It’s different, but it’s still church

Palm leaves on the gates of St. John’s Episcopal Church. | Callie Sims

FAIRFIELD COUNTY – The corona pandemic has changed the world – how we shop, get our groceries, go to school and work. It has also changed how we participate in worship. One by one, however, the churches in Fairfield are proving that, with God and technology, all things church are possible during the pandemic, including worshiping ‘together’ on Sunday mornings and at mid-week Bible study, albeit virtually.

Under the leadership of Pastor Ray Pierce, members of Shady Grove Independent Church, a nondenominational congregation in the Lebanon community, are using a Sunday morning service format that many other Fairfield County churches have adopted under social distancing guidelines – an internet worship service.

“Our worship service is conducted on Zoom,” church member Jean McCrory said. “With the app, we can listen to the sermon that is broadcast by our pastor.”

The service includes the church’s musician performing live as well as music from selected CDs. Members at home can sing along just as they did in their church building.

“At the appropriate time during the service, we lay out our offering on the coffee table and our pastor blesses it,” McCrory said. “Following the service, he brings communion to our homes for us to partake.”

Because some churches in Fairfield County are located in areas with spotty or no internet or have elderly members who don’t use internet, these churches’ leaders have opted for tele-conference calls. Among those churches are Shiloh Presbyterian Church on Hwy 213, Calvary United Presbyterian on Vanderhorst Street in downtown Winnsboro, St. John AME Zion on Highway 321, Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Mobley Highway and Weeping Mary Baptist Church in Blair.

Members of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Jenkinsville say the tele-conference meets their needs.

Mt. Moriah Baptist associate pastor Bertha Goins during home worship.

“In our congregation, we each call in to an access number a little before worship time,” Bertha Goins, an associate pastor at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, said. “We can listen to the sermon and even make comments when it’s appropriate.”

After Deacon Sims Roberts brought a Sunday school lesson last weekend from Isaiah 42:1, Rev. Shirley Henderson Stone, another of the church’s associate pastors, brought the sermon from 2nd Chronicles 7:14.

“It’s certainly a different way to attend church,” Goins said, with a smile, “but it’s also nice to be able to spread out my Bible and study materials on the table as I listen to the sermon on my phone at home.”

Other churches, including Gethsemane Baptist Church on Road 99 in Blair and St. Peters Community Church on Clark Bridge Road, use a combination of tele-conference, Zoom, Facebook and other digital means of communication for their worship service.

Sion Presbyterian Church in downtown Winnsboro live streams Sunday morning services, according to Rev. Rebekah Carpenter.

“We also participate in Sunday school through tele-conference and zoom,” Carpenter said. “We email lesson plans, craft instructions and follow-up activities.”

“At Mt. Pisgah, our church members use zoom for our service, and tele-conferencing for our intercessory prayer service at 7 a.m., Saturday mornings and 12 noon, weekdays,” member Belva Bush Belton reported.

Gordon Memorial Methodist Church officials pre-record Rev. Arant’s sermon as well as choir director Mary Lynn Kinley’s music prior to the Sunday broadcast and send it out on Facebook, according to member Dee Mattox. The church also uses a One Call system to regularly connect with members.

A number of churches, including Stephen Green Baptist Church on 5th Street near the county government complex and Washington Street Baptist Church, are also posting sermons to You Tube for not only their congregants but for all the world to watch.

First Baptist Church Pastor Craig Bailey holds drive-in services in the church’s parking lot Sunday mornings and posts a daily devotional on Facebook and You Tube.

Kerry Matthews, a member of White Oak ARP Church, said earlier this week that her church had not yet given up physically meeting together.

“Our church is the center of our close-knit community and since we are such a small congregation, we decided to have our church service outdoors.” Matthews said. “Everyone brings lawn chairs and each family group sits an acceptable ‘social distance’ from others.” They continue corporate worship and Christian fellowship, albeit with no hugs or handshakes.

“This has allowed us to obey Hebrews 10:25, ‘…not giving up meeting together, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching,’” Matthews said.

White Oak members say their rural community is small enough that congregants easily stay in touch.

Cornerstone Church of God will host an Easter drive-in service.

“We pass each other on daily walks and bike rides, check in regularly by phone or text and conduct visits across porches or through car windows,” Matthews said.

While there are many new and cumbersome inconveniences for churches, it is, by necessity, how congregations have come to worship during the pandemic. Bethel ARP Church Pastor James McManus says there is a silver lining.

“One good thing that has come of this is that it gives our folks a chance to ‘visit’ other churches online that they normally aren’t able to visit,” McManus said. “Now, on a Sunday morning, you can worship with your home church on line then go ‘visit’ another church where family and friends attend. Some of our members enjoy viewing other like-minded churches who are able to offer more resources, especially this week, such as Chester ARP and First Presbyterian in Columbia. Plus, it’s been exciting having more people from our community join us on Sunday mornings on our live stream.”

And other church activities have been born of the circumstances. Members of the United Methodist Church across from the Post Office in Winnsboro held a visitation parade last week. Members drove their decorated cars, honking and waving as they passed the homes of church members who are ill or recovering.

Many of the churches in the county say they are planning to continue their Easter service traditions this week, but with a number of tweaks.

“It will be a change for us now having our Maundy Thursday service via live-stream,” McManus said.

And the palm branches that traditionally adorn the alter inside St. John’s Episcopal Church for Palm Sunday, are now adorning the church’s gates.

It’s not the same as it was a month ago, but church members say they are adjusting to the new norm.

It’s different in many ways, but it’s still church.

Barbara Ball contributed to this story.