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The 'church' is not the building
FBC waters
Statesboro First Baptist Church pastor John Waters preaches to a camera and a sanctuary full of empty pews so that church members can stream services during COVID-19 sheltering in place for Statesboro. Area pastors have seen the church reach beyond its walls during the pandemic, calling this period of time challenging but strengthening. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

People of faith often pontificate the concept that the “church” is not a building, but instead points to the collection of believers. Local pastors agree, but miss the act of meeting face-to-face with their congregations and struggle with the emotional toll the empty pews cause. 

Reverend Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman, pastor, First Presbyterian Church, said she prefers not to hear the phrases, “church is canceled” or “church is closed.” The building may be shuttered as far as in-person worship, she said, but that terminology isn’t correct.

“This time is forcing us to be creative,” she said. “Forcing us to experience resurrected life completely new. What a gift, but it’s painful too. Painful and full of hope. Terrifying and full of possibility and newness.”

Hartman said her heart especially aches for those who might be dealing with the pandemic alone, the single, the widowed and the elderly. 

“Sundays might be the one time a week when someone would hug you, check on you, make sure you’re OK. Church is vital for their well-being,” she said. 

Hartman believes corporate worship is vital for her congregation, and for her, too. 

“Honestly, it’s been really difficult. Leading worship is so much about communication with the congregation, elevated conversation informed and shaped by the Holy Spirit. Religious folks have had to worship in exile or isolation or secretly before, but they were usually together as a group. We’re having to rely heavily on the Holy Spirit that binds us,” she said.

Hartman said she and the congregation are really feeling the distance, but she constantly reminds church members, “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ, and that includes a global pandemic.”

She said she also reminds patrons, via technology and social media, that these challenges can evoke fear, but, “Jesus steps into the places of fear and says, ‘I’ll walk alongside of you.’”

Hartman said she’s noticed more tenderness in people during this time. 

“We know this is hard. We’re reminded that Christ was tender with us. We can remain hopeful and trust that Christ will lead us through,” she said.

Dr. John Waters, lead pastor of First Baptist Church, said he also struggles emotionally with the lack of opportunity to shepherd his flock without meeting face-to-face. Waters, like many other pastors in the community, uses livestream technology opportunities to deliver messages to his congregation. Waters preaches sermons on Sunday mornings that are taped in an empty sanctuary aside from a few staff members practicing safe, social distancing rules. He also continues to lead Bible study on Wednesday evenings, and shares other messages of encouragement and hope throughout the week.  

And like many fellow churches, First Baptist Church uses technology to meet the needs of children, youth, college students and others in virtual formats, makes phone calls to those that might not have those technology capabilities, and meets the physical needs of the members when necessary, too. 

“The most compelling challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic is leading people who do not gather,” Waters said. “We can be connected digitally, but connection is not the same as community. I am thankful for technology that allows us to communicate and collaborate, but that is not the same as living in biblical community, where life-on-life discipleship takes place.”

  Waters also said, “I am not called to generate content. I am called to shepherd God’s people. The internet, Facebook Live, and various forms of technology allow me to produce and push out content, but that is not the same as shepherding the flock. Jesus was heartbroken when he saw the people ‘weary and scattered, like sheep with no shepherd.’ My heart also breaks to be separated from the flock that God has entrusted to my care.”

  Important to Waters is remaining positive for his congregation and the community. 

“My goal has been to remind our congregation to be carriers of hope, especially as fear and worry dominate so many people’s lives,” he said. “This pandemic will not last forever, but the hope and peace that we find in Jesus Christ will remain for eternity.”

  Reverend Christopher M. Culbreth, pastor of Original First African Baptist Church, feels the stress of not meeting with his congregation in person, but, perhaps on a greater level than some of the local pastors. 

Culbreth has only been at the church since October of 2019, having pastored in Augusta for seven years prior to that time. 

