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In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the author instructs believers, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”
As the concerns over COVID-19 have forced houses of worship to close their doors and avoid gathering in groups, local faith leaders are still heeding that advice. They have adjusted to provide virtual worship services via video streaming. Overwhelmingly, pastors around the Waco area say they are not about to abandon the idea of meeting together. They’re just doing so in a different way.
“We’re connecting but we’re also providing meaningful content,” said Leslie King, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Waco. “I think that’s a hallmark for us. We want to make sure that both are happening.”
Two weeks ago, when public events first succumbed to a wave of cancellations, local ministers had to come to grips with the idea of not holding a service or mass. Many ended up canceling their March 15 Sunday services, though they admit those were hard decisions. For a number of churches in the Waco area, it brought the first interruption in public services in decades, if ever.
For Josh Vaughan, pastor at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, the dilemma did not just center on asking his congregation to stay home from worship. During that spring break week the church had two mission teams serving outside of Texas — one in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the other in Dénia, Spain.
“I was watching the (virus) numbers in Spain that week go from zero to the hundreds, and our team going from fully operational to at risk of not being able to get back to the U.S. in a matter of 24 hours,” Vaughan said. “The rate of this was unbelievable. We were watching that over there, and then we came to realize, ‘Oh wait, it’s not over there. This is here.’”
Brian Coats, pastor of Central Christian Church, said he personally struggled with the idea of canceling a public worship service, given how essential he views it as part of church life. Central Christian held a service on March 15 before moving to a streaming service this past Sunday, after the city had put limits on public gatherings.
“That was definitely a small service (on March 15), but we made modifications to communion, to our greeting time, even to the offering,” Coats said. “Basically any place there might have been touch, we tried to minimize that. It was good.”
By and large, houses of worship in the Waco area have turned to video streaming to bring services into the homes of their congregations. Some — First Baptist Waco, Columbus Avenue Baptist and Christ the King Church, among others — have longstanding television ministries and have been broadcasting and streaming their services for years. For those churches, the transition was not too bumpy.
For others, it is new territory.
Monica O’Desky, cantor at Waco’s Temple Rodef Sholom, has a master’s degree in software engineering and describes herself as a “techie.” But she still had to undergo a crash course on videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and other technology in order to provide streaming of Rodef Sholom’s Shabbat services.
“I’m rarely impressed by technology,” O’Desky said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I know how they did that. The magic is out of it.’ But I’ve got to hand it to them, it’s scaled up to the hundreds of thousands or even more, millions of people, who are getting on these platforms, and it’s just performing perfectly. I’m blown away. Just the idea that we can do this is making it bearable for a lot of people.”
Churches are forgoing the choirs and orchestras that normally supply music each week in order to adhere to countywide limitations on gatherings.
But, overwhelmingly, church members are responding with gratefulness that services are continuing, even in a stripped-down, virtual sense.
“I think under the circumstances that we’re under, the feedback has been positive,” said Matt Snowden, pastor at First Baptist. “Our folks are resilient, and they certainly know what a unique situation this is and that we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances.”
Columbus Avenue’s Vaughan echoed that sentiment.
“Overwhelmingly, people have just been grateful,” he said. “With so many other things changing, it’s been really important to see some things not change. We’ve been continuing to teach the Gospel of Luke, or still having worship leaders that folks are used to seeing. Even just the room has helped provide some stability.”
Rather than Facebook Live or other web streaming services, First Presbyterian has used the Zoom platform to gather its congregation in a virtual sanctuary, so to speak.
“People really loved it,” King said. “I was surprised with how quickly we settled into the real content and how everybody was ready to do something kind of regular or customary.”
Josh Carney, pastor of Waco’s University Baptist Church, said leaders originally planned to tape their service in advance in order to send it out to their members later. But after choosing to stream it live and experiencing a flood of positive comments, the church opted to continue with live streaming.
“I was surprised at the great response to the service,” Carney said. “At first, we were going to pre-record the service, but we found that people communicated how much they interacted with the worship and how meaningful it was for it to be live.”
On the other hand, First United Methodist has chosen to prerecord its worship service and make it available to members on Friday afternoons. Their reasoning, said pastor Ryan Barnett, revolves around bandwidth. Because of so many churches around the country streaming services on Sunday mornings, some internet providers are experiencing slowdowns.
“A lot of the providers are getting stretched on Sunday mornings as, I think, every church in America is trying to share its content with its folks,” Barnett said. “We’re making our worship service available on late Friday afternoon, and that way people can gather anytime on Saturday or Sunday that they like.”
At St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Father Joseph Geleney said he has received great feedback from the daily mass he streams to the church’s Facebook page. He said that while Catholics miss participating in communion, they are finding other ways to partake of the sacraments.
“The Bishop has recommended all along to do spiritual communion,” Geleney said. “When it comes time for the communion part of the mass, I have a young friend who’s part of the parish who’s good on Facebook and he posts a message up there with a spiritual communion prayer that everyone can pray at that time.”
