‘I am impressed with the openness and flexibility’

Churches shift to virtual worship amid pandemic

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 9:00pm

    THOMASTON and CAMDEN — Across the nation, churches have had to devise ingenious ways to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made holding in-person church services a health hazard. 

    Many churches around the nation, and Maine, have since shifted to holding virtual worship services or uploading prerecorded videos of sermons to YouTube. 

    In Camden, at First Congregational Church, Rev. Ute Molitor and the church’s leadership board closely eyed guidelines and responses from governments and the medical field from the outset of the pandemic. 

    The Camden church’s leadership team corresponded with colleagues across Maine and other nearby states to monitor trends to be proactive, Rev. Molitor said, to ensure the church played its part in flattening the curve early on.  

    At Thomaston Baptist Church, the suggestion for Rev. Wayne Sawyer to shift to uploading sermons to YouTube was made by the Reverend’s daughter, Karis, in consultation with the church’s webmaster, Josh Tilton. 

    Rev. Sawyer, in an interview, noted he was “scared to death” for the first virtual sermon, considering the extent of his computer usage is generally limited to using email, playing online solitaire, and using the computer as “a glorified typewriter.” 

    The second sermon he recorded was a little easier to do, he said, but he noted it is difficult shifting from preaching to a room full of congregants to preaching to an empty room. 

    “Preaching is a communal thing, that requires interaction in order for it to really work,” he said. “I need folks out there looking like they are listening, and engaging, and even smiling at me once in a while. I'll even take the handful of those who are soundly sleeping.” 

    Though the transition to virtual sermons has been, in a way, difficult for Rev. Sawyer, the response, he said, has been overwhelming. 

    “The first sermon was viewed by about three times more people than actually attend church,” Rev. Sawyer said, noting he would love for each of those viewers to attend services once guidelines allow religious institutions to reopen. 

    The response, in Camden, for Rev. Molitor’s sermons has also been positive. 

    “I am impressed with the openness and flexibility with which members and friends have adapted to the needed changes,” Rev. Molitor said. “People have preferred an interactive option for doing worship rather than a straight live-stream. So people can still share joys and concerns and also share in virtual coffee hour time. Having the on-line option has actually also allowed us to connect with friends and members who currently reside further away.” 

    Rev. Molitor’s team has developed instructional handouts for those not as familiar with technology as other individuals, and some people are providing tutorials to those needing additional assistance. Written materials are also being provided to members of the congregation unable to join in. 

    At First Congregational, the church’s committees and ministries have shifted to virtual meetings, including a group of prayer shawl knitters who are knitting and chatting from their own homes. 

    “Our care team and membership committee are collaborating on calling every member and friend with a set of questions to make sure that no one falls through the cracks,” Rev. Molitor said. “People are also doing a lot of outreach on their own.” 

    “Experimenting with videos and music has also opened the door to interesting new options we might not have otherwise considered at this time,” said Rev. Molitor. 

    Sunday School virtual options are being offered by the staff at First Congregational and the church’s music director, an author, has uploaded a video of him reading from one of his books and sharing recordings of his music. 

    When asked if their respective houses of worship would consider continuing to offer virtual sermons after the pandemic, both reverends were open to the idea. 

    “The idea of livestreaming is suddenly a topic of conversation,” said Rev. Sawyer. “I suspect though, that it will require more involvement than plunking a laptop on top of the piano and having at it, which is how we do it now in an empty sanctuary. In our live services we use both our organ and our piano, and we have a fairly large choir. I suspect a real camera would have to be involved. A goodly reason to try to do this though, is that many of our people are elderly, and I believe that even after the ‘all clear’ has been blown some of our people will still stay away for a couple more weeks out of caution.” 

    “We are already looking into long-term solutions so that we can continue to include people in our service via the internet,” said Rev. Molitor. “We value the chance to connect with more people and to offer greater flexibility for participation to our members and friends. We will also be recording services so people can watch when it works for them.” 

    With Governor Janet Mills issuing a stay at home order for the month of April, both churches and their leaders have had to figure out how to respond to Easter Day (April 12) falling in the middle of the order. 

    While First Congregational is scratching plans for its usual outdoor Easter sunrise service, the Camden church will offer identical virtual worship options Easter Sunday at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. 

    At Thomaston Baptist Church, Rev. Sawyer has promised to establish new dates to observe Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter so that his congregants can fully observe the religion’s sacred days and allow congregants to come together, when safe to do so. 

    “Holy Week and Easter are very important to us, and require our full participation and attention as Christians,” Rev. Sawyer said. “I have decided to extend the season of Lent until the ‘all clear’ is blown. Perhaps under the current circumstances a bit of extra time to comprehend confession of sins and forgiveness is a good idea.” 

    Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com