If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic for Wilkes County churches, it’s that it caused growth and creativity in reaching people.
Many Wilkes churches began or increased use of digital technology after the pandemic began in March 2020 — and in most cases these changes aren’t going away.
Although Millers Creek Baptist Church resumed in-person Sunday worship services in October, a live stream of the church’s 8:30 a.m. in-person Sunday services that began during the pandemic is still provided. Presented via YouTube, these remain on the church website for people to access anytime. Millers Creek Baptist also has an in-person worship service at 11 a.m. each Sunday.
The Rev. Shannon Critcher, pastor of Millers Creek Baptist, said his appreciation of digital technology as a tool for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ grew as a result of his experiences in the pandemic.
He said the church went to three Sunday worship services — at 8 a.m. in the sanctuary, 10 a.m. in the fellowship hall and 11:30 a.m. in the sanctuary — when it first returned to in-person services to comply with crowd size limits and so people could spread out.
Millers Creek Baptist returned to two services per Sunday in early October but is still following COVID-19-related precautions. An example is that instead of a church-wide mission project, this year each Sunday school class is doing a mission project to help reduce sizes of gatherings.
Critcher noted that the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina has been a great resource for churches on how to respond to the pandemic, including advice on safety precautions.
He said that while meeting for services in parking lots and elsewhere outdoors and other creative ways of worshipping due to the virus, congregations have come to understand better that church isn’t about a building but instead is about people and worshipping God.
Dr. Chris Hefner, senior pastor of Wilkesboro Baptist Church, said that since the resurrection of Christ, church has always been about worshiping God and connecting with other believers.
He said Wilkesboro Baptist and other churches found ways to safely continue doing this despite lockdowns and limited in-person attendance during the pandemic. “Using multiple platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and TV, we have stayed connected in worship.” Among these, the church only used Vimeo before the pandemic.
Hefner said the congregation has met in-person for worship since June 2020, but attendance hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels.
“We have been intentional about adding worship opportunities, both on-line and in-person, but also about keeping distancing and disinfecting protocols in place for the health of our attenders. In addition to disinfecting and spreading out, we’ve installed an iWave filtering system in our sanctuary HVAC units to purify the air in the room.”
Hefner continued, “Long-term, we expect to keep our weekly services online. While we are not where we’d like to be in terms of programming and attendance, we are experiencing the benefits of being spiritually healthy.
“We are seeing people come to Christ as well as join the church. One of the most encouraging things we’ve experienced during this past year is the generous giving of our congregation. We were blessed with a budget surplus in 2020 and were able to give 20% of our budget away to mission partners. We are also planning to give a significant portion of our budget surplus to missions.
“Wilkesboro Baptist has stayed focused on our mission to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus even through the limitations of this pandemic.”
The Rev. Jim Sanders was appointed pastor of the First United Methodist Church of North Wilkesboro in July 2020, after church leaders had closed the building and pivoted to online services and meetings. Prior to that, the building was busy nearly every day of the week with church and community events.
“Realizing that this was not going to end quickly or neatly, we formed a Health & Safety Committee to help make decisions and guide the church through these uncertain times. We installed a robotic camera on the front of our balcony and made some technical improvements to allow for better live-streaming, something which will continue even after we’ve fully reopened and which has allowed folks from as far away as Alaska to worship with us on a regular basis,” said Sanders.
The church also began offering an audio-only call-in service as a way to join worship services.
“We instituted safety protocols for in-person worship; figured out how to safely reopen preschool; reimagined programs for youth and children; and started a popular monthly ‘Drive By and Drop Off’ collection for the Backpack Ministry at Samaritan Kitchen of Wilkes,” he said.
First United Methodist started a “My Study Desk” ministry, which so far has built and given away more than 40 desks to area elementary school, middle school, high school and community college students.
Earlier this month, the church held a “Drive By and Drop Off” baby shower for a church staff member.
“Through it all, our First United Methodist family has continued to generously support the work of the church with gifts of time, talent and resources. Going forward, I expect that we will benefit from and carry forward many of the lessons and new skills we’ve been forced to learn,” said Sanders.
Wilkesboro United Methodist Church first moved to live streaming its worship services on Facebook with a small staff, but reduced staff due to COVID concerns and went to a recorded service live on Facebook and YouTube at 11 a.m. each Sunday, said the Rev. Karen Roberts, pastor of the church. The on-line services have drawn worship attendance from other states and countries.
“We condensed our Sunday School to one class on Zoom each Sunday at 10 a.m. and we have strong attendance at that class. All of our church meetings and Bible studies are held via Zoom. We have occasionally held hybrid meetings in which I host the Zoom from church so those without technology at home can come to the church, with masks and social distancing, and participate,” said Roberts.
With COVID-19 numbers decreasing, the church plans to have in-person worship outdoors on Easter Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Pavilion in downtown Wilkesboro, said Roberts. This depends on the weather and if COVID cases don’t spike before then, she added. It will also be live-streamed.
Wilkesboro United Methodist Church’s facilities have been closed and the church hasn’t had in-person worship services since March 12, 2020, but outdoors areas on the church property were recently made available to non-profits, Scout units and others that normally use the facilities. WUMC’s annual Pancake Day was canceled due to the challenge of safely feeding around 750 people.
Roberts said that despite challenges created by shutting down the facilities and missing in-person worship, “it forced us to be out of the building and into the world, which is where we are truly called to be. We have tried to look at this shut-down as an opportunity to show honor to God and neighborly love.”
She said that in the midst of the pandemic, the church has tried to hold to the basic principles of the United Methodist denomination, as stated by Methodism founder John Wesley: “Do no harm, do all the good you can and stay in love with God.”
She said WMUC believes this means doing all they can to minimize the spread of COVID-19, continuing ministry efforts in the community and world and continuing worship and Bible study but online.
A WUMC team spent two weeks serving food at C.C. Wright Elementary for the summer food program to give staff a needed break before school started back. She said the church’s sewing bee has continued its work, sewing dresses, bags and other items for missions. The church’s support of Moravian Falls Elementary School has continued with treat bags, staff snacks/meals and a paper drive. The pandemic prevented the church from holding its summer youth literacy program, funded by the Duke Endowment.
Church members receive two emails per week with prayer requests and ministry news, as well as an attachment of the sermon for those who can’t watch online. At-home worship kits, items needed to lead a family in special services like communion have been provided and the church was decorated and open certain hours at Christmas for families to sit and pray together.