Surviving the pandemic

Churches take their messages to social media, parking lot

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Ministers who have traditionally fed off the energy they get from their congregation have been forced to do things a little differently around the country.

It’s no exception in Tallahassee where most preachers – like their counterparts elsewhere – have been forced to embrace social media. A handful of small churches have been shuttered since March and are facing an uncertain fate.

Those that are still operating, even if it’s in the church’s parking lot, are not counting on going back quickly to the traditional way of operation, though.

However, ministers like Judy Mandrell and her husband Gerald aren’t strangers to social media.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been live streaming services from their Life Changers International, COGIC.

She estimated that about 100 people tune in to their services, but she said there is nothing like the energy that a live congregation generates.

“We miss it,” she said. “We love live service. Our energy is high and there is a certain power that we believe has to be in the church.

“When you see them face to face, it’s like, yes.”

With the uncertainty caused by coronavirus, Mandrell said it creates an opportunity for believers to demonstrate their faith. Chris Burney, pastor at Greater St. Mark Primitive Baptist Church, concurred.

“This pandemic has really tested our faith,” said Burney. “It has caused us to live out what we preach; what we teach every Sunday.”

Pastor Otis Young delivers a message in the parking lot at Kingdom Life Tabernacle.
Submitted photo

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order to keep gathering in places such as churches to 10 or fewer people, ministers like Burney have seen significant drop in attendance. Places of worship have since been cleared to operate, using CDC guidelines but members aren’t returning to the sanctuary in droves.

However, a large portion of his 400-plus members tune in on Sunday’s for the virtual service at 11 a.m., Burney said.

Burney also said he is in for the long haul, as coronavirus cases in Florida have been spiking upward over the last two weeks. He’s even anticipating a slow return to what used to be normal.

“It’s going to take awhile for people to get comfortable to come back to the church,” he said. “It’s going to take awhile to build up that confidence to going back to living life as we’re used to.

“If they come up with a cure next week people are going to still doubt. There are people saying they’re not going back to church until next year.”

Earlier this summer, Kingdom Life Tabernacle preparatory school held a drive through graduation.
Submitted photo

Pastor Otis Young, minister at Kingdom Life Tabernacle, has taken his services outdoors in the parking lot of his church. Service are held on a stage and members listen to the services from their automobiles.

Kingdom Life also recently held its preparatory school graduation in the parking lot.

In the early stages of the shutdown of churches, attendance at Kingdom Life fell to about 10 people, Young said. The numbers went up when he moved services outdoors.

“It was challenging to accommodate six to 10 (people), but as much as we said we were going to do the social distancing inside it could become a challenge,” he said. “For me it’s safety first.”

The response has been better than he expected, as services in the parking lot regularly attracted non-members.

“They’ve really embraced it,” Young said. “They’ve embraced the aspect of being able to social distance and see everybody. They connected in a positive way.”

With the exception of one church, leaders of the churches that were interviewed said they have seen a dip in offerings and tithings. Even with the drop in contributions, said Rev. Joseph Wright, pastor at Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, said his church is in a good place financially.

“We don’t have a lot of bills that we can fall into a serious financial hole,” he said. “We are still holding on compare to some churches in town that have completely closed their doors.”

The number of members who participate in the on-line services are fewer than 350 that would normally be in church for two services on Sundays, Wright said. In addition to his virtual services, Wright said he also holds an early morning prayer conference each Thursday in addition to a broadcast on Hallelujah 95.3.

Radio is also one of the platforms that pastor Darrick McGhee of Bible Based Church uses to stay connected to his member. In addition, he uses Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and periscope.

McGhee has not had service in his sanctuary since March 22. At first, he tried doing his midweek preaching from home but found the energy wasn’t there.

He’s since been doing all of his services from inside of the church, which celebrates 10 years on Aug. 8.

He still finds that not being in front his members is different than what he’s used to, though.

“The Black church is a situation where you’re used to hearing amen and hallelujah; where you’re used to fellowshipping and conversing with one another,” McGhee said. “None of that is taking place so I struggle with that because I love the people that I pastor.”