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Faith, technology are salvation for local churches during pandemic

'The Bible says ... that it’s not good for man to be alone. We are created for community, so the absence of face-to-face contact has been very difficult for people,' says pastor
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The global pandemic has impacted almost every facet of life and churches have not been spared. 

But leaning on faith and embracing technology, Orillia churches have found ways to adapt on the fly and continue to provide their services to the community.

Cornerstone Baptist Church lead pastor Paul Carter admits it is difficult not being able to gather parishioners together for service.

“The Bible says right at the beginning that it’s not good for man to be alone. We are created for community, so the absence of face-to-face contact has been very difficult for people," Carter said.

When the pandemic closed Cornerstone’s doors, it took them two weeks to figure out how to move their services online using Zoom and Facebook. 

Since then they have been broadcasting live Bible studies, prayer groups, and Sunday morning worship services. The church has also developed an alternative for people with nternet access challenges by recording services, putting them on DVDs and delivering them to parishioners’ homes.

The average attendance during a Sunday service was about 650 people before the pandemic. Now, more than 900 people are tuning in weekly to watch virtually, he said.

“There is no doubt that there are people who would never darken the door of a church before the pandemic, and now there is a spiritual interest and hunger there,” Carter said.

The pandemic has reminded people that life is not guaranteed, he says.

“You are not as secure as you think. We will all eventually die and the difference now with COVID-19 is people now know that and they are thinking about it and it drives people to want to connect with the Lord,” Carter opined.

The church plans on continuing to provide online services as they anticipate at least half of people over 70 will feel uncomfortable attending the in-person services until the pandemic is officially under control.

Not just services have moved online. Cornerstone has also moved giving and offerings online and as of May 19, they reached a five-year high in terms of giving in what Carter calls ‘a miracle of God.’

“I anticipated that we would lose as much as $100,000 over the pandemic, but our people have really stepped up. They don’t want our missionaries going short a dollar over this time,” Carter said.

The giving has been so successful that the church is in a position to support Orillia charities above and beyond what they had in their plans. As a result, they are releasing $15,000 in additional funding to the Lighthouse Soup Kitchen and Shelter and other local projects.

At Orillia Community Church (OCC), Pastor Michael Bells says they are doing as well as can be expected. 

OCC has found all sorts of virtual ways to connect with parishioners during the pandemic. 

"We have small groups who connect through Zoom, we have lots of people who are calling one another, people doing grocery shopping for some of our seniors and people with compromised immune systems who are uncomfortable going to grocery stores," Bells said, noting there remains a sense of community around the church. 

The OCC has been pre-recording their Sunday services which include musical performances from the families who participate in the church community. 

Typically, about 140 people would attend Sunday service before the pandemic, now 50-60 viewers tune in for the pre-recorded service on YouTube and the OCC website (https://occweb.org/). 

For people without or with weak internet service, the church has been creating resources for members to pick up at the back door of the church, or they can have them delivered. 

Bells admits the virtual approach is not ideal, but successful given the circumstances. The biggest challenge for the church has been the lack of social interaction that parishioners are missing from the typical Sunday service. 

"That's becoming more and more of an issue but with the nicer weather people are getting out more and having drive-way conversations with neighbours which is a positive thing," Bells explained. 

Financially, donations have seen a slight decline since the pandemic, but Bells says the decline hasn't impacted them too harshly as about 75% of regular donations are still coming in.

"We are very thankful that people are still giving online. We haven't had to cut back on giving to things like local charities and organizations," Bells said

Reverend Jim Seagram says St. Athanasius Anglican Church has also had to pull back from their in-person services and find other ways to connect.

St. Athanasius and most other churches in Orillia are much smaller than OCC and Cornerstone. Seagram characterizes his church as a small family-sized church that has served the community for more than 90 years.

The church has stayed in touch with parishioners through Facebook, YouTube, and email, he said. They have also found ways to connect with those without access to the internet, sending out photocopies of letters from the bishop, wardens, sermons as well as prayers, newsletters, and bulletins. The church also makes sure to call their community members once a week.

“The extroverts are feeling the isolation and the introverts aren’t so bad. I would say we are not losing our sense of community, we are learning new ways to be the solid community that we are,” Seagram said.

St. Athanasius church is still working on finding other new ways to connect with parishioners, using Zoom for Bible studies and fellowship, but they won’t be providing streams of Sunday services, says Seagram.

“We’re small and our congregation isn’t tech-savvy so we haven’t gone to streaming because of the time demands of pre-organization.”

Typically, the church sees about 25 people on a Sunday for service. They are in the process of designing a survey to obtain feedback on how the church is functioning virtually.

Financially, the church is still thriving, Seagram noted.

“Our givings, I would say, are nearly the same because of the high level of commitment to the life of Christ and community in our church,” Seagram said.

The pandemic has caused some adversity for local churches but it’s also caused people to think outside the box and learn new ways to come together, says Seagram.

“As long as we pay attention to the leader of the kingdom, it will look like the kingdom increasingly.”




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