At a time when churchgoers most need their congregation, churches are cancelling services to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
This time, it’s not enough to simply stop the sharing of the peace halfway through the service, when congregants shake hands or hug.
Two churches that call themselves a fellowship have taken different routes due to their different facilities.
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County cancelled its services, but this week started small gatherings online, using the Zoom software platform. The feedback is that the meetings have been just what the pastor ordered.
A much larger church, Fellowship of Englewood, has continued to meet, taking advantage of their 1,000-seat sanctuary where only about 500 gathered last week, said church administrator Alex Christe. This church has been live-streaming nationwide for years, Christe said, but it will be tough if Pastor Garry Clark has to preach to a camera alone.
“It’ll be hard for him, because he’s a very social person,” Christe said, adding that Clark has a particular aversion to the image of televangelists, due to their tendency to ask for money.
“Pastor Garry doesn’t like to stress the money,” he said.
A third church, Faith Lutheran of Punta Gorda, has closed at least through April 5, administrator Kathy Myers said.
“Most of our members are elderly,” she said.
Instead, the congregation members can tune into Facebook Live at 9:30 a.m. Sunday mornings.
The Unitarians have a much smaller congregation than the Englewood church that is trying to stay open.
“We have a lot of folks that live alone, and this might be the only time they talk to someone,” Pastor Dan Lambert said of the weekly Sunday fellowship.
Earlier this week, the Unitarian fellowship sent out an email to its congregation about the first two Zoom meetings to be held this past Wednesday morning and evening.
About 20 showed up — online — for the first and 25 for the second, Lambert said. Older congregants showed an impressive adaptive attitude toward the new technology, he said, adding that he picked Zoom for its ease of use.
They started with a chance for everyone to share how they were feeling, and what were their fears. They talked about how to use this new platform as they go forward.
“We talked about the anxieties that this brings, the isolation,” Lambert said.
One of the biggest stressors is not being able to visit family, particularly the sick.
“They’re very upset about not being able to travel to see them,” Lambert said.
Some people talked a lot. Some people did what they usually do in church: sit in the back and just soak in the fellowship.
What was the feedback?
One of the quiet people told Lambert, “This was a life saver for me. I feel really good,” Lambert said. “Everybody to a person said, ‘how much I enjoyed it.’”
His email and phone were filled with messages of appreciation and people saying, “Please, keep doing this.”
The Unitarians will be paying for the upgraded version of Zoom instead of the free version so they can record their meetings, share them later, and have more natural gatherings, Lambert said. They may try Zooming the weekly Buddhist meditation, he said. Not the silent part, but the part where they start with a reading and offer an opportunity to share.
Back at the big Fellowship in Englewood, the church is anticipating smaller attendance and will make decisions according to the upcoming news.
“We’re going to listen to the guidelines, and do whatever it takes to keep people safe,” Christe said.
That includes regular sanitizing of every surface including doorknobs, he said.
While they can do it in person, Christe said, they will.
“People need some hope. People need positivity,” he said. “It’s an important time for the church to step up and be there for people.”