In a time of adversity, Hickory's Discovery Church Pastor Smith Sharpe found opportunity.
The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home orders issued in North Carolina forced Sharpe and the Discovery Church team to assess delivery of the traditional Sunday services -- “It’s given us an opportunity to represent Jesus in a really creative way,” Sharpe said.
Like most churches in Catawba County that closed due to COVID-19 gathering-size restrictions, they turned to online services to reach the 500-person congregation safely.
After Discovery Church stopped in-person, indoor services in mid-March, it ramped up its production ability for live-stream services, Sharpe said. The church doubled its production equipment to produce engaging live sermons for the congregation to watch on Facebook and the church website.
Creating an engaging live service helped keep people committed, Sharpe said. It also helped the church reach people it never would have before -- worshippers tuned in from all over the country and world, Sharpe said.
In some ways, the COVID-19 restrictions pushed the church to be better and faster, Sharpe said.
“We’ve learned so much as a church in this adversarial environment,” Sharpe said. “We’ve learned so much about how to provide the gospel and reach people that we did not know before.”
Even though COVID-19 restrictions are easing and a federal judge has allowed indoor worship in North Carolina, the church is moving to outdoor services. Sunday will be Discovery’s first outdoor service since the pandemic led to statewide restrictions. Sharpe says he is working to make the event safe and engaging. A large, outdoor festival-style stage on the church grounds is the focus of Sunday’s service. There will be tents for people to sit under with chairs spread apart to encourage social distancing. There will be hand sanitizer and masks available for anyone who needs one, Sharpe said. Those who wish to stay in their cars can listen with their windows rolled down or tune in to a radio station that will broadcast the sermon.
“It’s tricky because you don’t want to create an environment where they feel unsafe. But we want to create an environment where people can worship,” Sharpe said.
Discovery Church is not the only one struggling with that balance. Several other churches in Catawba County and around the state are planning their first in-person worship Sunday, including Emmanuel Baptist Church in Conover. The church will hold indoor worship for the first time since mid-March.
Pastor Brian Correll was among a group of church leaders to protest the state’s order restricting indoor services, but Correll didn’t hold an indoor service this past Sunday.
“My number one goal was we would do everything above and beyond to social distance -- cleaning and everything,” Correll said. “I wanted to spend this week getting everyone set up and making sure everything was prepared.”
Correll has an upper hand in planning for safe worship -- his wife, Robin Correll, is director of nursing at RHA Health Services and is leading the church's pandemic response.
With her help, Correll and his team at Emmanuel Baptist came up with a plan to keep everyone safe and comfortable, he said.
The church will be at 50 percent capacity inside and three services will be held to lower the number of people at each service. The church will be cleaned between each service. People will sit in every other row and there won’t be an offering plate. No hand-shaking will be allowed, hand sanitizer will be plentiful and masks will be available. Correll said he will share the rules on social distancing with the congregation.
“We’ve decided to be overly cautious rather than running back to full capacity,” Correll said. “That’s one of the reasons we're only doing in-person services on Sunday morning.”
The church’s Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services will continue to be broadcast online.
The pandemic may lead to long-term changes, Correll said. The church is planning to purchase individually wrapped communion packets, considering changing how offerings are collected and may eliminate time set aside for fellowship during the service, Correll said.
While figuring out the logistics of safe services has been a challenge, it hasn’t been the greatest hurdle to leading a church during the pandemic, Correll said.
He said the biggest struggle is the loss of one-on-one interactions with his church members. Pastors can’t pray with someone before surgery in a hospital or visit people in hospice care. Visiting people at home has changed. People more reluctant to welcome strangers into their houses. It makes connecting with and comforting people difficult, Correll said.
He worries it could be that way for some time. “Nobody feels comfortable going into somebody else’s home,” he said. Instead, Correll and his staff have started calling every member of the church to check in regularly.
At Discovery Church, Sharpe and his fellow pastors have done the same -- starting a chain of phone calls to check in with members and make sure everyone has what they need.
“We knew early on we didn’t want to lose touch with people, so we created a strategy to make sure we stayed connected,” Sharpe said.
Both pastors said the pandemic brought uncertainty, adversity and trials. Both also turned to what they know best -- their faith.
With so many unknowns, the best thing to do is point people to God, Correll said.