Senior Pastor Robert Gorrell took to the front of the church Wednesday evening, like he does every week at Centenary United Methodist Church.
But this time, something was missing.
“Usually, I’m in front of a congregation, it was strange to look out and see empty seats,” Gorrell said. “It was also really powerful in a way — I could imagine the people there, I could see their faces and imagine them in the room. I was just preaching to them like I would on any other Sunday.”
Due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in recent weeks, health and government officials have implemented strict social distancing policies in communities across the country.
Lawton churches are canceling events and getting creative with how they stay connected to their congregants.
Many are posting their weekly services online, including Centenary United Methodist, which plans to pre-record its traditional and contemporary services each week and post them on Facebook, YouTube and lawtoncentenary.org on Sunday mornings.
Despite the seemingly unprecedented updates, Gorrell said this is not a new challenge for Christians.
“There are a lot of places in the world where the church can’t meet openly and in public,” he said, “and we’re having to borrow a lot of ideas from the church scattered all over the world who face challenges in how they meet.”
Next week, Centenary United Methodist will divide its members into small groups and encourage them to stay connected via phone. They also plan to start online Bible studies and youth group meetings, and are signing members up to shop and deliver groceries to senior congregants. To volunteer, call the church office at 355-5660.
As for funerals, the church is offering graveside services only, limited to 10 people or fewer. They are not able to provide a meal to the family after the service.
“We’ve not had a funeral yet, but we did have a small wedding,” Gorrell said. “We limited it to 10 people and video taped the whole thing so they could share it with family later.”
Across town, Lawton First Assembly is opting to livestream its Wednesday evening and Sunday morning services on Facebook and at live.lawtonfirst.org. The church is also keeping its members updated on all COVID-19-related changes at lawtonfirst.org/info.
“It’s definitely a new normal,” said LFA Senior Pastor Don Barnes.” “We’ve never experienced anything like this before, but we are making the most of it by offering more content online than we’ve ever offered before.”
LFA also is encouraging its members to interact from a distance, from calling in prayer requests to texting in questions during the services and sharing the livestream link via social media.
“We had a huge response last night,” Barnes said of the church’s first streamed service Wednesday evening on Facebook Live. “We got lots of feedback and comments, it was all very positive. People were thankful and said it was giving them hope and encouragement.”
LFA is encouraging its members to reach out to neighbors, coworkers and relatives, especially those who are elderly, to see if there are unmet needs.
“We have a Compassion Minister and a food pantry, and we are wanting to do whatever we can to help people during this time,” Barnes said.
Many local faith leaders believe it’s the responsibility of the church to set an example for the community during the pandemic.
“It’s easy to sit around and whine and complain, but that’s not what we’ve been called to do,” said Cameron Baptist Church Senior Pastor Mike Teel. “We’ve been called to be followers of Christ and to be obedient to our local and national leaders.”
Cameron Baptist is livestreaming its regular services via Facebook at 10:45 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays. It also will live stream a Q&A forum at 6 p.m. each Wednesday, where church leaders will share updates and prayer requests.
The church’s small group leaders are calling members to see if there are unmet needs. The church office is also available to receive calls at 355-4854.
“If you’re anxious and overwhelmed, by all means, please call so we can pray with you and give words of comfort and encouragement,” Teel said.
Online services are not new to all local churches.
Bethlehem Baptist Church has been live streaming its services for about four years, to make worship and teaching accessible to members who are homebound.
Now, the church is asking its entire congregation to gather around a smartphone, TV or computer to watch its 10:45 a.m. Sunday services for at least the next few weeks.
“It’s challenging, because nothing replaces in-person worship, but we have to look out for the welfare of our congregants,” said Bethlehem Baptist Senior Pastor Dr. Willie B. Smith. “Thank God for technology.”
The church also will livestream a Bible study led by Smith at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays via Facebook.
“Right now, I’m doing a series on ‘God is our certainty that counters life’s uncertainties,’ which is pretty timely,” Smith said of his weekly study.
Bethlehem Baptist also invites congregants to participate in a teleconference prayer meeting at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesdays. To join the meeting, call 712-432-1500 and use the following access code to enter the call: 634388.
“I’m concerned we will have a problem with people feeling isolated and secluded,” Smith said. “If we stay connected as much as possible, we can help get them through that.”
Last week, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, Paul S. Coakley announced a suspension of public Mass in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City through Easter Sunday, April 12.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Lawton is live streaming daily Mass and Sunday Mass on Facebook and at lawtoncatholic.com.
“The church is always going to be there for people, we just have to think outside of the box,” said Very Rev. Brian Buettner of Blessed Sacrament.
The church is open throughout the day for people to pray, but Blessed Sacrament has asked its volunteers to temporarily stop home visits.
“However, in an emergency a priest will go visit those close to death and anoint them, while taking proper precautions,” Buettner said.
Parishioners’ responses have varied, and Buettner said he hopes everyone will use the time to evaluate their personal and spiritual priorities.
“(Social distancing) has also brought people that are not actively practicing their faith to return to prayer with the Lord,” Buettner said. “However, we have other parishioners who don’t seem to recognize the seriousness of these precautions. My hope is that everyone would be careful, use common sense, and to understand that this is an actively changing situation.
“During this Lenten season, we are reminded every year to put aside the sins that we struggle with and allow the Lord to strengthen our relationship with him,” Buettner said. “These are difficult times, but we are not alone.”