by Terry Rogers
On April 6, in his Tenth Modification to the Delaware State of Emergency Declaration related to COVID-19, Governor John Carney limited in-person worship services of any type to no more than ten people. The order encouraged churches to transition in-person services to remote services broadcast by telephone or video. Pastor Andy Stevens of the Milford Church of God explained that this decision has added increased demands on him and his staff.
“The order we received from the Governor is that we cannot have any type of church service inside the building,” Pastor Stevens said. “We considered doing a drive-in church, but it is difficult since we have a limited parking lot. In order to hold a drive-in church, the cars must be parked 15 feet from each other in all directions. This means our churches have stricter parking requirements than Walmart. We also have to deal with noise ordinances in town since we are in a residential area. What we have done to get the Word to people is move our services online.”
Pastor Stevens explained that the Church of God has worked diligently to be sure all the parishioners can access any service they wish to attend. The church already used live streaming services on Facebook and Livestream.com to broadcast their service, so it simply took educating them on how to use technology. Services can also be viewed by downloading the Livestream app to an Apple TV or ROKU device and searching for the service. This has led to a significant amount of work for he and his staff as they have had to learn about video, virtual streaming, editing, sound, lighting and more. They had to boost their internet speed at the church, and the Pastor stated that it can take several hours to get even one 15-minute video completed. He is willing to continue doing that if it reaches his parishioners.
“We came up with a motto “No Tech, No Problem” to address those without internet or computer services,” Pastor Stevens said. “We have actually offered to go purchase a tablet for someone who said they had no way to watch the service. In most cases, before we do that, a family member or friend steps up with a device that someone can use until this ends. We are also using a Zoom meeting option that allows people with just a phone to call in to hear the service, using their phone like an old-fashioned radio. This option works no matter what type of phone you have.”
Pastor Stevens belongs to a multi-denominational group of religious leaders who discuss religious needs throughout the Milford area. He stated that many ministers feel as if they are not being given a voice in decisions made regarding worship.
“We need to have a seat at the table,” Pastor Stevens said. “Our primary focus is our parishioners and we want to keep them as healthy as we can. We know what we need to do to keep people safe inside our church. We know that when we do get the opportunity to open, it will be at reduced capacity but reduced is much better than the zero we have now. For eight weeks in a row, I have been alone here in this church and it feels weird.”
When asked if he had been given any direction regarding when churches could resume in-person worship, he explained that everything seemed to be fluid and dynamic.
“If you hear anything one day, it changes the next day,” he said. “Churches have simply been left out of the conversation. We have been told we can feed people who are hungry, we can counsel those who are struggling, we have been given the legal authority to marry couples and bury the dead, but we are not being given the opportunity to show the plans we are ready to implement to get people back in church.”
One of the benefits to the pandemic is that the online versions seem to be reaching more people than ever. On an average Sunday, the church usually had between 200 and 225 people in attendance. When he reviews the online analytics, he sees that the numbers double and triple. Because the services remain online, Pastor Stevens has seen viewership go up as much as five times in 24 hours.
“This is amazing, and it is awesome, but it is not how we want to reach people,” Pastor Stevens said. “We struggle with not being able to exercise our religious rights. The church is not a building, but church is where the church goers gather. The building itself is part of our religion. There is also a social component to church. It is sometimes the only place people have interaction with others throughout the week. Every parishioner I speak to says they miss being able to come together.”
The church has continued to support the community throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The Pastor said that the church wants to be part of the solution.
“We have given out tens of thousands of pounds of food in partnership with Milford School District,” he said. “Last week, we purchased lunch for the entire staff of Bayhealth. I mean all shifts and all positions. It was a lot of money but we want to give back. We want to support this community that has supported us over the years.”
Personal wellness is another issue that concerns Pastor Stevens as the pandemic continues. He feels that there will be an epidemic of mental health issues the longer the closures continue.
“What we have is people who are going to explode over a tiny thing,” Pastor Stevens said. “We have a tsunami of people who are lost right now. If you think about it this way, someone does everything right, they build a business from the ground up, they are building a legacy for their children. Suddenly, that is snatched away from them due to something completely out of their control. They had no time to prepare, no time to board things up, no time to tuck money away. The mental health fallout from this is going to be far worse than the virus as a society, as a family, in the workplace and more.”
People have reached out to Pastor Stevens in an effort to deal with depression and anxiety in the wake of the pandemic. He stated that people are built for social interaction. Because many feel there is no clear plan which means they feel there is no end in sight of the things they are struggling with, they feel helpless.
“One way I am trying to deal with those who are depressed or anxious is a daily reading at noon,” Pastor Stevens said. “I call it “Keep Calm with Our Psalms.” We know that when people are pushed over the edge, they do irrational things. We are doing everything we can to prevent that from happening, but we need to have some human interaction soon or it is going to be a problem.”
In some areas of the country, churches have chosen to violate the regulations and hold service anyway. Pastor Stevens stated that he does not intend to do that.
“I am not a fan of violating the law and having Chief Brown hand me a cease and desist order,” Pastor Stevens said. “I have a good relationship with the Mayor, with the Chief of Police and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. If they come to me and tell me I cannot preach the Gospel, that will be a different story. I may need to start a “Pastor Andy Bail Fund” if that happens, but I don’t think the government would put us in that position.”
Pastor Stevens pointed out that COVID-19 is real and that it is frightening. He feels that the pandemic could have been a unifying issue in this country, bringing people together. Instead, it seems to be driving people apart.
“What makes our country great is the freedom to choose,” Pastor Stevens said. “You can stay home if you feel unsafe. You can wear a mask. You have that freedom. By the same token, you can choose to worship in your church or not wear a mask. You should have those freedoms as well. Churches are meant to be sanctuaries, they are part of the community. We want the church to be an example and are ready to do what we need to do to continue worshiping God while also keeping our worshippers safe.”