Pastors prepare to speak to empty pews Sunday due to coronavirus
– Geoff Dornan
Valley Christian Fellowship of Minden has never closed its doors on a Sunday for worship. This Sunday, though, when the church’s worship team takes the stage to sing and Pastor Leo Kruger delivers his message, they’ll address an empty room. The doors will be locked and the service will be livestreamed.
“It’s a pretty serious thing,” Kruger said Wednesday. “I’ve been a pastor now for 30 years. We’ve never, ever closed a service. Even when it snowed, people came.”
This week, schools, businesses and non-essential services were closed and the growing threat of the COVID-19 virus loomed over local churches, synagogues and temples. The faith community began to make the tough call of preventing its congregations from meeting temporarily for worship. Bible studies, prayer meetings, fellowships and regularly scheduled activities are being canceled by choice.
Decisions are falling in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of calling off gatherings for 50 or more people for the next eight weeks to prevent an additional spread of the coronavirus, though most churches are closing down for at least two weeks for now and reassessing afterward.
They’re also following Gov. Steve Sisolak’s urgings from his press conference Wednesday in Las Vegas announcing the closure of non-essential services. He addressed places of worship during his briefing as well.
“Although I cannot, will not say that houses of worship will be closed, I strongly urge our faith leaders to find ways to deliver to your congregation without bringing them together in person,” Sisolak said.
So, notices began going out via letters or on websites that religious services will be canceled in the interim until it is safe to gather as a unified crowd again. A cursory glance at available websites or Facebook pages for churches in the Carson City/Douglas County area shows congregations are posting notes indicating closures are effective immediately and that services are going digital. Those that are still meeting are being mindful of social distancing obligations.
“We have stopped all meetings outside of Sunday,” Pastor Ben Fleming of Silver Hills Community Church in Carson City wrote the Appeal. “We are now livestreaming for the first time in 25 years. This Sunday we are going to implement strict social distance guidelines. We will ask for (two) seats to be between each family. At the end we will dismiss family by family to avoid breaking the distance. Of course – no handshakes or hugs.”
But social distancing presents its challenges to mental, spiritual and physical care.
“This is our first pandemic,” Pastor Luke Wartgow of Carson Valley Bible Church in Gardnerville said. “What’s the best way to shepherd and care for our people during a time when it’s not safe for us to meet? That’s a tough decision for us to make. The church is meant to be an actual gathering place.”
Wartgow said his church, a body of about 50 locals with half older than 50 years of age and half younger than that, runs a genuine risk of its senior members experiencing complications from COVID-19. He and his leaders have listened to Sisolak and the state and local health authorities’ recommendations to determine how they should coordinate their own midweek Bible studies and small groups of about five to 15. The pastor said they ended up suspending those meetings.
But he’s still trying to figure out how to keep everyone connected, whether it’s through social media such as using Facebook Live or YouTube. He’s not even sure some have access, whether by phone or computer or are confident enough to find where he would post the content. He was preparing for a series in the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark and for a brief Easter sermon series with the Christian holiday approaching on April 12, but he said it’s difficult to know what the church’s meeting situation will be by then.
“This (the technology) won’t replace church in any way,” he said.
“We’re coming from a Christian worldview and that is that we don’t fear death, we don’t fear disease in the same way the world does … and that in a time like this, we’re going to love God and we’re going to love our neighbor,” Wartgow said.
Meanwhile, at Valley Christian Fellowship last week, Kruger noticed a lower attendance than usual. VCF’s sanctuary has a capacity of about 400 and usually has about 250 to 300 attending on a weekly basis.
He expects attendance to slow even more in the next few weeks, and livestreaming will be the way to keep everyone connected. He added it could be a challenge for seniors who might not be as familiar or comfortable with logging on to the Internet to access the webcast. The pastor himself admits he’s not the most adept at the platforms by which viewers can follow along online.
“When you think about technology, it’s Greek to me, and I understand Greek better than technology,” he said.
While the church itself isn’t the most “cutting edge” in its offerings, Kruger said, it’s important to keep its evangelistic efforts going to encourage others listening to God’s message. He’s been preaching on a series about eight core values that pertain to the Christian, including making disciples and integrity, topics he’s been using to help others during this time of crisis, he said.
“One of the goals is to get us out of our four walls and minister to the community and show them what the church is and who we are, and right now the church is one of the four walls because we can’t even get in the four walls because we just got a new building,” Kruger said of their current building at 1681 Lucerne St. in Minden that was a former grocery store.
For many churches, remaining still at this time presents a conundrum. Although they are keenly aware of technology as an all-important tool, what’s available to them, how to use it or merely how to set it up are some of the obstacles they face in reaching their church families for a time such as this. Some are turning to simple tools such as recording videos and going through Facebook, and some are using chat tools like Zoom to webcast.
But for those who would rather broadcast, Ian Hill, chief community builder and founder of the National Grassroots Broadcasting Network, a multi-channel streaming platform with its flagship location CarsonCitynv.tv through the Nevada News Group, still has another route.
“Any church that cannot come together, we would allow them to use our platforms,” Hill said. “We have 17 different platforms that people can watch on. They can watch on Roku, Apple TV, they can watch on Fire, the Web, Android TV, Facebook.”
Hill said they’re unable to provide the church the equipment, such as the television, the router, computers, cables or so on, but they would provide the software or tools and create a channel specifically for the church’s members to watch on their television, Internet browser or phone and watch on demand. Already, NGBN has reached out to a number of area churches through social media, Hill said, announcing it daily in Carson City, and churches also have been putting in their own inquiries asking about its services about broadcasting. Hill said his team is comprised of six members ready and poised to assist the community’s congregations.
“We want to support our community,” Hill said. “We want to understand the community and show support those institutions in faith … in these challenging times.
“If we can be the conduit to that message, we’ll be blessed in this life or the life to come, then we’ve done our job. NNG (Nevada News Group) is our partner and we’re partners (with these churches).”