The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from an empty tomb will be broadcast today in churches that are close to empty, as well.
Perhaps there will be a pastor, a smartphone and maybe a videographer.
These are strange times, and this will be a strange Easter.
Some churches — like many small businesses — may never open their doors again because of the pandemic.
A few likely won’t survive, says Michael Haynes, director of missions for the Greene County Baptist Association. He oversees about 100 churches.
“I have got concerns, especially for our older congregations,” Haynes says.
The novel coronavirus is more likely to kill the elderly, as well as those with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease.
Similarly, Haynes says, it is more likely to kill older congregations that don’t shift to online services, for example. And it is more likely to kill congregations with pre-existing conditions, such as the lack of a rainy-day fund or a big mortgage on a big building with depleted membership.
“You will see some that are responding well and making adjustments,” he says.
One little church Haynes need not worry about is Concord Baptist in Walnut Grove. That’s where an old dog has learned some new pastoral tricks.
Robert Dodson, 70, is now giving three online messages a week and offering a live-streamed morning prayer, as well.
The congregation was established in 1873, and the church looks just like a country church should.
Dodson, a former sheriff’s deputy in Greene and Dade counties and a former Marine, has been pastor of the little white church on Farm Road 28 for 14 years.
He works hard despite being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2018. When asked, he says he is in “maintenance” regarding the cancer.
When a News-Leader reporter arrived on his 10 acres on Tuesday, he was sitting on the porch after having spent the afternoon picking up rocks and moving them to a fence line.
His doctor tells him he has a great attitude.
He tells his doctor, “No, I have a great God.”
Live-streaming not his first choice
A typical Sunday worship service at Concord drew about 35 people.
Then the virus hit.
Dodson asked himself: “How do we keep mind and body and soul together?”
His first choice was not a smartphone and live-streaming the services.
His first option was to add a deck to the church so people could gather outdoors, 6 feet apart, without breaking the law.
Dodson takes the virus seriously.
“This is not a matter of faith. This is real. I do not want anybody getting sick, and I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
Someone suggested Facebook and live-streaming.
“We don’t have the cameras,” was his first thought. “We don’t have the technology. We don’t really have the people that can do those things well.”
But something providential happened in February, he says. That’s back when the service was still being held in the church.
“I was chasing after somebody after church to talk to them and my old phone slipped out of my pocket and it broke,” he says. “So I got a new upgraded phone.”
Next was the Greene County stay-at-home order.
So Dodson started playing around with his state-of-the-art new phone and, lo and behold, live-streaming didn’t seem all that daunting.
He did the first two online services from his home study.
“It was basically an experiment,” he says.
It worked; his congregation wanted him to live-stream the Sunday evening Bible study.
That worked, too. The Bible study became a second, separate sermon for him to prepare.
Then his congregation wanted him to deliver an online message on Wednesday night.
He said sure; recently, he started live-streaming a morning prayer.
“It’s me, my phone and my wife,” he says.
He and his wife, Donna, have been married 24 years.
In a way, the church is growing.
“I had 251 hits who watched my message out of a church of 35. … I had quadrupled my audience! And I’m not that good.”
His online endeavors are of varying quality and can be seen on Facebook.
“It’s cost-effective so why not do it?”
Some of those now watching live are in St. Louis or in Illinois or Texas.
“Like the good ol’ boy said, ‘Who would’ve thunk it?'”
Tithing down for almost all churches
Nevertheless, most churches — whether large or small — are going to take a financial hit, says Haynes, the local Baptist official.
“All of our churches are going to struggle financially. I am hearing — it is a little too early to tell — our tithing is at 50 to 80 percent of what it was.”
Dodson is not paid a salary. He takes a percentage of the weekly tithe.
“I don’t want to know what people are giving,” he says. “I do not look to see who is putting money in the plate. I don’t care. That is not why I am there.”
Even those churches that claw their way to survival will face a new reality when they open their doors, according to Haynes.
“If a church comes back in a few months, if they have a significant number of people who have lost their jobs, that might be difficult.”
The Rev. Phil Snider, senior pastor of Brentwood Christian Church (where this reporter attends), knows of pastors who worry about keeping their ship afloat.
“It especially affects the smaller churches that do not have endowments and do not have rainy-day funds,” Snider says.
These are tough times for everyone, but there are lessons to be learned for churches, says Bob Whitesel, a national church consultant for 30 years and a writer who recently authored a piece called: “Which churches will survive; and which may fail in a pandemic.”
Those likely to fail are ones that can’t weather a downturn in giving, says Whitesel, based in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Those likely to fail have spent too much on facilities and have big mortgages and big utility bills.
Those that don’t stay connected online are also more likely to fail, he says.
Whitesel likens the impact of the internet on Christianity to the impact of the invention of the printing press on the faith. The printing press enabled followers to read the Bible themselves.
But even broadcasting worship services online can be a two-edged sword, Whitesel says.
A local church will no longer be able to rely on its location to draw members.
For example, if you’re the only church of a particular denomination in town and you do a poor job of ministering to people and don’t offer a meaningful worship service, today’s church audience might find a better option online — even if the preferred church might physically be in another state.
“This forces us to re-evaluate how we spend the Lord’s money,” Whitesel says. “Our focus should not be on buildings that are not flexible. In the New Testament, people often met in someone’s house. This is a good wake-up call for future churches.”
“We are hanging in there for now”
The News-Leader contacted a few churches that appeared to be struggling even before the pandemic hit.
The First Congregational United Church of Christ in Pierce City is, in fact, on death’s door.
“We are basically a dying church, but COVID-19 is not killing us,” says Bryce Garner, the congregation’s lay leader.
Typically, about 15 people attend Sunday worship.
The church has shut down during the pandemic and is not offering online services.
“Most of us don’t have a computer,” Garner says.
The church was established in Pierce City in the 1880s.
It will survive, he says, because it has few expenses.
The church building is 100 years old and paid for and there is no paid clergy.
In fact, the biggest expense is “pulpit supply,” in which a congregation without a minister hires someone, often a retired minister, to prepare and lead Sunday worship for a fee.
Now, because the church does not meet, it does not have to pay a fill-in minister.
Neither will this be the end for St. John’s United Church of Christ, at 1100 N. Main Ave., says longtime member Gloria Tillery, 80.
The church owns its building and has reserve funds, she says. On a typical Sunday, about 25 attend.
“We do have utilities to pay,” she says, as well as a full-time pastor, who has been doing online worship services.
On the bright side, Tillery says, “People are sending in their tithes. We are hanging in there for now.”
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