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‘Preaching to empty pews’: Churches rethink worship in coronavirus era

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WAKE FOREST — As people stay home and try to comply with orders not to gather in groups of 50 or more, church leaders are finding ways to keep traditions alive, just without the churchgoers.

For many houses of worship, including Wake Forest Baptist Church, Sunday services are now online.

The church records full services Wednesday nights with a small group of dedicated worship leaders. These services include hymns and a children’s sermon. These videos are edited and put on YouTube for the congregation to watch on Sunday mornings.

“We’ve had a tremendous response to that,” said Bill Slater, senior pastor. “The greatest challenge has been that we simply don’t have our worshiping community with us, so I’m preaching to empty pews. We miss the connections that naturally being in the presence of each other brings.

“At the same time with technology being what it is, our worshiping audience, if you want to call it that, is even greater.”

Since the YouTube videos are available to anyone, people from other states and even other countries are watching the services, Slater said.

“There’s huge appreciation, first of all, that we are doing an online service. That gives people at least some opportunity to worship,” he said. “They can see faces that are familiar to them. They can worship in their home or wherever they happen to be. It’s been a huge positive response that we are at least offering the opportunity to worship.”

While a lot of the preparation for worship services remains the same, it does not feel like business as usual, Slater said.

“We are created for community. We’re learning how not having that sense of community is a really critical piece of our worship community,” he said. “We’re learning the power of technology and the opportunity it presents to spreading the gift of worship in creative ways, in different settings and at different times. We are realizing that technology can be a wonderful gift if we can’t be together.”

Several Sunday school classes are still meeting online. Small groups are also setting up phone lines, so people can speak with one another.

“There’s a lot of things happening that don’t require us to be in the building to be a church,” Slater said. “The tag line is ‘The church has left the building.’ ... A lot of people are realizing that church isn’t just Sunday morning when we gather and worship.”

Wake Forest Baptist Church is known for its local mission work, and that work is continuing, according to Slater. The church gave out 150 hot dogs Saturday to neighbors, and work is continuing on the community garden.

“What people are really loving to see is that while we can’t have church, we can continue to be the church,” Slater said. “I’m sending out daily posts with pictures of what people are doing in our church.”

It is normal for people to feel stressed and apprehensive, and that does not mean they are weak in their faith, Slater emphasized.

“It is critical we be nice to ourselves right now,” he said. “To have a church family has been such a gift in such a stressful, difficult time in our country. Of course, it’s stressful and challenging, but how do we get through? Through our sense of community. And the church has been the best gift we can give. That’s just the beautiful thing about church.”

Wellspring Church, which usually meets at Heritage High School, has found itself without a gathering place until schools reopen May 17 at the earliest. Until then, the church is hosting services online on through YouTube and Facebook Live, according to David Price, assistant pastor.

The congregation is also divided into Lifegroups, small worship groups, that are video conferencing using Google Hangouts.

“We emphasize relational discipleship, which requires intentionality in building any relationship. Making the adjustment to meeting and beginning relationships digitally is an adjustment,” Price said. “Our A-team responded to this crisis and adjustment quite seamlessly.”

Zebulon United Methodist Church is still hosting a food drive for kids, Monday-Friday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., according to member Shannon Baxter.

Wakefield Central Baptist, Central Baptist and St. Eugene’s Catholic churches are also collecting donations for that food drive.

Wakefield Central Baptist and St. Eugene’s are both streaming worship services on Facebook Live. Central Baptist streams live audio broadcasts on its website every Sunday.

While Zebulon United Methodist Church is not broadcasting services online, a liturgy is posted on its website for people to read at home.