By Drew Bergman
“Whoever dreamed we would be here at Holy Week,” Reverend David Calhoun said. It has been a month since Governor Beshear passed along a recommendation from the CDC that churches close to in-person service and three weeks since the order became mandatory. From that first announcement, Rev. David’s church, Russell Springs United Methodist Church, has been online streaming through Facebook Live and YouTube.
The challenge of COVID-19 is unique in the history of the church, but it is not the first challenge like it the Church has faced. “Going all the way back into the second and third centuries under the Roman Empire,” Rev. David said. “They dealt with [pandemics] then, but they didn’t have Google Hangouts or Zoom. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to go through this without those abilities.”
Russell Springs UMC has been quick to adopt those communication platforms for church meetings and to continue their smaller-scale ministries and Sunday school. “I’m in my sixties and people like me in my generation didn’t grow up with that kind of thing,” Rev. David said. The church has been sensitive to this specific need and Dustin Gosser has taken the lead on helping his fellow church members to get caught up using the programs. Dustin has also pitched in with an online tutorial about Google Hangouts and has also worked to build an Easter Jam program for children and families for this Easter.
“That’s the real issue, how do we stay connected when we can’t be physically together.” One piece of outreach the church has adopted to stay connected is a group they’re lovingly calling “Corona Caroling.” A group of three people in the church go out and visit other church members who are stuck or isolated at home, “and knock on the front door and stand off in the front yard and sing a song and say a prayer as the person stands on their front porch or behind their front door,” Rev. David said.
“We’re trying to be creative and to find creative ways to keep the body of Christ connected. It really is the biggest challenge.”
Russell Springs UMC has looked at the possibility of drive-in services similar to what other churches are now engaging in, but have decided that it is not ideal for their specific church family. “We’ve been advised not to and the more we’ve thought about it, trying to put that together and trying to keep three-year-olds staying in a car for the length of a service was going to be a challenge. We would have needed people to stay in their cars and not have any interactions and I’m not sure what value that adds beyond being on the church property.
“One thing we need to embrace is that while we are practicing social distancing, there is no distance from the presence of God. We’re promised that we can’t go anywhere that is away from His presence. We’re trying to encourage people with that promise while also helping people find ways to connect.”
Another avenue for connection that Russell Springs UMC is examining is called a “lovefeast,” or “agape feast.” The feast goes back to the Moravian church, one of the original Protestant denominations, and the practice likewise reaches back centuries. “We’re still exploring options with it,” Rev. David said. “The idea is to have our families gather for a meal and we [all connect across] Google Hangouts. There’s a full liturgy that goes along with it,” including prayers, readings, and songs.
Connecting through a virtual space has been an adjustment for Rev. David. For their Sunday worship they have a group of about five people engaged in running the service. A few weeks back three of them had been out in the pews, spread out of course, but all on the same side of the sanctuary, drawing Rev. David’s eyes over to one side and making for a slightly imbalanced online viewing experience for the community online.
The work of keeping the community connected extends beyond that core staff group. Daily devotions are going out every day this Holy Week from different members of the church and are available on their Facebook page.
“Our Easter service will be the same,” Rev. David said. “The Sunrise service, the Good Friday service, the Easter cantata, all those things are off, but in some ways for this Easter is going to be more like the first Easter than any Easter we’ve ever celebrated.
“The first Easter the disciples were locked in their homes in fear. They were afraid for their own lives, the lives of their families, Jesus had been crucified and now there are these wild rumors about the grave being empty and Him being alive. They weren’t gathering to worship in the Temple on Easter, it’s a brand new day and that’s kind of where we are.”
The challenge is unprecedented, but so are the tools available and Russell Springs UMC is doing the work needed to adapt to this present moment. “For a long time I’ve called this the new normal, but I’ve changed that to the new ab-normal. There’s nothing in my lifetime like this,” Rev David said. “As the church, we don’t have an option, we still have a mission.
“We’re still called to be disciples. This Easter gives us a chance to have a sense of what that first one was like. And of course, we’re praying for the breakthrough. We’re praying for the vaccine, whatever it takes to break the spread of this virus, but until then we’ve got to continue to explore ways to get connected.”
The church has endured from that first weekend of the disciples hiding in legitimate fear of their lives all the way through to the present and it will continue to do so using every new tool that people can utilize along the way. “We’ve seen a lot of the bad of social media,” Rev. David said, “but now we’re seeing how this can be used for the purposes of God.”
Sunday services for Russell Springs UMC and most of the other churches in the area will be available on Facebook Live. Please see their websites or social media pages for more information.