Geleney said he has heard reports of Catholic churches elsewhere in the country that have transitioned to drive-thru communion or confessions, but it was not an option he wanted to explore in Waco.
“I don’t think we’re going that way,” he said.
While many churches deal with the inherent challenges of broadcasting their services with a skeleton crew, Waco’s Church Under the Bridge faces its own issues. The church that formerly met under an Interstate 35 overpass and in recent months has gathered at Magnolia Market at the Silos counts the city’s homeless population as a significant portion of its congregation.
Pastor Jimmy Dorrell said the church has switched gears to try to love on people in new ways. It did not hold a worship service last week in accordance with city guidelines, but 15 church members came together to serve burgers to a total of 82 homeless people as well as 20 more people sheltering in place in homes and hotels.
“So, we can’t have church, but we feel like we can’t just ignore them,” Dorrell said. “So we do distancing and we had people wash their hands first and we had as much protection as we can get, but we just feel like, as Christians, how do you do anything else but that? You can’t ignore them. If I get the virus, that just goes with the turf. That’s what Christ would have done, so we’re not going to ignore that.”
Besides worship services, local churches are getting creative in an attempt to meet other needs among their memberships. Several churches are meeting in Sunday school or Bible study groups via networking platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Meetings and YouTube Live. O’Desky said she has a group that meets monthly to study the Torah that will likely turn to Zoom to gather instead.
“I think people are just calling and staying in touch,” O’Desky said. “I talk to the president of our congregation probably every 48 hours, just checking in, ‘Have you heard of anyone who’s ill, is there anybody who needs something?’ So we’re trying to keep up with what’s going on.”
Indeed, churches have ramped up their efforts to reach out to their homebound members to minister in practical ways. At Columbus Avenue Baptist, deacons spent last weekend calling more than 500 senior adults as part of a “Love Your Neighbor” initiative that sought to pair those elderly members up with a buddy to run errands for groceries or prescriptions. A women’s group in the church is busy sewing surgical masks to donate to area medical personnel.
First Baptist Woodway members have made trips to Jubilee Food Market to buy food for the elderly, aiding the ministry of Mission Waco in the process. Other local churches have reached out in similar ways.
“I had one person call and ask me for the church directory, and she said she was going to get a group of people together and they were going to call every single person in the church,” said Central Christian pastor Coats. “That’s just awesome. Little things like that.”
At First Presbyterian, King said members have created a team of “technology deacons” to help older church members get connected to the online streams and platforms. Other churches have implemented similar measures.
First Baptist pastor Snowden said that when people are isolated, as they are now, the efforts to connect become all the more important.
“When things are complicated, we try to keep it very simple,” he said. “That’s going back to the fundamentals, and prioritizing communication. We’ll do some mailouts, email, and also old-school telephone calls and text messages, to see if people are in need of pastoral care. … It’s just a matter of intentionally connecting with each other. We still want to be a vital witness to the world.”
Over the past year, First United Methodist has branched out across the city, teaming up with the former Austin Avenue United Methodist to create a downtown campus. With its members now worshiping from home because of shelter-in-place orders, the church has crafted a set of yard signs for people that label members’ residences as a “First Methodist Home Campus.”
“We don’t think that we’ve given up meeting together,” Barnett said. “We’re just meeting in our smallest units, on our campuses all over the city.”
Like a full-throated choir belting out a classic hymn, local pastors express that idea in earnest. The church can and must still be the church during this time, they said.
“It’s almost a time where you have a chance to go deeper in being the church,” Dorrell said. “These are the times where you move one way or the other.”
It has not been easy by any means. Several ministers spoke of being disheartened about having to announce to their flocks that services were being suspended, even while understanding the reasoning behind it.
“It’s heartbreaking, the idea that we wouldn’t gather,” said First Baptist pastor Snowden. “But we understood and are respectful of why it’s needed, but nobody is glad for it. You’re going to face challenges your whole Christian life, but a major part of it is pulling together. It’s a struggle, but you sacrifice to do what’s best for your neighbor.”
Added First Presbyterian’s King, “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say people were frustrated or had a hard time with the technology. But overall I think people really feel like we want to rise to whatever challenge this is for us, and be the church alongside our brothers and sisters at Columbus Avenue and Seventh and James and St. Paul and all those places.”
To these ministers, the word church is less about a steeple and walls than it is about the people and the mission they have embarked on together.
“In many respects, nothing has changed at all. The church is not the building, it’s not a particular set of programs or ministries,” Vaughan said. “It is Jesus’ followers loving God and loving others joyfully and humbly in whatever the circumstances may be. So, our mission, and the way we talk about it at Columbus is that our mission is to joyfully live and lead others to a Jesus-shaped life has not changed. The context has, dramatically. But who we are and what we do hasn’t.”