The church has left the building
Pastors across Oklahoma have been putting the adage “the church is not the building, it’s the people” into literal action since in-person gatherings were restricted to 10 or fewer on March 24 in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Rev. David Player, who pastors Guymon-Victory Memorial, has worked to keep his congregation in ministry with their community. He’s taken blessing bags made by volunteers to local truck stops for truck drivers who have to continue their deliveries. He’s made a point to text members on a regular basis as individuals and families have been self-quarantined at home.
Like many pastors, Player has joined the world of online worship. A weekly worship service is recorded in the sanctuary with a piano, hymns and leaders who practice social distancing. By contrast, a weekly devotion featuring only Player and a guitar is recorded on a smartphone. He’s received positive feedback from members regarding online worship, and an average of 120 participate online each week.
“Broadcasting over YouTube Live Streaming and Facebook Live is simple, low-cost, and easy,” Player said. “Select the YouTube Live or Facebook Live application, have your thoughts prepared and ready to share, [and] hit record, share, and then end. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.”
Rev. Robert Rose, who leads Duncan-First, has also been recording services in the sanctuary. He said they have people from other states joining them on a regular basis, and they get just as much viewership during the week as they do during the live worship on Sunday morning. In addition to music and a sermon, every other week a nurse from the congregation will close with tips on how to stay healthy while sheltering in place.
“We try not to scare people, but empower people. Right now, a lot of people just feel helpless, and when you give them tangible things they can do, then they’re able to feel like they’re more in control,” Rose said. “That’s just the same way you handle grief; you just try to help people give more control over their life, and it gives them comfort.”
Rose said the church has been divided into several “flocks” with each led by a “lay shepherd” who is in communication with their group every week. Bible studies take place by Zoom, an online meeting software, and individual pre-packaged communion cups are delivered to homes of members who want them for Sunday.
“I just remind people we’re not on our own, we’re not alone,” Rose said. “God is with us. There is a resurrection after Good Friday.”
Though Rev. Jinx Barber has also used Zoom for discipleship and livestreaming for worship, his church in Dewey has organized a drive-in approach for worship. Barber credits Rev. Tari Carbaugh, who serves at Samaritan Counseling and Growth Center, with having the prior experience to put it together in a safe manner.
A stage wide enough to accommodate social distancing for the worship team is set up in the parking lot of a local park, and families pull into parking spaces and stay in their cars. The service is broadcast on KRIG 104.9 FM, a local country station, which allows members who can’t attend or who don’t have livestreaming capabilities to listen in. Visitors from different churches have come, but there’s no desire to lure them away from their church homes.
“We’ve had some people go to other drive-in worships and say it feels just like church in the open, but when they come here, they feel like they’re a part of something,” Barber said. “That’s when we know we’ve hit the nail on the head.”
Alyssa Hamilton, who attends Dewey and participates in the drive-in weekly worship, said the energy in the cars in contagious.
“It feels 110% like worship. It’s funny how when the situation changes from what we are always used to and we think outside the box we live even more in the moment,” Hamilton said. “This is one of the most unreal times in our lives. Nothing is ‘normal.’ Having church keeps some sense of ‘normal’ and helps keep you surrounded by community even if it’s from a physical distance.”
Barber said his congregation isn’t rushing to go back to the building in May because no one can truly predict what the next few months will look like for communities. Among the uncertainty, however, he has seen his members step up to help each other in practical ways. He expressed both gladness that people are more aware of each other’s needs and sadness that it took a pandemic to make it happen.
“When church left the building, we had to learn to be the church,” Barber said. “We’re not always good at taking care of people when they’re in our building, and now this pandemic has forced us to be a better church.”
Rose agrees, and he thinks the church will be stronger for the experience.
“I wish the coronavirus had never happened, but I think coming out of this, the church is going to be so much stronger,” Rose said. “I believe this will be a defining moment for our generation, and the church is being forced to reach out in ways and to gain expertise that I don’t think we would’ve otherwise gained.”