In a pre-coronavirus world, it would be every pastor’s worst nightmare — preaching to an empty auditorium because no one showed up for Easter services.
But that’s exactly what the Rev. Bill Scheer, pastor of Guts Church, and many other Tulsa pastors will do Sunday, Easter morning, as Americans shelter in their homes to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
And Scheer is upbeat about the situation.
“There’s a lot of negatives about this, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. They really do,” he said.
Scheer said he sees value in some of the lifestyle changes being forced on Americans by social distancing requirements.
Quarantined families are spending much more time together, he said. Parents have more time to teach their children old-fashioned values like caring for one another, being polite.
“I saw a father playing catch with his son in the yard. I haven’t seen that in 10 years,” he said.
And he thinks churches will benefit in the long run by more fully embracing the digital world, as the coronavirus forces them to stream their services online, and to stay connected with their members through the internet. It’s a world in which young people are already accustomed to interacting socially.
“People are watching, responding … the church is becoming trendy, and culturally sound,” he said.
“I believe when this plays out, we could expect to see a tidal wave of people coming back to church. This is going to make the church stronger,” Scheer said.
Caitlin Dryke, communications director for Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, agreed that young adults are more comfortable with social media, but she thinks the situation is nuanced. Young people, especially those who have been deeply involved in church, are still sensing a loss of community under coronavirus restrictions, she said.
The church’s popular Pub Theology, a regular meeting of young people at a bar/restaurant to discuss theological issues, has moved online, she said. The group now meets on Zoom, an interactive program that allows people to see and talk to each other on computers and phones from diverse locations.
‘If you need hope tonight, give me a honk’
Parking lot church services at Victory Christian Center in Tulsa drew global attention when the Rev. Paul Daugherty, pastor, was interviewed by the Fox and Friends news program. Daugherty has held four services, preaching from atop a scissor jack platform to people listening to radios in their cars in the nearly full 1,000-plus church parking lot. A live band played from the church roof, and groceries were given away after the services.
Daugherty said church leaders in Canada, Africa, Australia and even China have contacted him about how they can do the same thing.
Weather permitting, he plans to do an Easter Sunday parking lot service.
At one service, he talked about the battle he fought with depression and hopelessness when his father, Victory founder Billy Joe Daughterty, died 10 years ago.
“I said, ‘If you need hope tonight, give me a honk,’ and the horns just started going off in the parking lot, hundreds of cars. … Man, I lost it.”
Daugherty said the church has fed more than 50,000 people, and 150,000 people have watched services online since the epidemic began. The church also has partnered with several local businesses to prepare meals for doctors and nurses when they get off of long shifts.
“We’re seeing God’s hand cause the church to rise up in an hour when the world is full of so much fear and despair and depression. This is a time for the church not to close down, but to get creative,” he said.
Daugherty said he was at first concerned that the parking lot services and food giveaway might be a problem for authorities, so he called the Tulsa mayor and police chief, and the Oklahoma governor. They all gave him a green light.
Michelle Brooks, communications director for the city of Tulsa, said the city has received inquiries about whether parking lot services conform to coronavirus restrictions.
She said the city responds to those inquiries with the following official statement from the Mayor’s Office: “Faith-based services that are provided through streaming or other technology have been declared essential by Governor Stitt’s Amended Executive Memorandum 2020-01 and may continue to hold services in that format. The City of Tulsa will not interfere with religious practices, but individuals should practice physical distancing to protect themselves and others.”
‘A big change in how we do things’
The Rev. Hess Hester, pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church, said he, too, can see some benefits from the changes brought about by social distancing.
“When people are forced to spend time together, it forces them to work things out … to resolve some of those family issues. We’re hearing some of that,” he said.
And the crisis is bringing out the best in people, who are doing good things for others, he said.
“Overall, it’s a humbling time for our country. It could be a preparation for a general revival to take place. People are responding relationally, seeing they have a need for God.”
He said social media also is a way to communicate with people who might not be comfortable walking into a church.
Hester said Southern Hills worship services, including Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday services are being live streamed before an empty sanctuary on the church’s website and Facebook page.
Life groups and staff and volunteer meetings are being held over Zoom.
“We’re doing Holy Week Masses in a very different way,” said Monsignor Patrick Gaalaas, pastor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic Church.
He said priests, assisted by a few deacons and readers, will conduct the Masses without worshipers, to be aired on the internet.
Normally, the Holy Thursday Mass has a foot washing ceremony. That won’t happen.
The Saturday night Easter Vigil service normally begins in the dark. One Paschal candle is lit, and then the flame is spread to worshipers all over the church. But with no worshipers, this year the single candle will burn alone.
And normally, people are baptized into the church at that service. Those baptisms have been postponed until May 31, the Day of Pentecost.
Priests will still hear confessions, following social distancing guidelines, and the church and chapel buildings will be open for solitary prayer.
“It’s a big change in how we do things,” Gaalaas said.
Is there an upside?
“I think people will realize how much the Eucharist (Holy Communion) means to them,” Gaalaas said. “And I hope families are going to be encouraged to pray together in their homes a bit more.”
The Rev. David Wiggs, senior pastor at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, said the crisis “has been an accelerant” to move the church more quickly into the social media world.
“In the long run, that might be a good thing,” he said.
As a result, he said, the church is reaching some people it would not have reached before.
The Rev. Wayne Hardy, who will retire this spring as pastor of Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church, said the church will record in advance all of the Holy Week and Easter services and put them online.
“It’s been a real learning curve,” he said. The church’s first online service was live, but church leaders decided it was more effective to pre-record it. Preaching before an empty sanctuary is challenging, he said. “You can’t read people’s expressions.”
He said he expected the coronavirus restrictions to “really change the way we do church,” with more emphasis on streaming services and online feedback. In the Kirk of the Hills setup, people can comment during the message, and those comments are displayed on the screen.
And ironically, he said, the quarantine has freed up time for more personal contact with church members, through phone calls to check on them and pray with them.
The Rev. George Eber, of St. Antony Orthodox Christian Church, which will celebrate Easter, called Pascha, a week later than Catholic and Protestant churches, said he expects to do Holy Week and Easter services online. He said he is doing 10-minute live teachings at 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily on the church’s Facebook page to stay in contact with his members.
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