Karleigh King stands on her front porch, warming up her voice while her kids are down for naptime. This is her new normal, singing hymns at home, not with her congregation at Grace Bible Church in Winston-Salem. The building reopened earlier this month, but it looks a little different. Space is limited to 50 people, so there's an online signup sheet. Every other church pew is blocked off for personal distancing. Only about a quarter of the congregation is attending indoor services right now.
During the pandemic, churches like Grace Bible have struggled with how to reach their congregations. State restrictions on indoor services were even at the center of a legal battle because some church leaders said they violated their First Amendment right to worship freely. A federal judge agreed and has since blocked their enforcement.
But things still are far from normal. Most churches are finding new ways to connect and they're getting creative, despite the challenges.
What King misses the most is the sound that fills her church when the entire congregation is under one roof.
“It's really hard and you know as Christians, as believers, we are instructed to sing together songs and hymns and spiritual songs. It's a command. It part of our worship that we give back to the Lord, and so not to be able to do that is difficult,” says King.
The changes have forced churches to become futuristic overnight. That includes offering virtual services on multiple days and using digital platforms and social media to reach more people.
First Baptist Church in Greensboro now has a dedicated Zoom room. Pastor Alan Sherouse says it's been a big success, but it hasn't been easy.
“So much of what we do involves human contact," he says. "It's a jarring thing to be a pastor at a graveside service and recognizing part of being responsible and loving is to hold 6 to 10 feet of distance from someone who you want to wrap your arms around in their moment of grief.”
In Davie County, Cornerstone Christian Church in Mocksville is engaging its congregation with drive-in services in their parking lot, where people can pull-up and tune-in to a radio frequency to hear the service. That will continue when they open the building in July.
They've been creative in other ways, as well. The church hosted a tailgate party with social distancing to celebrate its anniversary, something they want to try again soon.
Pastor Kevin Frack says its mission has become even more relevant as people suffer job losses and other hardships related to the pandemic.
“I would say that the church has been busier and more well attended since COVID came than before,” he says. “And I think part of the reason is because by the church trying to be in compliance with the government's orders while at the same time not negating our call to hold up the gospel.”
And that sentiment is shared by other church leaders in the community.
At Union Baptist Church near downtown Winston-Salem, singers wear matching red shirts and dance in their individual video screen squares for a weekly Zoom choir recording.
Bishop Sir Walter Mack says COVID has hit his congregation particularly hard. He says he's lost friends to the virus and for the elderly, they've lost routine and social contact.
But he says where there's change, there's also growth. The church is embracing what's happening now to stay connected, creating programs like Fitness Friday for Seniors and Bible study on Zoom.
“I have seen races come together. I have seen the community rally together, resources to mask this entire community,” says Mack. “We have seen buildings open up so people can have places to sleep. I mean it's just been amazing, so there's a good side to this bad virus.”
Mack says a bright spot is youth involvement because the technology is so accessible. It's just another example, he says, of how even when is building is closed, the church is still very much open.
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