Virtual-only church services were the norm for most of last spring — including Easter Sunday — during the worldwide shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus.
In-person services largely resumed last June with livestreams as an option, and today most Dickson County churches continue on that dual track, with COVID-19 protocols in place for sanctuary worship.
For Easter this year, many local churches planned a continuation of their respective weekly patterns with no changes to the times that services were to be held, the number of services or the protocols.
At Burns Church of Christ, for example, “I think it’d be safe to call it ‘business as COVID-usual,’ ” Pastor Matthew Hiatt said.
Among churches varying their routines, some changes are related to the coronavirus while others, such as holding sunrise services, simply reflect Easter traditions.
Besides services, many churches also planned Easter egg hunts and other activities unique to the holiday.
Hiatt predicted turnout for Easter services would exceed that of a typical Sunday nowadays but fall short of pre-pandemic levels.
In keeping with policy at Burns Church of Christ, masks were encouraged for Easter services but not required, and social distancing would be practiced, Hiatt said.
Policies vary from one church to the next about mask-wearing. Some require it, some encourage it and some have a mandate at some services but not others.
Looking back over the past year, pastors tend to agree on many points. For one, livestreaming has not only kept worshippers connected but has furthered churches’ reach.
At the same time, the loss of in-person fellowship has been painful.
Among White Bluff Church of Christ members experiencing last spring’s shutdown, “Many spoke of how they missed seeing one another face to face,” Pastor Doug Couch said.
However, “What we lost in livestreaming our worship services, we gained in unexpected ways,” Couch said.
“Some in other cities or states began watching our internet broadcast. Some non-Christian husbands began watching with their wives. One gentleman became a Christian because of his wife’s influence and because he began watching the broadcasts with his wife.”
Couch added: “We learned that the church is not a building but people. We also learned that we need interaction with family and friends to be healthy emotionally and spiritually. We look forward to the day when we can all be together again.”
Hiatt echoed those sentiments, noting that the value of livestreaming extends well beyond the pandemic by providing access to local church services for shut-ins and anyone else who, for whatever reason, cannot attend in person.
Religious broadcasts on national or regional television and radio are nothing new. But before the pandemic, remote access to small-town church services was generally poor or nonexistent. Some churches would post an audio podcast online sometime after the service was over.
The popularity of livestreaming exploded during the pandemic, and the medium is “absolutely” here to stay, Hiatt and other pastors said.
As important as livestreaming is, Hiatt said, members of his church did not realize how valuable in-person fellowship was until last spring when it disappeared.
“ ‘I never thought I’d miss this so much,’ ” members would tell Hiatt, he said.
Some members saw a lighter side, telling Hiatt they “ ‘went to church in my PJs this morning,’ ” the pastor said.
But it was difficult, even for those with an upbeat attitude.
“We appreciate our fellowship more than ever,” Hiatt said.
In that regard, and in other ways, the pandemic has strengthened bonds among parishioners, Hiatt said.
Burns Church of Christ members have mobilized to deliver communion supplies to peoples’ homes on a weekly basis, he said.
Helping others is a hallmark of church members in general, but the generosity of many of them stands out in a pandemic that has caused economic hardship, Hiatt said.
When stimulus checks hit bank accounts, Hiatt said, his office phone rings.
Callers have a question for him: “ ‘Who do you know that I could help?’ ” Hiatt said.