The Rev. Tom Jolly gets to spend Sunday mornings peeking in on other church services and seeing how they worship. “It’s nice to be able to see what other folks are doing,” he said.
Jolly gets this opportunity because his own church, Andrews United Methodist, has found a new way to worship remotely during the pandemic. Like many congregations, they are worshipping together at a distance. However, they are prerecording their service, reducing the risk of spreading the virus even more.
Jolly follows the three tenets that John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, followed – do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.
“It’s just not responsible to ask them to put themselves at risk,” he said. “I don’t want any of my folks sick.”
Jolly is not alone in that thought. Although his congregation has resumed in-person services, Dr. Jimmy Tanner is doing his best to keep everyone at Murphy First Baptist Church safe.
“We want everybody safe and free to worship,” he said.
Murphy First Baptist was well-positioned for remote services, as their services have been broadcast live on WCNG Radio for many years, plus the congregation has its own local cable television station. Just weeks before places of worship across the state were closed due to the coronavirus, the church started live streaming services on Facebook and YouTube.
“That sustained us during that time,” Tanner said.
Churches were allowed to reopen for services in May after a federal judge ruled that state could not restrict them. Religious services fall under First Amendment rights and were exempt from the state’s mandates.
However, churches continue to be urged to follow recommendations provided by the state, including wearing face coverings and maintaining distance. County Health Director David Badger said while a small percentage of cases have originated from local churches, there hasn’t been an outbreak here.
Once churches could reopen for services, Murphy First Baptist started by holding two Sunday morning services to help maintain distancing guidelines. They are back to one service, but the building is only filled to about 20 percent capacity during worship.
Worshippers are encouraged to wear masks, which the church provides. Hand-sanitizer dispensers are available at the door, and only every other pew is used.
Tanner said his staff even contacted schools and hospitals, then acquired the same electrostatic foggers they use to disinfect the church building.
“Things are going fairly well,” he said, adding that his staff has been wonderful.
They’ve asked anyone who is at higher risk for severe illness from the virus to join them for worship remotely. One neat thing is today they are reaching former members of church, and they’ve requested that the church record the Sunday and Wednesday services as well. Another thing Tanner enjoys is seeing comments on the videos.
“You know the Spirit of God was not just in this building,” he said.
Andrews United Methodist was live-streaming its services, but started pre-recording for the July 5 service. They got the idea from other churches they heard were pre-recording.
Jolly, director of family ministry and facilities Robby Morris,
organist Kerry Archer, choir director Joslyn Parker Booth and secretary Jeanne Powell plan the service.
Archer and Parker-Booth record their musical segments in the sanctuary one day. Morris films Jolly preaching the sermon and performing his other duties near the end of the week, then Morris records his message from his office. On Friday, Morris edits together all the pieces of service using Adobe Premier and then formats it for YouTube.
By Sunday morning, the service is available for everyone to watch on YouTube. Morris has been doing video production for years, mainly for youth ministry things, and also does graphic art, so he was a natural fit for the job.
There are advantages to pre-recording besides Jolly getting the opportunity watch colleagues live. They get the opportunity for a do-over, and only share their best takes for the world to see.
“I, for one, really appreciate that,” Archer said. “It relieves a certain amount of pressure.”
‘Safety and welfare’
Pastor Derek Tilley of Upper Peachtree Baptist Church believes the Lord was looking out for them. Several months before the coronavirus reached the area, they got in place a new website where they could provide recordings of the sermons and Sunday school, plus keep an archive of the recordings.
Each Saturday, Tilley records the sermon on a voice recorder app on his phone. Since he does not have internet access at his home, he drives to the library and accesses its WiFi to upload the recording to a Google Drive. James Yonce then downloads the recording, and edits it with music and song from archived services. The completed service is made available for members to listen to Sunday morning.
Wednesday evening and Sunday school services are also recorded and uploaded in a similar fashion.
For those who cannot access the website, church leaders take another step – Johnny Roach organizes a CD ministry by burning the services to compact discs that are then delivered to each person who needs one. Tilley and his wife, Charlotte, leave the CDs on front porches; they wait from a distance for the person to open their door and chat a little.
They’ve also organized a prayer chain, have been ministering over the phone and have visited the windows of members who are nursing home residents.
Tilley said they’ve had positive feedback from members for keeping them safe during the pandemic, noting that many folks in the church are elderly or have health issues.
“We’re ministering to the safety and welfare of church members as well as their spiritual needs,” he said.
Toward the end of May, when cases started leveling off, his church did began to meet in person again, meeting outside under the picnic shelter. They wore masks and maintained social distance. Soon, members made screens for the sanctuary windows so they could meet indoors with fresh air circulating in the room. By the second week of July, they decided to close down again due to the surge in cases throughout the county.
If cases level off, Upper Peachtree will meet in person again, Tilley said. As the last time they met in person, the recorded sermons will still be available for anyone who wishes to worship from home. He feels blessed that the Lord has provided them with the technology they have to continue ministering.
“If we didn’t have the internet, if we didn’t have a website and CDs, we’d probably be doing drive-in services like other churches,” he said.