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Churches adapt to keep congregations safe

SALYERSVILLE – While the novel coronavirus has forced everyone to be more flexible, adapting to working from home, wearing masks and social distancing when out in public and giving up many community traditions, local pastors have worked to continue spreading the word without endangering their congregations.

Independent Photo || KATRINA MARCUM RUDD TRADING IN THE PULPIT FOR A BOOTH: Pastor Doug Dunn joked he felt like the Pope in his booth he now uses for drive-in church services, laughing and saying he was going to add handles so they can carry him around in it. "We have to find ways to laugh," he said, while explaining that they will continue outside services to help everyone keep the habit of going to church while the pandemic makes meeting together not a safe option.

SALYERSVILLE – While the novel coronavirus has forced everyone to be more flexible, adapting to working from home, wearing masks and social distancing when out in public and giving up many community traditions, local pastors have worked to continue spreading the word without endangering their congregations.

Earlier this year the Independent highlighted many churches in the community utilizing virtual services, Facebook live, drive-in worship, among many other avenues of safely meeting, however, at the time, there were relatively few cases in the county.

With the recent spike in positive COVID-19 tests in Magoffin County, many of which unfortunately tied to meeting together for church, pastors have had to find more creative ways to serve their congregations.

Ben Martin, with the Salyersville First Baptist Church, explained that they have been holding services outside every Sunday morning, in addition to streaming it on Facebook Live and posting Sunday and Wednesday nights’ services on Facebook.

“I don’t know how much long we can do outside services due to weather, but as long as we can, we’ll keep doing it, Lord willing, until things get better,” Martin said. “It just seems like the common-sense thing for us to do right now.”

Martin explained that he understands every situation is different and smaller congregations with large buildings could still meet safely, or congregations that are mostly family and already in each other’s circle would allow for more in-person services, but for their congregation, he said this is what makes sense for them.

“Most people seem to enjoy it,” Martin said. “I really think if we came inside attendance would go down pretty dramatically.”

Martin explained that holding services outside is technically harder, with rigged up equipment providing an extra challenge each Sunday morning, but he’s glad to be able to provide the avenue of worship for his congregation.

“It’s easier having the people here, even if we are outside, just from the preaching standpoint, because you can feed off the energy,” Martin said. “We’ve had to trade our ‘amens’ for horn honks, but the feeling is still there.”

The First Baptist Church held eight weeks of in-person services after the governor loosened some recommendations, but after a couple of close calls, Martin said they had to move back to the online format, and then outside services after the hottest part of summer had passed.

“We intentionally limited capacity because we didn’t want to have to quarantine 100 people at a time, so we had people sign up ahead of time to keep our numbers low and be able to social distance,” Martin said.

After having numerous people within his congregation contract the virus (from community spread, not from attending a service), including two deaths, Martin reminded the public to take COVID-19 seriously.

“It does have the potential to take your life or damage your body for a long period of time,” Martin said. “Satan came to Jesus to jump off the top of a temple and taunted Him, telling Him the angels would protect Him, but it wasn’t His time to do it. There was a time, and that is when He died on the cross for us, but not just because. God gives us certain tools. He gave us Luke, who wrote half of the New Testament traveling around with Paul as a physician. Medical advice is not something foreign to the Christian community.”

Martin explained that while they wait for a vaccine, the online services have proven to be an important tool.

“It’s been an enormous tool for the homebound and those who are sick,” Martin said. “It’s a tool for them to connect with other people, making prayer requests when they may not be willing to pick up the phone and call someone, but can comment during a live service and other people online can pray for and with them.”

He encouraged the public to continue to be careful, despite the fatigue concerning all the regulations.

“If you’ve been careful up to now, why risk that on the cusp of a vaccine?” Martin said. “I don’t see why we would throw all that aside and stop being careful right near the end of things.”

Similarly, Doug Dunn, with the Burning Fork Community Church, has had to get extra crafty to offer services for his congregation.

“When this all started, we wanted to be careful,” Dunn said. “We wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

They moved to virtual services in the spring, with Dunn stepping out of his comfort zone to hold Facebook Live services, until they felt safe to meet, again.

“Whenever I felt it was safe, and we were monitoring the county closely, we would meet in-person, but we didn’t have very many come out,” Dunn said.

He explained they would take every precaution, requiring social distancing, encouraging mask use, and providing cleaning products. He said he would ask people to leave in family units and all the precautions worked fairly well, but when the number of cases started to quickly increase, they started holding drive-in services.

“My biggest fear is people will get out of the habit of coming to church,” Dunn said. “If we start doing other things on Sunday, we’ll lose that habit and, of course, it’s more than that, but it’s a good habit to have.”

At first, he preached from the side porch, but the wind would affect the sound quality. The front porch was an option, but there weren’t many parking spaces there. While during the summer they were able to utilize the grassy area next to the church for more parking, he said he knew that wouldn’t be a good option for winter.

“That’s when I came up with the idea of building a little booth,” Dunn said. “I knew the winter months were coming and it was going to get colder, so I was trying to find a better solution.”

The first week he positioned the plexiglass booth in the play area next to the church, but substantial winds proved to be a challenge.

“I found out later we had 35 MPH winds that day, so that was a challenging Sunday, but we got through it,” Dunn said.

