Historically, communities of faith overcome obstacles together.
Many Valley churches of all faiths are crossing their latest hurdle — finding ways to worship while buildings are closed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak — both alone and together thanks to modern technology.
“Regular life and ministry have been disrupted by the coronavirus and we’re adjusting,” said Pastor Rich Fangmann of Zion Lutheran Church in Sunbury. “We’re committed to one another and to the community of Sunbury and the surrounding area. We’re trying to find new ways to worship, new ways to support one another and new ways to support the community.”
Fangmann and his church held their first virtual service last Sunday.
“I think it went pretty well,” he said. “We had a more condensed traditional service. We gathered a few people for a choir and to read the lessons. I think it was well-received among all of our members and hopefully others.”
Rabbi Nina Mandel of Congregation Beth El in Sunbury also hosted their first virtual worship service last Friday.
“We did a Facebook live feed and in a strange way, it has allowed people who are connected with the congregation that are living all over the world to actually join together virtually because Facebook has the whole chat comment section,” she said. “People were chatting away throughout the service as they always do but this time I could read what they were saying.”
Pastor Randy Bennett of Christ Community United Methodist Church in Selinsgrove noticed that trend as well.
“Our average attendance is around 275 on a Sunday,” he said. “This past week, when we live streamed, we had 22 people share to their home pages and last I checked we were somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 views, which was kinda cool.”
Bennett who is helping steer his congregation through a construction renovation project saw that come to a screeching halt when the governor’s order to shut down all non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 was announced.
“We were almost to a place in our new sanctuary renovation that we were going to have it set up to really do a good job live streaming, and have all of the equipment in place,” he said. “We were literally a week and a half away from that so at this point we are just using my iPhone and its working for us.
Still, staring out into an empty church and preaching can be a bit odd.
“It’s very weird, not normal at all,” said Pastor Corey Mitchell of Winfield Baptist Church. “The face to face is really what … church is. In some ways, livestream isn’t church, it’s just a temporary substitute in my mind.”
Pastor Nate Druckenmiller, of Dreisbach United Church of Christ, also misses that person-to-person interaction.
“You might see a name pop up that’s watching the service but it’s still not the same as seeing their smile or hearing their voice as you would when your physically in the same place,” he said. “So it doesn’t take the place for me of the in-person worship but it’s what we’ve got right now so we have to do and provide what we can in these strange and different times.”
Church isn’t just a one day a week gig for clergy. There are many events within their profession that occur every day of the week.
“The things we are coming up against that are more challenging is what do you do for a funeral, for mourners?” Mandel said. “How do you visit people in the last stages of their lives? How do you do those other life cycle rituals that rely on people being there in person?”
To help meet the demand for people to feel connected to their church, many have taken to the internet more than once a week.
Winfield Baptist Church has a Tuesday prayer on Zoom. Christ Community UMC in Selinsgrove is doing a livestream mid-week prayer service. Congregation Beth El in Sunbury is now using Zoom to host their religious school.
“I think people are just itching to get back to normal,” Mitchell said, “ but in the waiting time they are appreciative of having something to connect them to the larger body of the church.”
What normal is after the lockdown is lifted, clergy aren’t fully sure.
“With the changing situation, I think we will change the way we do ministry,” Fangmann said. “I think we’ve discovered there are a lot of people out there who can’t be with us on a Sunday. Some of them do not have Facebook access, but there are a lot that do, and we want to make sure we reach out to them. So I can see us continuing this into the future.”
Where congregations go from here and when they get to meet in person again no one seems to know for sure.
“Everything is so unprecedented about this for us, and certainly one of the things we will do as the new normal emerges, is to figure out what lessons we’ve learned from all of the adaptations we’ve been making,” Mandel said.