Local churches turn to virtual services in the wake of coronavirus concerns

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Last Sunday, Dowagiac’s First United Methodist Church Pastor Chris Momany began his day like he would any other Sunday. He got up, dressed, and headed over to the church, 326 N. Lowe St., Dowagiac, and prepared to deliver a message about the woman at the well, which is found in the book of John.

However, unlike a typical Sunday, when he went to the pulpit to deliver his sermon, his voice echoed across a nearly empty room.

“We are worshipping in kind of a different way today,” he said to begin his sermon, speaking to pews filled with just a handful of church staff members. “We hope that those of you at home will be able to join us online.”

In light of concerns surrounding the spread of the COVID-19 virus, also known as the coronavirus, and a state-mandated ban on gatherings of 50 people or more, churches are getting creative about how to operate and reach their congregations. Now Momany’s church is just one of many churches that have canceled face-to-face service in favor of virtual services.

Last Sunday, Momany’s service was recorded and uploaded to YouTube and social media to allow church members to partake in worship while practicing social distancing, which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is vital to helping curb the spread of the coronavirus.

While Momany said he misses the eye-contact and occasional “amen” he gets when preaching to a live audience, he is prepared to continue virtual services as long as needed to keep congregants safe and healthy. His church is still fine-tuning the details of how it will handle particular needs, such as communion, over the internet. Still, Momany is confident that the church will come out of the coronavirus crisis strong.

“It’s important for people to know that we are still worshiping,” Momany said. “We are still having service, and we are still reaching out.”

As of this week, Momany and his team were working to improve the church website to better suit virtual needs and was also working to implement live-streamed services. On the less technical side of things, Momany was committing to writing letters to church members, complete with a custom wax seal, to provide encouragement to them. He is also ensuring that he is available to answer phone calls to help guide his members in spiritual matters.

“Letter writing is a lost art,” Momany said. “I know that sounds clunky and old fashioned, but I think there is something personal about that, and it will encourage people. I think a lot of people are afraid, and even if they are not afraid, we have this term, social distancing, which is, in some ways, the opposite of what Christian people want to do. We are going to distance ourselves physically, but we want to find ways to stay emotionally and spiritually together.”

Across county lines, Niles’ Relevant Church has also turned to virtual service. However, Pastor Muta Mwenya said the switch to online service was less of a challenge for his church, as Relevant is a mobile church that has gone virtual in the past. Additionally, the church already has an established, prominent online and social media presence. With more than 300 total individuals who call Relevant home and Sunday services that draw numbers exceeding 150, Mwenya’s church is one of the largest in the area to move to online services.

Wednesday, Mwenya was working with a small crew to record worship songs and services for Sunday’s broadcast. Though he was working in a building with little power, he said he and his “killer team” were making things work by setting up makeshift lighting and creative framing.

“Our church is portable, and we are used to doing church in a nontraditional space,” Mwenya said. “It is a challenge, but we are rising to it.”

Unlike Momany, Mwenya said he is taking a more personal approach with his virtual sermons. Instead of preaching to empty pews, last Sunday’s broadcast was framed close to his face, just himself talking to a camera inside his office. The church will be broadcasting services on its website at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Mwenya hopes that each virtual service he hosts will be personal and draw watchers to Christ.

“We want to create an experience that still gives people hope,” he said. “We want people to know that church is still open — it just looks a little different now.”

So far, both Mwenya and Momany said people have been responding positively to virtual services. Due to services being posted on several different platforms, neither pastor could provide complete numbers of how many people had tuned into Sunday services. However, as of press time Friday, Relevant’s Facebook video had 287 views, and First United Methodist’s Youtube video had 145 views.

Finding a silver lining in what has befallen their churches, both pastors said they believe the online format will allow their messages to reach beyond their usual congregations and spread the gospel throughout Michiana.

“This is an exciting time for the church because the church thrives in adversity,” Mwenya said. “The gospel is the message of hope that gets to go viral because churches everywhere are doing online services. There is going to be a global impact. This is tough and challenging for the church, but it is a time when the global church has risen. We are under crisis, but this is going to be our best hour yet.”