By ARIANA R. CHERRY
There’s no doubt about it- the pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. For some of us, it has changed the way we work. Some have been finding themselves working remotely from home and spending less time “at the office.” It has changed how we go about our daily lives when we enter retail spaces or spend time with groups of people. But for most of us, who attend church every Sunday – we definitely have felt that change the most.
Since March, most of the worshiping community in Arthur has been spending their Sunday mornings in front of some type of electronic device for church (computer, tablet, cell phone or smart TV, etc). We have been social distancing to help lower the spread of COVID19. That means, we have been worshiping online, outside or through other creative modes. While our community of Arthur is small, that didn’t leave us untouchable from COVID19. We too, have had to endure change as we adjusted to the way we spend our Sunday mornings for church. Although, with Illinois close to hopefully moving to “Phase 4” according to the “Restore Illinois Plan,” some of us will be finding our way back to “the heart of worship.”
“We will probably wait until our region is in Phase 4 – so, hopefully the first Sunday in July,” noted Rod Randall from Zion United Church of Christ, when asked when their congregation planned to return to their building. Since the pandemic began, Rod informed that Zion had been conducting its book studies, business meetings and other worshiping activities virtually. To keep members connected, they had a weekly email newsletter and their website had messages from former pastors and others. The church had also enhanced their Facebook presence with postings and hope to continue to do so, even when they all return back to worship together. Once they begin to physically meet in their church, members will be using social distancing and hand sanitizer. Even before the pandemic hit, Zion was always very vigilant about keeping their church and all of its surfaces clean. “For years we have had available hand sanitizers in the church and reduced the practice of shaking everyone’s hand before a worship service, especially during the annual flu season,” said Rod.
Vine Street Christian Church presently has not set a date for re-opening their church. “Our Moderator, Ed Coller, has been reaching out to the congregation and keeping everyone involved in this decision making process. Ultimately, the congregation will decide when we re-open,” said Pastor Bob Silvanik. Vine Street Christian Church is in the planning stages of possibly having an outdoor worship service on June 21. If this happens, they plan to follow all of the safety precautions that they would also follow if they were indoors. Since the pandemic began and churches and businesses began to close, there have not been any events or activities in the building of the church. While some may think a church would worry about its financial state during a pandemic, thankfully, this is something VSCC has not had to worry too much about. “One of the incredible silver linings of this is that our giving has continued to be strong and consistent,” informed Pastor Bob. Another “silver-lining” during this whole “ordeal,” is the ability to stay connected. Pastor Bob explained a variety of ways that his congregation has been keeping in touch. “We having been using technology for: 1) audio recorded daily devotions emailed to our church family and posted on our website; 2) periodic Wednesday evening “Middle Sabbath” audio recorded services have been emailed to church family and posted on website; 3) Wednesday evening discussion group on Zoom has been ongoing; 4) showing our Sunday morning 10am service live on Facebook Live each Sunday; 5) emailing a video recording of our Sunday morning services to all our church family on Sunday afternoon,” he said.
Pastor Bob also spoke of a “Shepherding Program,” his church has put into place. Leaders of his church would reach out to a small group of their church family (flock) and contact them at least once a week and then minister to them in any way that was needed. (“every member a minister!”). Pastor Bob also said like everyone had been doing, they had been doing “drive-byes” and “stop-byes” among themselves and also having driving parades to celebrate special occasions. VSCC stated that since their online worshiping and ministry has been so successful, that it would continue to keep it going, as it had not only reached their own congregation, but others outside the area as well. And while VSCC is looking forward to being together again, Pastor Bob also stated that they still must be very vigilant and continue to take the spread of the virus seriously.
“Even though the media coverage of the virus has diminished considerably, the truth is that case numbers continue to rise, and with that, deaths, so we are taking this very seriously. None of us really knows how this virus is working, but I fear too many people are basing their response to it on the fact that the media has stopped covering it in the way they did weeks ago,” said Pastor Bob.
