Health concerns linked to the coronavirus are stirring creativity and forcing adjustments among Aiken County’s dozens of congregations large and small, with some church activities being canceled outright and others being reshaped to minimize health risks.
The concept of "social distancing" has popped up in some circles, with congregation's leaders looking to continue fellowship, teaching and outreach while reducing risk of exposure. Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency Friday, and updates have flowed from such sources as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, school districts and church leadership at various levels.
The Rev. Stephen Cutchins, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of North Augusta, said his congregation recently adapted a three-color system with regard to activities. Green represents a normal situation, yellow represents slight modifications and red means there are to be no on-campus gatherings, and the congregation – with ample guidance from physicians in the congregation – went from green to red status Saturday at around 5 p.m.
Cutchins noted that the response on Sunday morning included having 2,100 viewers of an online sermon. "We can trust our people to be faithful and connect through an online gathering platform, and the other thing is, people are looking for hope right now, and reassurance, and I think truth is truth no matter where it comes from," he added.
"I'm encouraged. I think it's going to be an interesting time," he said, recalling the experience of giving a sermon (for online distribution) while speaking in an almost-empty room that would normally have hundreds of people on hand to hear a Sunday message. Plans are afoot for similar offerings in the weeks ahead, such as Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at both 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Local Catholic congregations are in for a major change in the weeks ahead, as noted in a Monday announcement in The Catholic Miscellany, a website representing the Diocese of Charleston. It recalled directives from a variety of government entities and noted, "As a result of these recommendations, and in collaboration with other dioceses in our province, there are to be no sacramental or other liturgical celebrations anywhere in the Diocese of Charleston effective at 12 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17 through the end of day on Wednesday, April 1, 2020."
Wayne O'Bryant, representing Second Providence Baptist Church, said his congregation's March 15 gatherings went on as usual, including both worship and Sunday school, and also included information to calm fears and share information about what the next couple of weeks are likely to bring.
"All activities for two weeks are going to be canceled,” he said, noting that the pastor will record his sermons for distribution with help from the church's ministries for "tech" and Christian education. Facebook, conferences and CDs or DVDs may play roles in the new arrangement, he said.
Websites are spreading the news – whether a Sunday sermon or a schedule change – in some cases. In the case of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, it meant the following announcement: "All public worship services within the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina are suspended through the end of March."
Fairview Presbyterian Church's website notes that all campus activities are suspended through March 29 and encourages users to "stay connected with us for future updates" and also to "watch sermons on YouTube."
TrueNorth Church posted an announcement of "the difficult decision to transition our normal Sunday services to an online-only format."
The website also notes, "We are taking this approach because we know that a church of our size includes people not only from across the CSRA, but across the greater region including those who travel. Furthermore, both locally and nationwide, gatherings of greater than 250 are being discouraged. As a church that reaches nearly 3,000 people each Sunday, we want to do our best to 'flatten the curve' of the spread of this virus by shifting our ministry approach during this season."
The Rev. Tommy Wilkes, senior pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, said his church held worship services Sunday and had about 40% of the regular attendance, with a variety of adjustments made to reduce health risks.
"We're people of faith, not people of fear," he added, "but you need to use your brain and use your common sense, so you're not putting people in harm's way ... I don't know where it's going to take us in the future, but I sure don't want to avoid community fellowship – one-on-one, personal contact."