It’s Sunday morning, and just a handful of cars dot the parking lot of rural Ozark Baptist Church.
Nestled amid sprawling farmland halfway between Mantachie and Marietta, Mississippi, the church’s congregation typically averages 330 or so most Sunday mornings. It’s an impressive number for such a remote location. But in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the only voices echoing across the sprawling sanctuary are those of the few individuals necessary to produce the church’s live stream service.
“The church has left the building,” Pastor James Young said of the decision to close Ozark Baptist Church’s doors. “But you have to understand, the church never was about the building. We are the church.”
Young meant the people, his congregation, who are still very much with him every Sunday, even though he preaches to empty pews.
Ozark isn’t the only church to have closed its doors and begin streaming its services as the viral outbreak grew, but it may be unique in how extensively and aggressively it has shifted its practices to ensure the safety of its congregation. Early on, the church’s proactive approach included asking congregants to not shake hands or hug. The church also began taking the offering at the back door rather than the typical “passing of the plate.”
When the Center for Disease Control began recommending cutting public gatherings to fewer than 250 people to promote social distancing, church leaders began planning to the overflow in the church’s fellowship hall to watch a live stream of the service. Hand sanitizing stations were also placed throughout the church to help slow the spread of germs. Members who were vulnerable, or anyone who had developed sickness, were encouraged to stay home and watch the services via YouTube.
After their March 15 Sunday morning worship, the numbers recommended by governing authorities quickly changed and church leaders felt it best to cancel evening services.
“I was set to bring the message that night,” said Associate Pastor Matthew Pharr. “So I propped my phone up on the ironing board at home and preached on Facebook Live.”
The availability of online streaming gave Pharr the opportunity to reach the membership without completely canceling the service and without compromising their health or well-being, a way for Ozark and churches like it to reach their congregations when physically attending church could be dangerous. Although the church had previously streamed their Sunday morning services from a packed sanctuary, Ozark’s leaders looked at ways they could use technology to keep their members engaged with the gospel and focused on the needs of the community until they could meet again.
In one of Young’s earliest messages, he encouraged the Ozark membership to trust God in the midst of the troubling times.
“I trust God, but I wear a seat belt. I trust God, but I lock my home,” he said. “I trust God so I’m going to follow the best guidelines to share the task of flattening this curve.”
As a part of the church’s plan to reach the entirety of its congregation, Young asked the members to seek those who did not have access to internet or social media. The church offered to purchase DVD players for these members, install them in their homes and deliver recorded messages to them each week.
Now, both Young and Pharr preach from the church’s pulpit to empty pews while the congregation watches online. They hope to keep normalcy by encouraging members to get out of bed and get dressed, go through a normal routine, gather the family together and engage in the message each week by singing aloud, clapping, shouting and having a time of prayer.
“Our goal is to keep people connected,” Young said. “We have set out to reach every age group from children to youth, to adults through our online approach.”
To further engage its membership, Ozark posts its bulletin online and streams the Sunday School lesson prior to the worship service each Sunday. Teachers are alternating through the process. John Bishop led last Sunday’s lesson.
“I hope this makes us realize this building is not the church,” Bishop told The Times. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish everyone were here, and I miss them, but we have a bigger purpose.”
Ministries within their church have shifted their focus too, according to Young.
“We have a group of ladies who quilt lap blankets for cancer patients,” he said. “They have postponed those and started making masks for medical personnel. Last week they made over 500.”
The church has also changed its weekly meal delivery service to help protect its elderly recipients, who are among those at highest risk of dying from the virus.
“Instead of the possibly exposing someone who has prepared the meal or someone who it’s delivered too, we are suspending those and trying a new approach,” Young said. “Our sixth-grade and under children are coloring pages and writing notes and mailing them to those seniors.”
Children’s Sunday school lessons are now available online for parents to print, study, and create crafts. The church also streams music on its social media pages to keep the youth group engaged, and Young now hosts daily devotionals online, often streamed from his desk or back porch. These brief messages serve as reminders to those struggling through the ongoing crisis to maintain hope.
To ensure the church stays on top of the latest health and safety guidelines, leaders meet weekly by phone or group text to discuss the church’s next steps during the COVID-19 pandemic. They continually adjust their plans as the crisis develops. “My number one job is to the feed the flock; number two is to protect them,” Young said.
Both Young and Pharr say that navigating the church through this crisis is new territory, but they will tackle it with faith and hope.
“This is new. We don’t know what to do. We are just trusting the Lord,” Young said.
They agree the church will continue to explore new avenues of engaging their membership and reaching beyond to those who may have never attended their church and maybe seeing it for the first time. As they continue their mission, the church’s Sunday sermons, whether led by Young or Pharr, will continue to be preached from the pulpit to the empty pews.
“I believe our members like to see us standing there. It’s normal,” Young said. “It brings them comfort and right now they need that.”
Because the building may be closed, but as Young put it, “Our church is not.”