From the largest churches in Tipton County to the smallest, things are going to be quite different for a while as local houses of worship stop congregating for the foreseeable future to try to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The leaders at Covington Church of Christ grappled with the decision to halt services last week before ultimately deciding to do so. An online sermon was broadcasted last Wednesday and church members were asked to stay home.
“We had some initial push back when we cancelled,” said Jeff Phillips, associate minister at the church, which has a congregation of about 275. “When the decision was made, we sat there and argued with ourselves for two days before we made it public, trying to figure a way around cancelling services.”
Phillips and Minister Mike Rogers sat down at a table and preached to a camera last Wednesday. Last Sunday, Rogers preached to an online crowd again at www.covingtoncofc.com.
One church member was not happy with the new arrangement. Phillips called him to discuss the matter.
“He said, ‘We’re not supposed to be scared as Christians,” Phillips said. “I said, ‘We’re not scared.’ We explained that if the government said they were putting a ban on worship, we would send them a note, hey, here we are, at 9 o’clock Sunday morning we’ll be at 1690 Highway 51 South. We invite you to worship with us. The Constitution says we can worship … They’ve asked us not to assemble to prevent the spread of this virus. That’s a whole different deal. Thank the Lord we live in an age where we can use technology.”
With a congregation of 500, First Baptist Church in Covington is one of the largest churches in Tipton County. Pastor Chuck Williams teamed up with Associate Pastor Cliff Marion to record a sermon that was posted at www.fbccovington.org last Sunday at 10 a.m.
Williams paused for a few seconds when asked what it was like preaching to an empty sanctuary.
“I guess the word would be … I don’t know, it was just different,” Williams said. “It was kind of a surreal experience knowing that people watching were going to be in a totally different frame of mind. We felt a heavy weight of responsibility with what we were doing. We were trying to dedicate what were doing to the Lord because we feel like this is causing a lot of us, myself included, to re-examine our relationship to the Lord.”
Gateway Baptist Church has campuses in Covington, Atoka and Munford with a combined congregation of about 800. Pastor Steve Carpenter, who usually preaches to a large group at the Atoka campus, recorded a sermon on Sunday that was posted at gatewaytipton.com.
Gateway Associate Pastor Jeff Gautney said more than 3,000 people watched it and that congregation members seem to be dealing well with the new way of worshiping.
“They are completely on board with all the safety protocols we’re doing,” Gautney said. “They’ve really responded well. It’s been a really challenging thing not being able to gather together and encourage each other in person. Even when you do you can’t hug each other or hand shake or anything.”
God’s Grace Gospel Church in Jamestown, with a congregation of 25, is one of the smallest churches in the county. Sunday services sometimes draw less than a dozen people.
Nevertheless, Pastor O. Pearl Andrews said the church is no longer meeting and will begin posting sermons on Facebook. She plans on making it an audio-only sermon in an effort keep the focus on God.
“I’ve never done it before,” she said. “It’s going to be new to me. I just don’t want to take the attention away from God. On things like Facebook it’s become so self-centered. We need to go back to God-centered. I just want want them to hear my voice and hear the message.”
Although churches are no longer meeting for Wednesday and Sunday services, members are trying to stay active with food drives and other charitable endeavors. The Gateway Covington and Munford campuses are working with Tipton County Schools to hand out bags of groceries on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon.
The younger students at Tipton Christian Academy normally attend classes at First Baptist but are no longer in the building. TCA student will be out of school as long as the county schools are.
“It’s totally incredible that here we are and the place is just empty,” Williams said. “We are used to things going on from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. just about every day of the week. It’s just desolate.”
According to Phillips, some congregation members are worried how they are going to make it through weeks without being with other church members. Encouraging words are being posted online, Phillips said, but it’s not the same.
“One guy said, ‘This (online sermon) is not good enough for me,'” Phillips said. “His ultimate question was, ‘What about me? I need to see my family. This is one or two days a week I get to do this, I get to see my family.’ He’s talking about his church family … That’s one of the reasons we come together. Some people need that. This is their safety net.”