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Local church leaders want to maintain a sense of community during an isolating time

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Pastor Jake Schwein adjusts a hairlight on Pastor Jen McCourt before recording a church service at Grace Chapel in Wilsonville.

Chad Harms, a pastor at Creekside Bible Church in Wilsonville, never imagined he would be referring to a "production schedule" when planning weekly services.

But for churches unable to meet for the most sacrosanct activity of the week in person — due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus — Harms and church leaders across Wilsonville are finding other ways, including online broadcasts, to reach congregants and maintain the sense of community that attending church provides people.

"There's so much connection that happens on a Sunday morning," said Jake Schwein, a pastor at Grace Chapel in Wilsonville. "How do we (replicate) that? That's probably the biggest thing we're missing is the community aspect."

A different kind of service

Schwein and other leaders at Grace Chapel have turned a 4,200 square foot office in Wilsonville used for small gatherings into a recording studio. And they also allow its youth ministry and Creekside Bible Church to use the facility for the same purpose.

Grace Chapel normally congregates at Meridian Creek Middle School while Creekside Bible Church typically holds services at Lowrie Primary School.

To accentuate the broadcast, Schwein uses monitors and lighting and audio equipment. However, he notes that it doesn't take much for a church to disseminate its message across the internet.

"I think the neat thing about churches that are trying to connect with their community or pastures or leaders, it depends on how you want to scale it but it really only takes a device at the end of the day," Schwein said.

Schwein said 709 unique browsers visited the first online service and 250 people used the chat function, where users can talk with each other and provide feedback.

They also have a feature where someone can click a button if they need to be prayed for.

"It creates interaction versus you're just watching a show," Schwein said.

Creekside Bible Church has posted services online for a while already, which made the quick transition last week seamless.

"We started doing it for our people when they're out of town, sick or can't get there because of the weather. It turned out to be a positive that we knew what we were doing last week," Harms said.

However, Harms said his church's first remote broadcast since the virus forced the cancelation of regular church services reached more people than typical.

"It won't be as deep and as valuable (online) as what we do normally but I think it can be wider," he said. "I heard thank you (from churchgoers) to leadership for making it feel kind of normal. The church has an obligation to bring some sense of stability when our world doesn't feel stable now."

Brendan Barnicle, the rector at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Wilsonville, also began preaching online recently.

He said the first service went well but he would like to reincorporate music and other speakers into the fold for future broadcasts. And he viewed this current challenge as an opportunity for the church to try to better utilize online resources and expand its congregation.

"If we can figure out what works for our congregation this may be a change that's permanent for us," he said

John Alexy, a board member at Meridian United Church of Christ, said the church has not yet moved online but is exploring that option and asking other churches for advice on how best to do it. For now, they send the text of weekly sermons to the congregation via email.

"We're talking about doing video or something online but we're a pretty small church and don't have a lot of resources related to high-tech stuff," Alexy said.

David Harms, the founder of 24/7 Worship, a Christian internet and radio station based in Wilsonville, noticed an increase in listenership since social distancing measures were implemented across the nation. And he has since begun to use recordings of sermons given by local pastors including Schwein, to add to the mix of perspectives.

"We're finding pastors that are addressing what's happening to (provide listeners) calm and perspective," David Harms said.

Reaching out to the community.

Chad Harms and Barnicle both said they're making a point to call or chat with churchgoers to make sure they're coping with these stressful times and both would like to start a program where members run errands for those who are most vulnerable.

Via social media, Chad Harms has asked people to share Bible verses and other inspirational messages.

"The primary thing we're focused on is during this process remembering we are one body of Christ even if we aren't meeting in one building. It's important for us to maintain relationships," Barnicle said.

Chard Harms added: "I think pastors in churches are doing a great job of having to assess needs and meet the needs that we can."

Barnicle, as of last week, was still meeting people who wanted to talk one-on-one and for confessions. However, he tried to maintain proper distance from congregants during these meetings.

"This is a time when people are feeling a lot of stress and a lot of questions about where God fits into this and how God would allow this to happen," he said.

Message

David Harms enjoyed listening to Grace Chapel pastor Mike Tatlock, who told listeners of his sermon that, regardless of the current crisis, people will find peace only through a relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

"Sometimes people in a time of crisis, will approach faith more seriously. I love to see that. And then when the crisis is over, they go back to normal," Harms said. "So his comment was there can be no guarantee that peace after this goes back to normal after this apart from a relationship with Christ."

In his sermon, Chad Harms talked about a Bible passage where Jesus tells his mother that one of his disciples is now her son. The underlying message was that God cares about people's present realities.

"As Christians we can be heavenly minded and that's good but God cares about what we're dealing with right now," he said

And Schwein has tried to help quell people's anxiety, fear and uncertainty while David Harms focuses on promoting calm and peace.

Though an end to the coronavirus crisis is not in sight, Alexy has faith that things will turn out OK for the Meridian Creek congregation and beyond and that they will be reunited sooner rather than later.

"We're all praying and I think we're going to get through this," he said.


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