After that, he said they built a three-foot platform and mounted the booth to it.

“There’s been a lot of challenges to it,” Dunn said. I had to order an extra-long microphone cord and speaker cords. It’s a lot more challenging than just going into the church, picking your songs and starting services.”

The booth is equipped with a heater and can withstand some rain and snow, though he noted if the weather gets too bad, they will have to do virtual-only services.

“As much as possible, we’re going to do drive-in services as long as we can,” Dunn said.

Though he and his wife have sent out cards, made phone calls, utilized texting and social media to keep people updated, Dunn said it is exceptionally difficult to support church members during difficult life events.

“One of the most difficult things I’ve faced is being able to be with your people,” Dunn said “We have one having surgery today, and I can talk with them over the phone, but it’s been challenging. Hospitals, understandably, have been stricter. When someone passes away, it’s difficult to minister them, be safe and take care of your people. You want to be there with them and know you can’t.”

While this year has been difficult, he reminded the public that continued sacrifices are still important and affect everyone.

“A lot of people are missing staying connected and the fellowship,” Dunn said. “People miss not being able to do everything. I sit down at the beginning of each year and schedule all of our events for the year, and I did that at the first part of this year, but we’ve not been able to do many things.”

He said he tries to encourage people to “feed themselves,” by reading the Bible and depending time in prayer and growing closer to God, but notes it is challenging to stay connected.

“We’re getting ready to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but it won’t be like it was,” Dunn said.

He noted that he has had two grandsons born during the pandemic, one of which lives in Michigan and, at seven months old, he and his wife still haven’t been able to meet in person.

“It’s all hard. We wanted to be there, and my daughter wanted her mom to be with her, but we have to do what we can to remain safe,” Dunn said. “I want to encourage everyone that we’re getting closer to the end of this and we’re all learning lessons from this. This should prepare us for the future and the lessons we’re learning are teaching us to adapt to different things, but maybe it will prepare us for other things coming.”

As for Robert May, with Holiness House of Prayer, he said they have tried everything from virtual services, drive-ins and even street ministries, explaining he had a vision before the pandemic, pointing him in the right direction.

“We had just received 1,000 gospel tracks,” May explained. “We were no stranger to street ministries prior to the pandemic, anyway. Typically, we hand out tracks, hold up signs, offer prayer and street preach a few times a year. While in a prayer meeting at the church on February 24, the Lord took me in a vision and showed me handing out tracks. This was our most effective way to interact and spread the gospel, but as I was handing them out, no one would receive them. I tried and tried, but people would turn me away. In one part I even had a pair of gloves on, but they still would not receive them. Then the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Proclaim unto them the word they won’t take it from your hands.’”

Just a couple months later, as churches closed across the state, May said his vision started to really sink and he felt God leading him to not shut down, but to improvise.

“We started parking lot services at IGA, May said. “Through our past relationship with IGA, we used their parking lot to do outreach ministry and have already had permission to use the parking lot anytime. At this time, I went deep into prayer for my church and its members. I knew I couldn’t sit around and do nothing. As the scriptures teaches, ‘Woe to the idle shepherd that leaveth the flock! the sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right eye: his arm shall be clean dried up, and his right eye shall be utterly darkened.’ Zechariah 11:17 KJV.”

May said he felt reminded to “proclaim it,” and studied Luke 14:23, which inspired him to buy rechargeable speakers, gout out his mic, and went to the street, while also gathering the equipment to be able to hold church services in the parking lot.

After receiving permission from the local government, May said they held their first parking lot services on March 22.

“I watched as God moved in a way I have never seen before,” May said. “We not only had service in the parking lot, but it was viewable on Facebook live and we broadcasted it across the FM Radio. I witnessed as people I knew who would never darken the door of a church come to service in that parking lot. I witnessed God touch so many people as some were encouraged, strengthened and some giving their hearts to the Lord.”

On May 20 they were able to start holding in-person services, following safety precautions and extra sanitizing, though May noted he regrets not keeping a once-a-week service in the parking lot. They continued to offer FM transmissions over the radio of their church services, as well as adding the services to YouTube.

“As of today I have seen around 90 people come to give their hearts to the Lord this year” May said. “God is moving to open people’s eyes. Things are only getting worse and we see the proof of the Biblical prophecies coming to pass. I won’t sit by and do nothing. I must reach out and warn the people. Let them know there is hope and help only through Jesus Christ.”

As the virus continues to hit the area hard, he said they have moved back to having only virtual services for the time being, but he is looking and praying for a way to bring back the parking lot services, again, May told the Independent.

“We are facing new adversity as the weather and other circumstances come into play, but I know through faith, God makes a way,” May said.

Though this year has been a challenge, May said he has learned a valuable lesson.

“One thing I have learned throughout this as a pastor is that it’s time to take the church out of the four walls,” May said. “This pandemic has shown me the other forms of doing so to reach people. My advice is to never give in and always look for ways to reach people without giving up your convictions. People need help and this kind of help can only come from our Savior the Lord Christ Jesus. In the darkest of days, He is our light and the only true peace to be found.”

The Independent applauds ALL churches in the community that are following the guidelines concerning the pandemic, offering services without risking lives.

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