As COVID surges, some S.C. churches returning to online-only services

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise daily across South Carolina, several churches in harder-hit communities have decided to pause or backtrack on their reopening plans, returning to drive-in and online-only services.

A recent study examining Americans’ responses to COVID-19 shows that a majority (64 percent) are “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” taking a seat in a sanctuary — perhaps for good reason.

“The vast majority of churches have cooperated with health authorities and successfully protected their congregations,” a July 13 AP article titled “Churches Amid the Pandemic: Some Outbreaks, Many Challenges” observes. “Yet from the earlier phases of the pandemic, and continuing to this day, some worship services and other religious activities have been identified as sources of local outbreaks.”

Here, in South Carolina, Nine Forks Baptist in Easley is among a number of churches where, unfortunately, recent outbreaks among staff and members have been reported.

Nine Forks Baptist had been meeting in its gym during March, April and May. Everything seemed fine. So worship was moved into the sanctuary on June 7, following the recommended health precautions.

“We did every other pew. We did the social distancing. Some were wearing masks,” said Pastor Stephen Owens. “I’m thinking at least two people had it and didn’t realize it,” he continued, recalling that this was about the same time as “a hot spot outbreak” in Easley, Dacusville and Pickens.

“That was Sunday, and by Wednesday there was a handful of us who were feeling poorly, feeling bad,” Owens said. At least 20 cases soon appeared among those who had attended, including Owens, whose own symptoms were “very mild.”

“The majority of us are better. We have recovered,” Owens reported, but he noted that there was one death, and a member was still hospitalized as of July 14. “It’s very real,” Owens said of coronavirus. “This is no hoax.”

After experiencing an outbreak, Owens believes the congregation is becoming spiritually stronger. “As is often the case, hardship and difficulty have a way of refocusing us on what’s important,” he said. “The folks who might have been prone to be more apathetic about church attendance … don’t take church for granted. Right now, they’re learning not to take singing for granted,” he said. “We are more focused on spiritual issues, making sure that we are walking as close (to God) as we can.

“We are a little down, which I think that’s to be expected to some extent,” Owens confided. “But our church hasn’t lost heart,” he added. “We have persevered, and we will continue to persevere, and we will grow. God is still a good God. (Even) in the worst of times, he’s still a good God. We trust him. That’s who we lean on. He is our hope.”

In the lower state, about 40 people attended a service at First Baptist Church of North on May 24, about three weeks after it had reopened, according to The State newspaper. Two days later, church leaders announced they were closing its doors again after learning members had been exposed to the virus. Pastor Sean McElrath later rejoiced, after undergoing two weeks of quarantine, that no other members had tested positive.

“It’s extremely alarming, but unfortunately as things begin to open, this is going to be a reality. We probably won’t be the only church that has to step back and revisit how we reopen,” McElrath told a reporter for WIS News 10.

More recently, Pastor Ronald “Dee” Vaughan sent out an “urgent message” online in mid-June to the St. Andrews Baptist family, announcing that “with a heavy heart,” he had decided to cancel on-site worship at the Columbia church until further notice.

“As much as we’ve looked forward to the opportunity to be together in worship, two developments have led me to the clear conclusion that meeting together presents a serious risk to the health of our people,” he wrote, pointing out the rising number of COVID cases statewide.

“I believe the risk of spreading the infection by meeting together is unacceptably high,” Vaughan explained, adding that several members of the church staff, including himself, had recently been exposed to the virus.

While church services are by no means at the top of the list of problematic activities, the July 13 AP article states, they do pose challenges for government leaders and public health officials because of religious liberty concerns. In California, for example, state officials temporarily banned “indoor singing and chanting activities” at all places of worship, prompting a Sacramento pastor to condemn the restriction as being “morally reprehensible.”

“If we wanted to have zero risks, the safest thing would be to never open our doors,” Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, was quoted by AP. “The question is, how can you balance risk with the very real need to worship?” Dallas First held its Celebrate Freedom Rally, featuring Vice President Mike Pence, on June 28 as planned, drawing a crowd of 2,400, most of whom were said to have worn face masks.

Still, although striving to follow health officials’ suggested social distancing guidelines and encouraging members to wear masks in reopening their churches, some South Carolina Baptist pastors are seeing a marked apprehension among church members.

Latta Baptist Church near Dillon was offering online and drive-in church services using an FM transmitter and tried to return indoors, but “it was clear our folks weren’t ready,” Pastor Rob Pierce told The Courier.

“Since the uptick of cases in our area (Florence-Myrtle Beach), we decided to continue the online and drive-in services, and if someone desires to come indoors, they are welcome to do so. Thus far, only about 30 folks are coming indoors, another 150 are in their cars, and another 50 are watching live, with another 400-500 ‘clicking on’ the worship service during the week,” he said.

When Malvern Hill Baptist in Camden returned inside for two weeks, its attendance plummeted, according to Pastor Craig Thompson. Services since were moved back outdoors, and an indoor option by video feed was offered in the sanctuary.

Jeff Phillips, pastor of Woodfield Park Baptist in Columbia, said they were starting to meet inside when COVID-19 numbers spiked, so they are doing drive-in and online services for now. Eddie Saxon at Gilead Baptist in Jonesville has gone back online, too, for the same reason.

Admittedly, the exact extent to which religious gatherings are contributing to the pandemic’s toll is difficult to determine. “But there’s no question they have played a role throughout, … even as myriad houses of worship halted in-person services for safety reasons,” the AP article maintains, before citing large outbreaks in several churches across the nation.

“I have not even thought of opening up for more members to come,” Pastor Reginald Byrden of Grace Fellowship Baptist in Columbia said in an online post. “We will be online for a long time … . I will not put people at risk.”

Yet, even as some are opting not to go back into their sanctuaries for a while — believing there are other, safer ways to meet for worship — other congregations have safely made the transition in places that have not been as affected by the deadly virus.

Union Baptist in Iva has returned to holding multiple services, leading Pastor Kyle Caudell to advocate, “(I)t’s wise to look at things from a community-by-community perspective.” Iva, he added, “ain’t exactly the Bronx.”

And Good Hope Baptist, also in Iva, has met indoors since mid-May. “Cases are much different in our county (Anderson) than in some other (places),” said Mike D’Avanzo, pastor at Good Hope. “We don’t plan to close again, unless there is a case within the church.”