Before he began Sunday’s worship service, senior pastor David Payne addressed the issue weighing on the congregation of Kerrville’s First United Methodist Church.
Earlier that week, he had sent an email to church members to remind them to be sensitive to the coronavirus pandemic — no hugs or handshakes during the greeting part of the service. When Payne arrived at church Sunday, he immediately detected the awkwardness; people weren’t sure how far apart they should be when interacting with each other.
Payne’s opening words, though, immediately knifed through the anxiety in the sanctuary.
“Can we just acknowledge that it is weird today?” Payne asked his congregation. “It has been an eventful week and a scary week, but isn’t it great to be able to worship together today? We know God is good and bigger than any crisis we face.”
According to Payne, it turned out to be a great service. Payne delivered a sermon from his ongoing series on grace, and he also baptized his baby granddaughter, Denver Mae Chamness.
He knew the next week was going to be difficult, but on that Sunday, he felt encouraged.
“You could just tell it was a meaningful time for folks,” Payne said. “But with the changing news cycle, I knew there were going to be some profound changes.”
And he was correct. In the last 10 days, the coronavirus has disrupted every aspect of society, including church operations.
Due to President Donald Trump’s recommendation to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, FUMC indefinitely suspended services. Other Kerrville churches with large congregations have followed suit. Impact Christian Fellowship, Calvary Temple Church, Notre Dame Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Kerrville Church of Christ, Christ Church Presbyterian and First Presbyterian Church, to name a few, have all canceled Sunday services through at least the end of March.
But the virus hasn’t stopped churches from serving the community — they just have to find different ways to share the gospel.
FUMC’s food bank, Mustard Seed, plans to remain open; volunteers will just deliver food to vehicles. With the Kerrville Independent School District indefinitely closed, the church is using different networks to see which families in lower-income brackets might need food delivered to them while schools are closed.
Church leaders know it’s a frightening time for Kerrville. That’s why they are trying to expend every resource available to help.
“The past two weeks have been very disorienting and very scary for people,” said Billy Crain, senior pastor at Christ Church Presbyterian. “There are two main things (the church) needs to be doing: pointing people to the Lord and then encouraging them in their relationship with the Lord, and walking with them as a family. That goes for the people in the church and people in the community who need love and support who might feel isolated and that they are unloved.
“Even though we have an individualist culture and most of us think we are trying to live life and deal with everything on our own strength, the reality is that we are meant to be together. We need to care for another.”
FINDING WAYS TO WORSHIP
Since they can’t meet in large groups, churches are livestreaming services on their websites so members can watch from home.
Payne said Wednesday that First United Methodist Church plans to release both traditional and contemporary worship podcasts each Sunday, as well as produce devotional content tailored to different age groups.
Other churches are finding ways to meet in small groups.
Notre Dame canceled its Sunday Mass but still plans to have weekly Masses, primarily because these services usually attract less than 10 people.
Kerrville Church of Christ will have services in groups of 10 or less in different locations across Kerrville on Sunday. Senior minister Jimmy Sportsman’s sermon message will be uploaded on YouTube for families who wish to stay home.
“I have been reminding people that the Biblical definition of church isn’t a building or a certain time or day or a gathering,” Payne said. “It’s the people who believe and interact with each other.
“As Christians, if we are being asked to sacrifice for the good of the whole, that should be in our DNA. … So, we may not have public worship, but the church is still functioning.”
Church leaders also are emphasizing that while it’s wise to practice social distancing, members can still communicate with each other over the phone. Crain hopes to make regular phone calls to Christ Church’s members, simply to see if they need anything
during this time.
“I think what people are fundamentally afraid of from a faith and non-faith perspective is, ‘Does anyone care about me? Have I been forgotten? Am I alone in this?’” Crain said. “The key truth in Christianity is that God is close to us, and He wants to be close to us and protect us and welcome us into His family. In times like these, when we feel the most anxious or scared, is when we need to be reminded of that truth.”
Finally, churches are encouraging their members to pore over the scripture now that they likely have more time to read.
At the beginning of the year, before the coronavirus outbreak, Payne selected Psalm 46 as FUMC’s Daily Prayer:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”
It’s a Psalm that’s especially relevant in the current climate.
“We are going to be OK,” Payne said. “This is hard. Jesus warned us life will be hard. He’s bigger than all this.”