“My wife, Sylvia, and I are new to the congregation, and we were in the process of getting to know the members. I prefer to hug and kiss and introduce myself. I’m more of a loving pastor, and when I can’t see my members face to face to get to know them, that’s difficult,” he said.

A bi-vocational pastor, Culbreth works as a training manager at Claxton Poultry, and his wife is a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Clinic in Statesboro. Culbreth said his wife has a keen eye for noticing when a church member might not be doing well. 

“She’ll say to me, ‘Hey, babe, I don’t know if so and so is doing well today,’ and I’ll pull them aside and talk to them. I can’t do that now. My congregation, they’re like parents and grandparents to me, and I’m concerned if their needs are being met. That weighs on me,” he said.

Culbreth said he calls the members personally to check on them often. Some members of the congregation choose to drive to the church following the livestream service on Sundays to hand-deliver their tithes and offerings. Members stay in their cars and drop the offerings in a basket held by a deacon, wearing masks and gloves. Culbreth stands on the porch and waves. 

“That’s one of the most comforting parts of my week, and I pray it helps them to, to be able to see me physically. I have members who don’t have technology and can’t access Sunday services,” he said. 

Culbreth said many of his older members and those in the nursing homes that he’s not allowed to visit due to restrictions, weigh heavily on his mind. 

“It’s been challenging to define ways that I can be comforting to them. Some people may feel hopeless. I’m trying to give them hope to help them know that we will get through this,” he said. 

Reverend Jimmy Cason, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, said he feels the loss of connection. Besides livestream services, he calls members often, especially those that he can’t visit in the hospitals or nursing homes. 

“I’m used to being there,” he said. 

Cason said he’s met some in their homes, using masks and social distance rules, and just in the last three weeks, he’s performed three funerals, following guidelines of less than 10 people and other rules. “It was a challenge, but not a challenge that I couldn’t handle, and I believe the families felt comforted in their time of need.”

Like many other pastors of houses of worship, Cason said the church building will not be opening up just yet for in-person services. 

“As much as we miss being together, we don’t want to come back until it’s safe,” he said. 

“Church is more than a building. If we believe God is limited to a certain space, then I’d open up the church tomorrow. It’s not a lack of faith. God wants us to use our common sense.”

Cason said that FUMC has been able to continue serving the community through the Saturday morning soup kitchen, just under different guidelines. Sadly, he’s seen a huge increase in the number of patrons. 

“Some show up on Saturdays that have never asked for help before, never had to worry about putting food on the table or paying bills,” he said. 

The pastor is quick to point out positives, too, during these challenging times. 

“Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have had the technology to do what we’re doing today. We’ve had more people watching the services than we’ve ever had in attendance,” he said. 

Cason also said he’s felt God’s presence in special ways over the past days and weeks. 

“People have told me that in the forced quietness, they’ve been able to listen to God in ways they’ve never been able to do before. We’ve been able to ‘be still and know that He is God.’ We didn’t practice that verse often enough until now,” he said. 

Pastor Sam Clay, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, said he also struggles not to meet in person with his congregation, but uses a combination of modern and “old-school” technology to interact with church members. 

“We’re worshiping online, but there are people who don’t have access to technology,” Clay said. “I’m utilizing old tech, using the old-fashioned telephone to reach out to others, to stay in touch.”

Clay said it’s ironic that many are reaching out to stay in touch, to give a sense of togetherness, despite the distancing. 

“I’ve always known that church didn’t mean physically gathering together, but we’re still gathering. It’s hard not to meet together, not to see each other,” he said. “Sometimes over the phone, you might can’t tell what’s really going on with a person, but to look in the eyes, you can often know.”

Clay said the recent circumstances have helped him identify more with people who are permanently shut in and can’t get to worship services regularly. 

“We’ll survive, and in the end, we’ll be stronger because of it,” Clay said.  

Following a streaming Facebook Live service, Elliott Boney drops off his offering and chats from a distance with Original First African Baptist Church pastor Christopher Culbreth and deacons Roosevelt Whitney and Randy Gunter
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