Local churches adapt to coronavirus precautions

In times of great difficulty and strain, church is often the first place many people turn to for solace.

Places of worship offer a sense of community, a way to feel closer to your neighbors and friends as well as to God. So as the coronavirus quickly disrupted every aspect of everyday life, it made sense for people to look to their faith for guidance.

At the same time, area religious leaders found themselves needing to strike a delicate balance.

"Sometimes, we have an ambidextrous faith. On one hand, we can confront reality and not minimize pain and suffering, know that Jesus suffered, we don’t have to back away from that," said Jason Gallman, lead pastor at Community Church of Greenwood. "At the same time, we believe in the resurrection and that there’s hope and joy, and that’s eternal. So we can suffer and mourn on the one hand, and rejoice and be hopeful on the other."

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Many churches throughout Johnson County closed their doors last weekend, taking advantage of streaming or video capabilities to offer services online. Others welcomed worshipers, taking extreme precautions such as limiting greetings, spreading congregants throughout worship spaces and offering ample hand sanitizers and wipes to keep people healthy.

As Indiana enters its second weekend of social distancing, nearly all places of worship will be closed. Church leaders understand that the changes are disruptive to people, but emphasize that even apart, the community of faith remains strong.

 "There’s a lot of uncertainty about all of this in our minds," said Pastor Matt Giebler, senior minister at Greenwood Christian Church. "But we recognize that God is bigger than and exists outside of all of this, and He was not caught off-guard by it. He’s working behind the scenes of this, and He is already on the other end of it. We’re encouraging people to continue to trust and to look out for each other in the community as best we can."

As event cancellations started to pile up late last week, officials at Greenwood Christian Church watched for updates from the governor’s office and guidance on how to gather. When Gov. Eric Holcomb set the limit on public gatherings at 250 people late last week, the church decided to feature online-only services, Giebler said.

The response was good. Typically, the church has 180 unique devices log-on to the livestream channel. From March 14, more than 1,300 devices have viewed the video via livestream, YouTube and Facebook.

"We were blown away by the overall device log-ins," Giebler said. "We had more devices log in than we’d usually have worshipers in attendance in a normal weekend. And since people were watching with a spouse or a family, or in some cases, our small groups meeting in people’s living rooms, we would guess we had a substantially larger audience than we normally would."

This weekend, the church will resume with its normal full-length service, recorded in the normal worship space. The only difference will be they’ll be doing so to an entirely empty building.

"We’re trying to utilize social media platforms even more regularly. That’s one of the few predictable ways we can connect with people, to put more content out there," Giebler said.

Even during the week, the Community Church of Greenwood is a bustling, active church campus. Bible classes and other group meetings are held during the day. The church’s Gathering Place facility welcomes dozens of people daily for exercise, fitness classes, sports and other activities.

But since March 13, all activity has ceased. The Gathering Place is closed, Bible classes have been canceled, and all worship service has moved online.

"While this is obviously a really hard, challenging time on a lot of levels, it’s also an opportunity for us to put things in perspective and work together," Gallman said.

Steps have been taken to try to care for people, even if they can’t all meet together. Officials are putting together videos for teaching and prayer to supplement weekly worship services.

On the church’s website, tabs have been added where people can make a prayer request, or where they can let church leaders know about a need.

"What we’re trying to do is provide an online experience that, while not the same as meeting face-to-face, still reaches people. We had the vast majority of our congregation tune in last Sunday to take advantage of material we have for adults and special things for kids," Gallman said. "We’re going to keep building on that."

Grace United Methodist Church has been working diligently to meet not only the spiritual needs of its congregation, but the needs of the entire Franklin community. The church houses a preschool, hosts a number of meetings and community groups and provides a weekly meal to those in need.

All of that has been either canceled or reconfigured, said Pastor Andy Kinsey.

"We have very limited access to the church building itself, which for us is huge. Every day of the week, this building is utilized for 30 or more groups," he said. "The different groups are having to take precautions, and we’re having to take precautions."

Worship services have moved online. The Soup’s On ministry, which feeds people every week, has been turned to a drive-through only option.

"There are things people can do to help. But now you have to rethink logistics, you have to think if people can come and go from the building, what does that look like?" he said. "We’ve put together a little pamphlet for folks on how to reach us through the website or email."

St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Franklin started preparing in early March for the inevitability that the coronavirus would make its way to Johnson County, said Fr. Steve Schaftlein, pastor of the church.

Schaftlein has experience ministering to those living in fearful and anxious times. He was a pastor in Henryville in 2012 when a tornado devastated the community.

"In those days, good information was the most important thing you could share," he said.

In that vein, he’s taking the same approach to this new challenge. Schaftlein has set up a special "Pastor’s Corner" portion of the church website, where he shares government and church updates about the disease, links to helpful information from the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies, as well as his own guidance.

About 200 people attended St. Rose of Lima’s three services on March 14 and 15, which is 1/3 of the church’s normal attendance, Schaftlein said. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis announced this week the cancellation of all daily and Sunday Mass at Catholic churches throughout the region.

In preparation, St. Rose was working to set up a live-stream of its Sunday services, Schaftlein said.

"We’re in this together. We will get through it. There are lessons we can learn from it to make us stronger," Schaftlein said. "We can try to take some of the time we have with reduced activities to do a little bit of prayerful reflection."