is not subject to the law.”
John Drymon, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, said public worship will remain suspended until guidelines for reopening are handed down by the bishop.
In the meantime, Sunday morning worship will remain livestreamed on the church Facebook page, along with morning prayers throughout the week. Drymon said a weekly Evensong and benediction of the blessed sacrament have been added as the stay-at-home recommendations have been extended.
“Largely, people who never thought they’d be going to Facebook for anything are now on there for remote church services,” he said. A Zoom coffee hour has been added after Sunday worship, and Drymon said the congregation is “having a lot of fun with it.”