Every winter, Poplar Grove Baptist Church Pastor Bobby Joe Eaton tells the same story about a time many years ago when he was on the staff at Central Baptist Church in Corbin when it was a snowy, slick Sunday evening.
Despite the weather, the church decided to still hold services figuring that many of those, who could make it there safely, would still come, and the rest wouldn’t.
There was a devout little old lady, who lived relatively close by, and was always at church anytime the doors were open. (Thankfully, nearly every church has one or two of those, who set the example that the rest of us should follow.)
On this particular Sunday evening, the little old lady was walking to church, slipped on some ice, fell and broke her hip.
As I said, Bobby Joe tells this story when talking about making the decision to call off services in the winter and why he does so.
The lesson that I have always taken from this story is that sometimes a shepherd has to do what is in best interest for his flock even if the flock might not realize it or appreciate the reasons why the shepherd is doing so.
This brings us to COVID-19, and the issue of in-person church services.
As many probably already know, on July 5 Central Baptist Church in Corbin had an attendee, who tested positive for COVID-19. Central then moved it services online for the next two weeks.
On July 28, the Whitley County Health Department sent out a public notice concerning the potential exposure of those, who attended a July 26 service at Saxton Baptist Church near Williamsburg after it was determined that two or more people at that service had recently contracted the virus.
The point being that COVID-19 is here, and our in-person church services are not immune to it.
I get people wanting to have in-person church service. I really do.
The reality is the current thinking among health experts is that the coronavirus is spread in large part through spit particles in the air that an infected person will breath out. Others around them then breathe in the spit particles through their mouths or nose thereby getting infected. This is the reason for masks.
Disgusting to think about? Sure, but it’s reality.
At any rate, these spit particles can typically travel nearly six feet when you talk, and further when you sing or speak loudly. Apparently the likelihood of getting the virus goes up significantly if you are around an infected person for 10 minutes or longer.
In other words, in-person church services where people are often singing and sitting in close contact with each other for typically an hour – sometimes more depending on who is delivering the sermon – can be a near perfect environment to spread COVID-19.
This isn’t a knock on churches, religion, God, faith or ministers. It is just the reality that we face until a widespread vaccine, treatment or maybe even cure can be found for COVID-19.
This brings me back to Bobby Joe Eaton. Not long after COVID-19 first hit in Kentucky, Bobby Joe, like many ministers, started holding drive-in church services. Unlike some, he is still doing so, and hasn’t gone back to in-person services yet.
For those that don’t know, you pull into the parking lot for drive-in church and in Poplar Grove’s case you tune in your FM radio to 99.1 where the service is broadcast from inside the church through a short range FM transmitter.
Many churches are also now using other alternative means of worshipping by broadcasting their services on the internet, and on Facebook.
Bobby Joe hit upon a topic during Sunday morning’s service that I have often mentioned when talking about COVID-19 with my wife. Bobby Joe used our current environment of drive-in church to point out that the church isn’t a building but a group of people.
This is something that I wish other ministers would take to heart when choosing to have in-person services locally, particularly with cases spiking locally. Since June 8, Whitley County has had over 115 additional COVID-19 cases diagnosed. Since June 4, Laurel County has had over new 350 cases reported. Since June 11, Knox County has had over 185 additional cases reported.
COVID-19 provides the perfect opportunity for our churches and religious leaders to prove that church isn’t just a building, and to find safer ways, like drive-in church, to reach out to the community rather than just having in-person services. It also provides the potential to reach out to those, who might otherwise not attend a traditional church service.
Things like drive-in church also provide a safer alternative for that faithful little old lady or little old man, who is going to be there whenever the doors are open. I would add it is those super faithful little old men and women, who are usually going to be hit hardest if they catch COVID-19. Nobody wants to see that.
For those churches still doing in-person services, please give this some consideration.
Before I conclude, let me just add for those, who vowed they would “never set foot inside the doors of a church again,” that Poplar Grove will be having drive-in church service starting at 10 a.m. Sunday, and you don’t even have to leave your car.