Small town churches face coronavirus challenges

March 20th, 2020 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Small town churches face coronavirus challenges

Churches in small towns are changing plans in light of tightening local and federal government guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Such guidelines, which have been changing frequently, pose challenges for small town churches used to congregating weekly for worship and socialization and that can sometimes be, with typical Texas resilience, determined in times of crisis.

“The older population at high risk is the one that gets out and goes to church because that’s what you are supposed to do,” said Terry Bunch, pastor of East Side Baptist Church in Haskell, north of Abilene.

At the time of writing this story on Mar. 17, no COVID-19 cases had been found in Haskell or surrounding counties. Nor had any surfaced in Henderson, Kaufman, Van Zandt or Madison counties, the areas served by the other churches contacted by the TEXAN for this article.

All pastors indicated they were maintaining close contact with local government, law enforcement and school authorities—important for any ministry but especially so for those in contexts where everyone knows each other. 

East Side, which usually runs around 75, held services Mar. 15 with 50 in attendance. Midweek services and youth activities were canceled, along with monthly ministries to nursing home patients and special needs adults. 

Church services will be decided “week to week,” Bunch said, and East Side is accelerating its ability to livestream services with new equipment. The church expects to be ready by this Sunday, Mar. 22.

Deacons have been canvassing shut-ins and at-risk members to assess needs and deliver groceries and supplies.

Cornerstone Baptist, East Side’s sister church across Haskell, sent deacons with care packages including disinfectant and other supplies to visit shut-ins, Bunch added.

“Our world is broken,” he said. “God is not surprised about this. We shouldn’t be either. People need hope. That’s the Jesus part. We are called to be ministers in this time so we take hope, encouragement, and we will take them toilet paper if we can find it.”

For Harbor Baptist Church in Payne Springs near Cedar Creek Lake, services for the congregation of 50 continued Mar. 15 with adjustments as members spread out in the sanctuary, according to pastor George Yarger.

“We’re not touching or hugging. We are foot bumping,” Yarger said after the Mar. 15 service. The church has stocked up on toilet paper, too, and is offering it via Facebook Messenger to those in need.

Yarger is exploring methods for online giving, and in the meantime he is encouraging members to mail in their offerings “so your church will be here when this is over.”

He said he remembers older people in his early congregations who told him of losing family members to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Grace Community Church, a congregation of 120 in nearby Mabank, has restructured Sunday worship beginning Mar. 22.

“Our plan is to cancel the corporate Sunday worship at church, but this doesn’t mean we are canceling church,” said pastor Michael Cooper.

Although area internet limitations preclude livestreaming, members will open their homes for small groups which will read Scripture, sing and watch Cooper’s recorded sermon.

The Grace Care Team, which focuses on ministering to shut-ins, is contacting older members and offering to assist with groceries and medications. 

“Something will come up and we will stand ready,” Cooper said, adding that members may help with an expanded Meals on Wheels program local officials are exploring. 

Meanwhile, Grace Community’s parking lot is among several drop-off points for Mabank ISD as the district provides breakfasts and lunches to underprivileged students during the hiatus from school.

Michael Criner, pastor of Brownsboro’s Rock Hill Baptist Church, said, “Like many churches, we have made plans, changed plans and then re-planned those plans.”

Rock Hill, which runs about 900, is going online, providing multiple Sunday worship services accessible via the church website with DVDs prepared for others. Small groups will connect via Zoom while staff, deacons and group leaders stay in contact with membership.

“Our main fear is isolation for our most vulnerable,” Criner said.

Finances are another concern.

“We are providing outlets for individuals who need assistance, but also avenues for people to contribute to our church,” Criner said, adding that the crisis is causing Rock Hill to develop technological resources to help families spiritually.

“We want to rest in the truth that [God] is working all things together for the good of those who love him. Now, we get to experience that kind of trust,” Criner said.

The church, which is a Mabank ISD meal drop-off point, is modifying how it distributes food at its monthly community food bank to adhere to CDC guidelines.

Northeast of College Station, First Baptist Madisonville, a multigenerational church of 350 under the leadership of pastor Joshua Crutchfield, is also adjusting to the new normal.

“We are coming up with contingency plans,” Crutchfield said, noting that the church already livestreams all its services.

First Madisonville is exploring ways to stay connected with the congregation should church go completely online for an extended time, including developing resources for family worship at home. Crutchfield will post Wednesday night’s recorded sermon on social media. Small group gatherings may be encouraged.

“Some of the seriousness is starting to set in on people,” Crutchfield said. “It’s hard to know what to expect. That’s why they call it novel. We are taking measured, meditated steps, focusing on safeguarding our people.”

First Madisonville is also ready to help the community, offering a grocery shopping service to shut-ins throughout town. 

Crutchfield said he hopes the church will “provide some sense of normalcy in times that are anything but normal.”