TUPELO • The sanctuary at St. Luke United Methodist Church was empty Sunday morning except for four people.

The Rev. Rob Gill, St. Luke’s senior pastor, and Bart Mason, the church’s praise team director, were there playing guitars. Debbie Bullock joined them on piano while Brad Bullock was running sound.

“This is the congregation this morning. All four of us,” Gill said. “So, the Scriptures says where there are two or three or more gathered in my name, there shall I be also. That’s what we’re here to do today.”

St. Luke and other churches that decided not to have open services Sunday due to health risks related to COVID-19 reached out to their members and others through online live streaming. They ministered to those who gathered in front of their computers, laptops and smartphones to hear messages of faith and calm in a time of fear and uncertainity over the coronavirus.

Many churches already stream their services on their websites or on Facebook. Some turned to online-only services after the Mississippi Department of Health asked Friday for crowds larger than 250 not to gather due to the virus threat.

“This was one of the hardest decisions that our leadership team has ever made, to cancel coming together,” the Rev. Terry Ledbetter, senior pastor at Northstar Church in Saltillo, said in his message to his online audience. “We need to come together. We need each other. But we know this is the best thing for now in light of the coronavirus.”

There weren’t people in the seats at The Orchard in Tupelo to hear its senior pastor, the Rev. Will Rambo deliver his sermon. Rambo, said he’s had experience speaking without an audience while recording video resources for the church.

“It wasn’t completely foreign to me,” he said. “I had that in mind as I preached this morning. I looked at the camera, and I knew our people and a lot of guests were checking in.”

Rambo said response to The Orchard’s online-only service was good.

“Somebody sent me a picture of the opening of the service, and at 9:15 there were 650 people on at the same time,” he said. “It’s more than we normally have at a 9 o’clock service on Sunday.”

Local churches will continue to evaluate the coronavirus outbreak before making a decision about next Sunday’s service.

Lakeview Baptist Church in Tupelo will continue to have regular Sunday services but will not have Sunday school, according to the Rev. Robert Garland, pastor. Garland also said Lakeview Baptist Academy is extending its spring break into this week.

bby.pepper@journalinc.com

Twitter: @bobbypepper30

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