North Carolina churches move services online to build congregation amid COVID-19

Anna Muckenfuss, Appalachian Weekly News Producer

Many sanctuaries are sitting empty on Sunday mornings as the number of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina rise, but for some, worship continues online. 

To slow the spread of the disease, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that for the next 15 days any events of 10 people or more should be canceled or held virtually.  

Christopher Ingram, Pastor for Yates Baptist Church in Durham said when people in North Carolina started to test positive, the Yates staff took the necessary precautions and modified church practices. 

“Churches, probably more than most organizations, are very high touch,” Ingram said. “There are a lot of hugs, there’s a lot of handshaking, there’s a lot of personal greeting each and every time we get together.” 

According to the CDC, the new coronavirus is spread from person to person, through close contact and when an infected person sneezes or coughs. 

As of March 23, 71 people in Durham County have tested positive according to Durham County Public Health. Watauga County only has two cases.

Ingram said the virus has disrupted a way of life that many people are used to. 

“We’ve had to pivot from business as usual,” Ingram said. “For us, it’s been how quickly can we shift into this new reality and draw together in a way that folks feel supported? And …continue to mobilize toward the mission we feel led and called to minister?” 

Mackenzie Smith has attended Yates since 2004. She said church is one of her favorite places and that it will be hard to be away from it while being isolated. 

 “I’m glad we have these online things available, but not being able to go to church at all makes me sad,” Smith said. “I haven’t really been able to leave the house much all week, and it’s weird not having the same weekly routine anymore.” 

Steve Troisi, the Pastor of Grace Lutheran Evangelical Church said the idea of someone coming to church and getting sick was one of the reasons Grace Lutheran suspended all activities until March 28. 

Located close to App State’s campus, Troisi said the absence of the college students in their congregation will be noticeable because pews will remain empty. 

“The prospect of them not coming back at all until maybe next fall or later, it really is a challenge for our congregation. Grace (Lutheran) was started to be a place for the college community,” Troisi said. 

Troisi said the church had already encouraged people not to shake hands and modified the way communion is served prior to canceling activities. 

Grace Lutheran Church is now offering video and live stream options, but Troisi said there is something missing.

“There is something special that happens when you put people around each other,” Troisi said. “Something happens in the room when people are together that you can’t easily replicate.”

Anna Muckenfuss

Dylan Powell, a congregant of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone said that services have been livestreamed for two weeks and that Sunday school is hosted over Zoom. 

“One guy sat in his room by himself and played ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’ on his guitar,” Powell said. “We all muted our microphones and sang along. And we were thankful for each other and for the chance to worship and praise despite the circumstances.” 

In Durham, Ingram said Yates has kept the office functioning so that people can communicate, check in and keep in touch with ministers working from home. 

“We’ve mobilized our deacons, the spiritual lay leaders of the congregation, to be much more engaged in personal contact,” Ingram said. “We’ve set down assembling for worship services. Instead, we’ve created a collection of online resources that is focused every week to a specific need.”

Ingram said the online lessons focus on topics like recognizing the significance of loving a neighbor by staying at home.

“We recognize the best thing we can do is to operate in theat scattered mode, at least for now,” Ingram said. “We do it out of love for our neighbor and for our neighborhood.” 

Smith, a college student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said she hasn’t been able to look at Yates’ online content yet because she had to move out of her dorm. 

Anna Muckenfuss
Many churches in and out of the state have been forced to move their services online or cancel them altogether due to the new coronavirus.

“We may be taking advantage of that resource in the coming weeks because that’s seriously cool,” Smith said. 

With Easter a few weeks away, Troisi said Grace Lutheran may extend its suspension of activities and continue with the livestream to keep people engaged. “The prospect of us all being at home Easter Sunday is a little sad for me,” Troisi said. “The season of Easter in the Lutheran Church goes seven weeks, so if we’re able to get back before the end of Easter, we’ll pull out all the stops and celebrate.” 

Powell said that not being together in person will be difficult, but he knows everyone will be OK. 

“The Lord has been looking out for us, and we pray he will comfort the sick and the caretakers,” Powell said.M