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Pastor: The Church is who we are, not where we go

In the era of social distancing, local churches have begun to innovate.

Social distancing means just what it sounds like — avoid other people as much as possible. As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Mississippi and throughout the country, the Centers for Disease Control and the Mississippi State Department of Health have both recommended that the public avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

Several churches — including Easthaven Baptist Church — have already moved their services online. Easthaven Pastor Dustin George said that no matter what, the church exists in its members.

“The main message I’ve been trying to communicate to our people is that church is not where we go,” he said. “Church is who we are. To limit our understanding of what church means to a building, that’s not even biblical. Church is who we are as a people.”

George said Easthaven has been prepared for a pandemic, because of his experience as a pastor at a mega church in Knoxville.

“We had started developing a plan during H1N1 as to what that would look like,” George said. “We had been told back then that one of the first things that would happen if a pandemic would take place is they would limit the number of people that would meet in any one area.”

That plan was never implemented, but George said he was able to adapt it for Easthaven. After consulting with staff, George announced to the church on March 1 that he had a plan in place, and now Easthaven has moved everything to streaming services — using technology that the church had already been leveraging for its members.

“We have been streaming on Sunday anyway,” he said. “We made the decision that if it came down to it, we would switch completely to an online service.”

While churches like Easthaven are already set up for online streaming, many churches are not. Pastor Larry Jointer of St. James Missionary Baptist Church said his church hasn’t moved to online streams yet, but he anticipates implementing it in the future.

“Worship service is very short and limited,” Jointer said. “We’re streamlining our program. We haven’t streamed live our program yet, but I’m quite sure we’ll probably get to that.”

In the meantime, Jointer urges churchgoers to stay safe and follow instructions from the CDC.

“If you feel sick — especially with colds or anything — stay home. Stay in as much as you can. Stay encouraged and know that people are praying, and we’re trusting God by faith to work this out.”

Even during social distancing, churches need funds to maintain buildings and pay staff. Easthaven and St. James both have online offerings on their website, but if a church hasn’t set up online payments, there are other solutions.

“We will utilize a drop box type solution at our church,” Pastor Randall Bowling of Heritage Family Church said.

Bowling said his church has also moved to online streaming, and urges his members to listen to the medical community while also holding on to their faith.

“A right relationship with God has always been the best approach for living our lives,” he said. “Additionally, prayer and turning to God in a crisis always gets his attention. Combine this knowledge with the expert advice from the medical community and all will be well.”