As Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine starts loosening restrictions due to the coronavirus and allowing more businesses to open, local church leaders aren’t sure what that means for them.
But they say some of the changes they have made during the pandemic — live-streaming and using Facebook for services, social distancing, eliminating in-person tithing, handshakes and hugs — may remain after traditional in-person services return.
The Ohio’s stay-at-home order exempts religious institutions and worship services and DeWine never ordered churches to close because of COVID-19. Still, as a precaution, many local churches have held virtual services broadcast on social media, pastors have preached in front of empty sanctuaries and some have held drive-in services.
In March, when the majority of churches closed their buildings, Solid Rock Church in Monroe, one of the region’s largest and most visible churches, was criticized for holding services throughout the pandemic.
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Another local church, Berachah Church in Middletown, has returned to holding in-person services with precautions taken to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, said Pastor Lamar Ferrell.
He said the church has held one service every Sunday since May 3 and to ensure the safety of the congregants and church staff, families are encouraged to sit together, rows of chairs have been separated that reduced the sanctuary capacity from 500 to 200, staff members are asked to wear masks, children’s services have been cancelled and the “greeting” part of the service has been eliminated.
Ferrell said if retail stores can be open and considered essential he said the “community of believers” should be essential and be allowed to gather in a safe environment.
He called the debate about the seriousness of the coronavirus, even in the religious world, “the great divide” and there is “no middle ground.”
Berachah also broadcasts the message and music to those sitting in their cars in the parking lot and shows the service on social media. But there is no substitute for gathering as a church family, Ferrell said.
“There’s a renewed excitement to be back together,” he said. “It’s been marvelous.”
Christ United Methodist Church in Middletown has started hosting drive-in services as a way to stay connected with its members, said the Rev. Wynston Dixon.
He stands on the back of a truck and delivers a sermon that is played on 98.1 FM. For the last few weeks, Dixon said there have been nearly 50 vehicles in the lot and some nearby neighbors have listened to the sermon while sitting in their yards. People are encouraged to remain in their cars, he said.
Dixon said he never thought he’d preach from a truck.
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“It’s just amazing,” he said. “The church is just the place where we worship. God has deployed His church. The building is closed, but the members have been deployed.”
The method doesn’t matter, he said. It’s all about the message.
“As long as we keep the word of God out there in this time,” he said. “People need to hear words of wisdom, encouragement. People have fear and anxiety, but if we turn to the Lord, He will give us strength.”
The Rev. John Lewis, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Hamilton, said church staff is putting “all their energy” into the video department and social media because that’s where “everybody is living” as a result of the pandemic.
He said views on the church’s site have tripled since it started broadcasting its sermons.
Holding traditional in-church services may be at least two months away and won’t start until it’s safe for the staff and congregants, Lewis said.
Opening now, he said, “would not be very responsible.”
Lewis said it would be impossible to sanitize an entire church because of the handshakes, hugs, passing out of bulletins and offering plate.
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