To protect congregations, many Georgia churches will go online Sunday

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. CREDIT: Pam Sheldon

Credit: Pam Sheldon

Credit: Pam Sheldon

The rise in coronavirus cases in Georgia is forcing many places of faith to change the way they worship.

Some pastors and denominations have asked members to forgo drinking Communion wine, replace hugs and handshakes with elbow bumps and waves, and remove holy water from the sanctuary.

Hand sanitizer was available in churches, and people were encouraged to stay home if they were sick.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, are churches that are skipping in-person services altogether.

Instead, they’re asking members to watch online.

“Our members are used to going to church, and church is our form of community,” said the Rev. Elliott Robinson, pastor of Nimno AME Church in Nicholson, north of Athens. “It’s making me think I will engage my members who are not tech-savvy. Will I need to do a mailing or maybe use a robocall service? I’ll definitely be calling and checking on them.”

Ninety percent of Nimno’s members are age 65 or above. The church, which doesn’t stream its services, has a weekly Sunday attendance of about 20 people.

On March 22, the church planned to celebrate its 167th anniversary. Now, that will be pushed back a month, or longer.

While “shocking,” he said, “The health of our members is our No. 1 concern.”

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So far, there have been 42 confirmed cases in Georgia, and health officials expect that number to increase. One person has died.

Coincidentally, this is happening during Lent, a time of spiritual reflection, fasting and sacrifice in the Christian faith. Lent ends before Easter on April 12, a day typically filled with family, church and community gatherings.

An annual Easter Sunrise Service is usually held at Stone Mountain Park in DeKalb County that last year drew thousands of visitors.

Park and event organizers could not be reached for comment about this year’s event.

Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, shown at an Inauguration Day prayer service in 2019, said churches can cancel all worship services for the next two weeks or practice extreme caution amid the coronavirus threat. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A similar sunrise service is held at the base of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Kennesaw. At this point, said Anthony Winegar, acting superintendent, it’s yet to be determined whether the event will be held. “We’re still in the information gathering phase,” for the event, which is put on by outside groups. “We still have a little bit of time before it occurs. Our guiding principle is the safety of our visitors, employees and volunteers.”

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, asked churches to cancel worship services this weekend, which may work for larger congregations, but he was criticized by some for what they say ignores smaller, rural congregations who may not have the technology to stream their services.

On Friday, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church “strongly” urged that Sunday worship services be canceled through the end of the month.

“Your Cabinet, as long-time United Methodists and shepherds of churches, recognizes that weekly public worship is an essential part of our method and a vital spiritual discipline,” she said in a message to clergy and church members. “We also recognize our need to gather for worship in times of anxiety and uncertainly. Now, however, our public gathering may violate Wesley’s first general rule, which is ‘Do no harm.’”

She said the annual conference will closely monitor the ever-evolving situation and be back in touch after March 22.

She left it up to congregations whether to hold gatherings like small groups and Bible studies.

The safe course of action, she said, is to stay home and avoid exposure. The conference has compiled a list of livestreamed or recorded services.

“Please call a friend or a prayer partner, and read comforting Scripture or devotional materials to calm your spirit. Be sure to call your pastor if you are especially troubled.”

On Friday, Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, which oversees 117 congregations in Middle and North Georgia, said churches can cancel all worship services for the next two weeks or practice extreme caution.

Previously, the diocese advised people to stay home if they are sick and if they take Communion to use hand sanitizer. The diocese has also suggested that churches suspend taking Communion by intinction, which is dipping the bread into the wine during the Eucharist so both are taken at the same time.

Wright emphasized that at this point, he is not issuing a directive to cancel services, but that could come over the next few days.

“This may be a disruption for people who are more traditional, but we have to use the minds God gave us and God gave us the doctors, too. We’re watching this very carefully,” he said. “I think this is causing us to really raise the quality of thoroughness of what we do online.”

At Vinings Lake Church in Mableton, members can watch the service online.

“There will literally be two of us in the building, probably for the next four Sundays,” said Pastor Cody Deese. “It just makes sense for us. We’re doing this more out of love than fear.”

Deese said the church, which has about 200 members, has a number of elderly members, and church leaders determined there was “no reason to gather corporately when we can do it online.”

For those members who don’t have the technology skills or aren’t online, other members plan to reach out to them by phone to check on their needs.

Ebenezer Baptist Church Senior Pastor Raphael G. Warnock reached out to members to let them know Sunday's 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services would be online on the website, Facebook or other online platforms.

After listening to health professionals, he said, it seemed like the prudent thing to do.

Still, As we have listened carefully and prayerfully to the insights and counsel of our public health professionals, this seems to be the most prudent thing to do.

Not all churches are canceling services at this point, though.

People are welcome to join the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor, at First Iconium Baptist Church on Moreland Avenue on Sunday.

McDonald’s decision to hold in-person services was supported by many members on his Facebook page.

“The only narrative out there is the government narrative of fear,” he said. “The church has a responsibility to put forth a narrative of faith and hope and you can’t do that with your doors closed.”

But he also wants people to be safe, especially the elderly and those not feeling well.

At Destiny World Church in Austell, there will still be services in the brick-and-mortar sanctuary, but people have the option to also watch livestream, particularly older members or those with compromised immune systems.

Pastor Wilbur Purvis III said, “Some businesses are closing. Schools are closing. We’re having church this weekend.”

Services will be shorter, though. Instead of the usual service that lasts 90 minutes or more, the service will be reduced to 60 minutes, said Purvis. There are other changes as well, including giving elbow bumps instead of hugs.

The spread of the virus also prompted Purvis to cancel his 27th pastoral anniversary this weekend and a planned 500-person, seven-day cruise in a couple of weeks, which is also part of the celebration.

“It’s hard to celebrate when so many people are suffering,” he said. Those who paid for the cruise will receive credit vouchers.

The church also runs a school for pre-K through the fifth grade. Beginning Monday, the school will close until further notice. Because some students also depend on food during school, Purvis is asking members who come on Sunday to bring nonperishable items that may also be distributed to senior citizens.

“Much like the police, firefighters and paramedics are the first responders,” he said, “we’re calling the church, in this season, the faith responders. We want to be wise (about protecting members), but it’s our job to bring faith to the conversation.”

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