With Holy Week three weeks away, local church leaderships were faced with an unexpected and difficult decision. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations last week for the State of Florida designed to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the state. One recommendation is that faith-based communities in Florida “cancel large gatherings,” which the CDC defined as 250 people or greater. President Trump lowered that number further with a recommendation that people “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people.” How should a church respond? Will canceling a worship services show a lack of faith or an abundance of wisdom? Will not canceling put congregations and the community at greater risk? Local church leaders have responded with faith and wisdom.
Midway Baptist in Gulf Breeze has opted to continue with on-site services but without the nursery. “We will respond in faith, not fear, fully aware that disease is a fact of life.” Pastor Dennis Brunet writes in a COVID-19 update on their website (midwaybaptist.org), “We are not to panic, but to trust God.” Members are encouraged to pray and to practice the CDC’s hygiene recommendations like regular handwashing or staying home if you are ill or in an at-risk group. With similar encouragements and recommending the same practices, First Baptist Navarre (fbcnavarre.org) announced it will hold its 3 Sunday worship services onsite but limit attendance in the sanctuary to 50 people. More seats are available in a separate overflow room.
Congregations that meet in schools or other rented venues that have closed due to the virus had no choice but to come up with an alternative. The simplest solution was to offer online worship services. Momentum Church’s Navarre and Gulf Breeze campuses meet in high schools, and while an online service is part of their regular weekly schedule, for the next few weeks all their worship services will be online only (momentumchurch.org). School closures contributed to Encompass Church’s decision to go online only (encompassnavarre.org). The congregation meets Sundays at West Navarre Primary School. Compass Community Church (compassefca.org) will forgo its idyllic Gulf view at the Beach House at Holley By the Sea for the next 2 weeks and air its 10:30 am service on Facebook Live.
Several churches with their own facilities, like Liberty Church in Gulf Breeze (libertychurch.net), Live Oak Church in Navarre (liveoaknavarre.com) and Navarre First Assembly (navarre1st.com), have nonetheless decided to offer their worship services online only for the next few weeks. Community Life Church in Gulf Breeze (clc.life) has completely closed its building to the public, and has moved its worship services, groups, gatherings and studies online until further notice. “We do not take this decision lightly,” said Pastor Scott Veroneau, “After the CDC recommended that all gatherings greater than 250 people in the state of Florida be postponed, we wanted to honor that request and play our part in helping curtail the spread of the coronavirus.”
Coastline Calvary Chapel Navarre (coastlinenavarre.com) expressed that same spirit of cooperation with the government’s recommendations with its announcement to conduct their worship services and many of their ministry gatherings online only. In like manner, Navarre United Methodist Church (navarre.church) is going online only with its services, canceling its ministry gatherings and, like most churches, encouraging its people to stay connected on social media. In an announcement on its Facebook page, Risen Savior Lutheran in Navarre reluctantly suspended its Sunday morning worship and Bible study for 2 Sundays (risensaviorchurch.org) promising its membership access to the pastor’s sermons, daily video devotions and pastoral care as needed.
A letter from Bishop William A. Wack of the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese posted on St. Sylvester’s website (stsylv.org) informs parishioners of his decision to suspend all Sunday and weekday masses in the diocese until further notice. He relieved parishioners of their obligation to attend mass and directed them to their local priests for personal sacramental needs like confession. Ahm Yisrael Messianic synagogue has regretfully cancelled their annual unity Passover Seder and will offer their 10:00 AM Sabbath (Saturday) service online only.
The internet has changed the face of church ministry. Websites, livestream worship services, e-newsletters, social media pages are now ministry norms. While the decision made by many churches to suspend their on-site gatherings was difficult, it was eased somewhat by the ability to minister online. It will be interesting to see how this season of greater reliance on the internet brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will shape future ministry. Easter Sunday is only three weeks away.