The Greek word ecclesia is translated as “the public assembly of people.”
Since before the beginning of recorded time, churches have been the site of weekly public gatherings in both good times and bad.
With a recent order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gatherings of more than 10 people are restricted as the new coronavirus is being spread throughout the world.
Locally, churches have had to adapt their services and find new ways to get their messages out.
“The Church will never die and not even a pandemic will change this,” Rev. Jamey Day of Faith Baptist Church said. “Our hope lies in our faith during this difficult and serious time.”
“It has always been part of our job to be close to people and this has just accelerated that need,” Rev. Lisa Hoelscher, assistant pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, said.
A new way to connect
Because churches are no longer gathering, church staff from across the county have adapted everything from Sunday services to their day-to-day operations.
“We had to brainstorm ways for our members to enjoy and see the sanctuary without actually being there,” Hoelscher said.
Zion Lutheran Church, which sees around 110 people each Sunday, has added a YouTube channel where pre-recorded services and devotions are posted.
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, led by Rev. Jeff Hammond, has made videos of services by posting to YouTube and emailing a link to the service. Twice a week, Hammond emails out devotions, short messages, articles or other videos for the congregation to stay connected.
“Most of these aren’t just me talking but other resources and messages that I have found that I feel like would benefit the church,” Hammond said.
In addition to streaming services, churches have been in constant contact with church members through phone calls, text messages and traditional mail.
“Having a pastor or church member personally reach out to someone who feels disconnected and asking them what they need, has been a great way for us to check on their physical and material needs, as well as their spiritual needs,” Hoelscher said.
“We have been in touch daily with our members,” Day said.
At St. Barnabas, the church hosts a variety of community group meetings.
“While our whole campus is closed, we have found ways to keep groups meeting, such as utilizing our courtyard and spacing chairs out,” Hammond said.
For Day, around 80 people attend services weekly and members are able keep in close contact.
“Members have more than stepped up, whether that is finding ways to get technology to those who need it or just to check on,” Day said.
Day and his church have also been distributing basic essentials to the community.
“Early on, when everyone was out of toilet paper, myself and some members stood in line to get toilet paper,” Day said. “Since then, we have been giving it away, not just to people in our church but anyone in the community who needs it.”
While larger congregations in Gillespie County have the resources and tools to continue virtual services, some smaller congregations have faced challenges.
St. Barnabas has had some challenges, as the church typically doesn’t use much technology.
“In this pandemic, we have been introduced to some new technology and we are slowly seeing that it’s possible and how easy it is,” Hammond said.
Faith Baptist, located more rurally, has found new ways to meet virtually despite not having the best internet signals.
“We don’t have the best internet out at the church as is, but we have found that if we record the service and then post it, we can still be the church,” Day said. “We do have an older congregation, but most of them are pretty good at keeping up with Facebook or YouTube.”
Day and other church members have walked anyone who needs through how to use the technology. The church has also provided audio copies of the service.
For Zion, the church has had a radio broadcast on KNAF for many years.
“It has been a huge blessing to have that resource in place,” Hoelscher said.
While most members at Zion have access to good internet, some live rurally, making connections slower or almost impossible.
“We had a pretty good sense of which members would need our help getting technology but we have also been reliant on our radio broadcasts which many members listen to already when they don’t attend church in person,” Hoelscher said.
With so many new ways to connect, most area churches are looking into ways to continue the use of technology long after the pandemic passes.
“We definitely hope to continue to do this and use this as a way to reach people,” Hammond said. “It is teaching us to be more attentive to people and how simple contact is the most important.”
Day added that the Gillespie County Ministerial Association has a wide range of theological positions but also an amazing unit of support and prayer.
With the coronavirus hitting in the middle of one of the church’s busiest times, both Lent and Easter were celebrated away from the church during one of its two most popular days.
“People were still able to worship in the home and we wanted them to know just because they weren’t at the church in person, we are still the church body,” Hoelscher said.
Hoelscher encouraged her congregation to set up a small altar or holy space in their house with candles, a cross and a Bible.
“This is a physical reminder that you are still worshipping and it can still be a sacred time,” she said.
At Faith Baptist, the congregation gathered in the parking lot of the church for a special Easter service.
Day purchased an FM radio transmitter and attendees tuned their car radios to listen to the Easter message.
Sacrament of Holy Communion
Holy communion is known as one of the most sacred aspects of the Christian faith.
While churches are unable to gather, many congregations have found new ways to distribute the sacrament.
At St. James Lutheran Church in Harper, a drive-thru line is set up for distribution in the church’s parking lot.
“While we have ceased in-person worship and meetings, we have felt compelled to continue serving the sacrament in an innovative way,” Rev. Scott Hofmann said.
Distribution is done by one person who is wearing protective gear, including a gown, gloves and a mask.
All helpers are temperature checked and the sacrament is distributed through non-contact. And all materials used are disposed of after use.
“We have had a good response,” Hofmann said. “Our church council felt this was the best way to serve our church community as technology is very limited in our congregation.”
At St. Barnabas, Hammond agreed to offer pre-sealed packages in the small chapel along West Creek Street.
“We have a chapel that has been open 24 hours a day for 25 years and we want to keep it open,” Hammond said. “We are obviously discouraging large crowds from going there when others are there, but we want people to use the space to reflect and safely practice Holy Communion. All are welcome.”
Other larger congregations have offered virtual communion during services. Before participating, many church leaders ask that persons contact the church for proper procedures.
Sense of community
During uncertain times, church staff members have been working harder than ever to be sure that the needs of their congregations are being met.
“It has been overwhelmingly positive,” Hoelscher said.
“It is difficult, but when you have a small congregation that is already tight-knit, it has been such a blessing to continue what we normally do,” Day said.
Those that are homebound or don’t always attend church regularly have been attended to on a regular basis as needs may be more sensitive.
“We want to remind them they are always connected to the faith community and I think this is an intense time to be focusing on that personal connection,” Hoelscher said. “With a smaller congregation, we are more like a family so it has been much easier to have regular check ins with everyone.”
“I am still pastor; I just don’t get to do that in person,” Hammond said. “It’s all new and it has shown me how great it is to live in this town where people get along. There is a shared sense of responsibility and we are learning from other churches in the community, participating back and forth on best practices. Every day is new.”