Pastor John Stewart stated that the First Baptist Church had returned to worship on Sunday, June 14. The building had not been open for small groups previously, but has plans to do so in the future after opening. He also noted that their congregation would be taking precautions. “We will suggest that people take precautions that they’re familiar and comfortable with – masks, hand sanitizer, distancing. We won’t pass offering plates. We’ll have a greeting time, but asking people to respect others’ space – handshakes and hugs are not encouraged. If you feel ill or uncomfortable with the idea of being around other people, please stay home – it’s okay,” he said. John also stated that after re-opening, they would continue to live-stream prayer time and the sermon. During the time that they were closed, in order to stay in touch with each other, the congregation was encouraged to be intentional about their connections. “If someone comes to mind: pray for them, call, write a note, or text. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Personally, I’ve been trying to call different people each week, just to say, ‘Hello, I’m thinking of you’ and stay connected. Lots of Facebook connections too,” John said.
The Arthur United Methodist Church has been conducting its online worship service live via Facebook at 9:00 am since March 22. Pastor Bruce Weiman has also been going live every evening at 9:30 pm to chat with anyone who logs on and has had mini Bible study sessions and often shares stories that have special messages. Pastor Bruce often reminded the congregation that the people are the “church,” and not the building. “Even though the building is closed, church is still happening,” he quoted. Members of the congregation have been staying connected in various ways. The administrative assistant, Ariana Cherry, set up a text chat, so that anyone who wanted to participate, could text as a group via cell phone. There has been more activity on both the church website and Facebook page. Members of the congregation have been going to each other’s homes and standing outside to sing Happy Birthday and has even had a car parade with fire trucks for special occasions. Recently, members created a singing group, the “AUMC Circuit Singers,” and they’ve been heading to homes and singing hymns and praise songs outdoors. Of course, they all have been wearing masks and practicing social distancing while singing. Before the pandemic, members often had lunch (pondering with the Pastor) after worship on Sundays. In place of “pondering,” members have been meeting via ZOOM every Sunday at 11:00 am. Also to help “stimulate the economy” in Arthur, the church has been “flash-mobbing” in town restaurants to order take-out and get a chance to say hello to each other. The church has been very creative in finding ways to stay connected during this time. While other churches may be re-opening, being part of a conference, AUMC has to adhere by conference guidelines and when they can reopen. As Illinois moves into phase 4, the conference is looking at the possibility of its Methodist Churches reopening again. Presently, AUMC is looking at having an in-person worship service on Sunday, June 28 at 9:00 am as long as the conference is moving forward in its church re-openings and has the blessing of the Bishop. Should this worship service happen, AUMC will be taking all of the necessary precautions that include family units sitting six feet away from each other and in every other pew. The Praise Band will be spread out six feet away from one another as well. Masks and social distancing will be encouraged and church members will not be passing the offering plate, shaking hands or hugging. While there will be many guidelines to follow, the most important thing to remember is that the congregation will be worshiping together as a group once again. The service will continue to be streamed on Facebook and there will be overflow in the AUMC Fellowship Hall. June 28 will also be Pastor Bruce’s last worship service as he is retiring, so any decisions on whether future services will be meeting in person will be up to new incoming leadership.
Pastor Doug Davis of the Arthur Southern Baptist Church informed that his church had been meeting for Sunday worship recently. They had put precautions into place and shared it with their church members. Some of those precautions included: reducing the number of chairs in the sanctuary to encourage social distancing, setting up an overflow area in the Fellowship Hall, asking attendees to wear masks to protect others, not passing the offering plate, continuing children’s church, youth and Wednesday night Bible Study online, not serving coffee and donuts, bulletins being self-served and not handed out, setting up hand-sanitizer stations and asking people to self monitor themselves for fevers or other symptoms of COVID19. Anyone who has symptoms is encouraged to stay home. The Southern Baptist Church had been live-streaming their service since 2013 and will continue to do so as they return to worship in person . For those who haven’t felt comfortable being in church and during the time of closure, Arthur Southern Baptist Church created an online directory and encouraged members to call and reach out to each other. The pandemic has been quite a learning curve for many, as Pastor Doug states in his following quote.
“There have been many lessons learned during this time of pandemic that will help to guide our ministry moving forward. I am grateful for the reminder that people received that the building is not the church. The people of God are the church. I am excited that God is using this to create a reformation of sorts, as His people are reminded to no longer separate living for Jesus from going somewhere to worship Him. I pray that we will keep the blessed reminder that we are to be DOERS of the Word, not HEARERS ONLY.”