For nearly two months, members of the historic Cherry Street AME Church in Dothan have attended worship services in the church’s parking lot.
“We just drive up and get under the good shade trees,” the Rev. Joseph Rembert, the church’s pastor, said. “Of course, we have social distancing. Most people like to stay in the cars and then others like to stand up under the shade trees.”
For those who couldn’t attend the parking-lot service, there was Facebook Live — something the 72-year-old Rembert plans to keep doing even when Cherry Street AME returns to the sanctuary.
As the spread of COVID-19 led states to enact restrictions on large gatherings, churches had to get creative in how they worshipped. Alabama loosened its restrictions on gatherings nearly two weeks ago with requirements on social distancing and sanitization still in place. Many local churches resumed indoor worship services last Sunday, while others chose to wait.
Local faith leaders said the pandemic has created its share of challenges, and they’re not quite sure what the lasting impact will be on how people worship.
In the past two months, congregations have gathered in parking lots or worshipped from their homes, utilizing technology and social media. They’ve reached out by phone to members who cannot leave their homes because they’re at higher risk should they contract the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They’ve made grocery runs for other members. Church leaders have developed social distancing plans, brought in hand sanitizer stations and created plans for keeping sanctuaries and common surfaces disinfected.
John Thomas, mission strategist for the Dothan-based Southeast Alabama Baptist Association, said some of the group’s churches resumed worship services last weekend, while others will do so this Sunday and more in the future.
He said the association, which represents 52 area churches, held a Zoom meeting Wednesday and “they are learning from each other” as the reopenings happen.
Thomas said all of the churches are using best practice safety protocols, including social distancing, sanitizing worship areas after each service, keeping hand sanitizer available, the option of wearing face masks, and using collection boxes strategically placed in the churches instead of passing an offertory basket.
Thomas estimates that of the churches that have reopened, between 30% and 45% of the congregation attended the first services. In some locations, he said, the church’s older members are reluctant due to possible health risks.
His group is also suggesting registration in case there is a need for future tracking if questions arise.
Pastors agree that there will be a new normal for worship gatherings. But the changes may not stop with social distancing and disinfecting surfaces.
At Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Dothan, a team is reviewing when the church should return to on-site worship services but a date has not been set, Pastor Joseph Johnson said. The church has held services on Facebook Live since the COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings took effect.
Johnson said the pandemic changed the physical act of worshipping but the mission of the church never stopped.
“We’re continuing to feed hungry people; we’re continuing to help people with their finances; we’re continuing to do pastoral care; we’re continuing to meet and plan,” Johnson said. “The work of the church is ongoing; we’ve never closed.”
Johnson worries about how the pandemic has changed the way people view and relate to each other. Protective measures for health are understandable, he said, but he thinks they have caused some people to view others as threats because you can’t always tell when someone has been exposed to the virus.
“I think we’re all going to be changed,” Johnson said. “I think this whole deal has reprogrammed our thinking, and part of the work of the church is going to be to address that and speak to people about how we view each other … I’m just wondering what effect this is going to have on us culturally and socially, the way we think of each other, and whether or not we can recover and see people as brothers and sisters.”
He also sees some positive impacts from the pandemic restrictions — people gaining a new appreciation for the connections they have with others or talking about the impact the church can have on the community and the outreach possible with technology. People who grew up at Evergreen have reconnected with the church from a distance.
“I’m also hearing people think about the message of the ministry of the church in ways they haven’t talked about it in years,” Johnson said.
Local churches that offered online services prior to COVID-19 have seen viewership swell far above their actual membership and other churches that began offering online services during the pandemic plan to keep doing so.
“The worship, I would say, has grown even more,” said the Rev. Darryl Roberts, pastor of Greater Beulah Baptist Church in Dothan. “We find new ways to worship. We worshipped on the parking lot when we couldn’t go in the sanctuary. That evolved into a wonderful, wonderful worship celebration. So, it has opened new avenues for us as well, and we have gained a new way of doing worship.”
Greater Beulah returned to regular services last Sunday.
Roberts said the church is encouraging members to wear masks and gloves. High-risk congregants with underlying health conditions are being asked to stay home and continue watching services on Facebook Live, a service started at Greater Beulah during the pandemic restrictions.
Dothan First Assembly of God will resume on-site services on Sunday, Pastor Mark Benson said. The church has done daily videos on Facebook along with streaming weekly services. Online numbers, according to Benson, have climbed above 5,000 views even though the church normally would have a Sunday attendance of about 450 people.
How the increased online views will be reflected in on-site services is hard to say.
“My plan on Sunday is to know when I look into the camera, I’m actually reaching a larger audience and speaking to more people than are actually in front of me — no matter how many show up,” Benson said.
Like other churches, Benson said Dothan First Assembly has taken measures to social distance, reduce contacts, and disinfect surfaces. He said adjustments may have to be made along the way, but Benson said he’s proud of how the congregation has responded to the pandemic restrictions.
As far as a lasting impact, Benson said he thinks more people have turned to God during this time and others view the meaning of church from a fresh perspective. The pandemic has reinforced a message Benson said he has repeated over and over to his congregation — a church is more than a building.
“Four walls do not make up this church,” Benson said. “You are the church. The church is not a building and it doesn’t exist because we have a facility. It helps us to congregate together, to commune with one another, to worship together, to learn and grow together. But we are the church; we’re the temple of the Lord and because of that, four walls should never restrict us.”