In a video posted to First Baptist Moultrie’s Facebook page, Pastor Matt Peek teaches a praise song for children in preschool. SCREEN GRAB/Facebook
DULUTH — While the church building is a place known for preaching, teaching, discipling, and praising, there is also an undeniable social aspect. It’s where the family of God goes in order to “not give up meeting together” as commanded in Hebrews 25.
Amid the crisis surrounding the spread of the coronavirus, governmental recommendations for churches to temporarily stop in-person meetings may appear to be a violation of that passage. However, numerous ways to continue meeting through technology as well as Scripture’s command to respect authority in Romans 13 has led others to follow those recommendations. Helping stop the spread of COVID-19, they say, is an act of love that in the end saves lives while sharing the gospel.
“We need you in this fight,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp told pastors in an interview with The Christian Index. He stressed that first and foremost, this can be accomplished by churches opting to livestream their services instead of holding physical gatherings. On top of that, there are several ways congregations can help such as maintaining contact with the elderly and helping feed children not in school.
In Thursday’s daily report issued by the Georgia Department of Public Health, there were 287 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 10 deaths, up from the figures of 197 cases and one death the day before. Two more deaths were added to Wednesday’s report later in the day. To support the state’s efforts in battling COVID-19’s spread, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board has established a resources page for pastors and churches.
A plan in Valdosta
While Northside Baptist Church in Valdosta did meet together at its building on March 15, Pastor Robby Foster knew they had to make other plans for the following weeks.
“Our attendance was down by half that day, while our livestream was viewed by twice as many people,” said Foster, current president of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Northside held no Wednesday events this week and is preparing a livestream service this Sunday. That will begin with a 9:15 a.m. Sunday School time with Minister of Education Josh Johnson. This week, materials from that lesson will be sent to teachers, who will lead discussions on it with their classes through chat rooms via the conferencing app Zoom.
At 10:30 the Northside worship team will lead music, followed by Foster’s message that will be focused on the Harvest. That won’t be an audible from a previously planned topic, but one he feels even more appropriate considering the times.
“That evening at 6 p.m. I’ll be online again hosting a time of prayer,” he said. “I invite not only members of Northside to join, but pastors all across our state as well.”
Foster, who has posted daily videos to his own Facebook page, says pastors don’t have to feel guilty about canceling in-person services.
“We feel like we’re doing the right thing,” he said of Northside. “We’re following the governor’s suggestion. For those who have difficulties with technology, we’ve offered to provide instructions at the church. But this is how we’ll be meeting at least the next few weeks. After then, we’ll reassess and see what happens.”
Telling their story
First Baptist Church in Moultrie also met together on March 15, with plans to move to strictly online communication through the end of the month. But even on Sunday, Pastor Matt Peek said extra precautions were in place.
“There wasn’t the traditional welcome time, and we didn’t pass the plate during the offering,” he said. “People gave their tithe to ushers at the doors as they left.”
Although First Moultrie was one of the few churches in the area to meet in person on Sunday, Peek was clear to point out how he understood others’ decision to choose the strictly online option. The church will provide a pre-recorded worship service and message by Peek on its website and Vimeo account this Sunday at 10:30. On Wednesday night, he and others recorded videos for children and Bible studies.
This week, First Moultrie’s staff has loaded its Facebook page with videos of updates, devotions, and Bible studies. In addition to providing instruction from Scripture, Peek said staff will tell their personal stories.
“We’re tried to take it from a testimony perspective,” he said. “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of love for our neighbor. We have to be wise about our decisions and honor the recommendations of the experts, governor, and CDC.”
Still in the community
First Baptist Rincon’s new focus online has already yielded inroads in the community.
“On Facebook we’ve created two pages, ‘Help Me’ and ‘I’m available to Help,’” explained Lead Pastor Gary Lewis. “Two days ago a couple who weren’t church members said they needed help with childcare. A couple who are members of the church said they could. When they saw the address they laughed and realized the people lived just across the street from them.”
For most people, Lewis said, consistent messages and posts online create a pipeline of information and encouragement. “It lets everyone know that we have the tools to navigate this,” he told The Index.
March 22 will be their first online Sunday, accomplished through a pre-recorded message. “We haven’t done live streaming before so this is new territory,” said Lewis. To stay connected with senior adults, deacons have been assigned small groups with whom to maintain communication should needs arise.
“We want to remind people that everything’s good and we’re to help,” he added.
Georgia Baptist Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond Jr., commended pastors taking steps to help promote public safety during a trying time.
“I strongly encourage pastors and churches to heed the recommendations of our Governor,” he said. “This brief pause in our gatherings will help to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“This is also a challenging time for all of us to be more effective and creative in reaching our world through technology. The GBMB can help all of our churches take advantage of this open door. We are committed to praying for all of our pastors as they shepherd their folks during this crisis.”
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.