Churches around St. Louis County have moved worship services online while continuing to serve the wider community

By Charlotte Beard

While some local church congregations have not been able to remain connected to one another due to the social distancing measures of the COVID-19 crisis, other churches have found a way to leverage technology to maintain some measure of unity. In addition, these churches have aimed to maintain their relevance and mission in serving the community within and outside of its brick and mortar buildings. 

Pastor Monica Jefferson of Saint Andrew United Methodist Church in Florissant shared that the church increased its technical needs to accommodate the self-distancing measures. Saint Andrew’s Stephen Ministers have been vital in connecting other church members that may have difficulty in accessing technology for viewing services. The Stephen Minister assists those members in getting connected to listen to pre-recorded services by phone.

“My major surprise in this (pandemic) is the willingness of people to do things remotely or virtually,” stated Jefferson. “It has really increased people’s interest in studying and learning in Bible study.”

Jefferson shared that the pre-existing eight study groups have remained active and transitioned to live online, which includes a pre-existing group for grief support.

“Our format is Go To Meeting,” she stated. “We had that already in place and have been using that now for about two years for meetings with the leadership, etc. We just added licenses to be able to continue that with myself and my associate pastor. We have been able to continue that connection, which is especially important during this time beyond worship.”

The church has two Sunday morning services; the 8 a.m. one is streamed via Facebook Live. As has been customary pre-pandemic, the 10:45 a.m. service is a pre-recording of the first service and is made available to visitors of their website: http://www.saintandrewumc.net. In addition, an audio version of the pre-recorded sermon is available via SoundCloud on the website.

Jefferson expressed that though the transition required the church address some technical needs, the need for adjustments to using technology overall within the congregation was not as great as it might have been in some other churches.

“It’s a 55-year-old congregation,” she stated, “so they tend to be a little bit more into the technology than maybe a church that’s been around a lot longer. We have reached new people who may have (never) found us or if we did not make ourselves available to witness to them. We are in phase one of our reopening plan.”

The pastor stated that in June the church will reopen with the 8 a.m. worship service only; other online provisions will remain in place for the duration. The church is also determining a plan for resuming its various services to the community, including previous distribution of food and in-person care ministry that involved Saint Andrew’s Stephen Ministers. 

When asked about the financial impact of the pandemic on members of her congregation, Jefferson stated, “We’re working people. We are not wealthy people (but) thank God for the generosity of my congregation; we have been able to help a few. I have a wonderful ministry called Pastor’s Contingency. Folks have been giving to that (for) years. We have had to supplement a few things for some folks – income, food, gas, etc. Nothing major – but we would figure it out if somebody needed a mortgage payment or a rent payment. That is something we’ve done in the past as a congregation through the Pastor’s Contingency ministry.”

Jefferson also shared that Saint Andrew sometimes utilizes their gift card program when appropriate.

“I have found that works a lot better sometimes than giving people cash. Giving a gas card or giving a food card to go shop gives people dignity. I think (it) does something to a person’s self-esteem when they can walk in and buy what they need based upon what they like. Poverty doesn’t change that you have dislikes or likes, it just changes ability.”

Pastor Cedric Portis of Third Presbyterian Church in Moline Acres explained that his congregation’s mission and vision is to be a resource provider for the community. 

“People are still giving because our mission is to serve our community,” stated Portis. “We have donated thousands of surgical masks to Christian Hospital, a couple of nursing homes and funeral homes as well. We’ve given out well over 3,000 or 4,000 surgical masks, especially in the hotspot area (zip code) 63136.”

According to the pastor, he works with a Bespoke Apparel tailor located at 8500 Maryland Ave #306 in Clayton that created the masks the church donates. 

Portis also stressed his conviction that churches should continue to serve the community despite the closure of church buildings.

“We’re not relegated to just online service,” he stated. “Our mission does not change just because of a pandemic.” 

Prior to the pandemic, Third Presbyterian was conducting two Sunday School classes and one mass Bible study on Tuesday nights and now continues to do so online. Since the implementation of social distancing measures, the church has utilized Zoom to continue its classes remotely with an addition of a Thursday class. Portis stated that the Sunday services are being pre-recorded on Saturday evening for simultaneous viewing on Facebook and YouTube. Visitors to the website can connect to the livestream via https://thirdchurchstl.com.

 “I can interact with the people online while the service is going,” stated Portis. “Since it’s already pre-recorded it gives me the opportunity to answer any questions as the sermon is happening.”

One of the greatest challenges for the church, according to Portis, is how to accommodate the congregation’s funeral needs that arise during this time.

“The ability to grieve and/or celebrate the life (is) very much challenged. We have been doing visitations only, at the funeral home or a graveside service with social distancing and limiting the number of people with mass (groups). That is really all we can do. Some people have chosen a cremation and we will do a memorial service celebrating that life in a few months or whenever we get back together. I have been suggesting (the postponement). When you talk about celebrating the life of a loved one you want that to be done in community. So, if you can postpone that celebration – let’s do that.”

Like Portis, Bishop Larry Jones of Greater Grace Church in Ferguson has found that he too must deal with the challenge of any funeral needs that may arise. Social distancing is a major challenge for mass assemblies.

“We’re advocating strongly for people to call one another; keep each other encouraged,” he stated. “(In addition), we mail and send things out. We’re all having to reach out to one another to (remain) emotionally connected. At the end of the day, the church is going to be about people, not the building. If the people are connected, then the church is connected.”

Jones shared that members of his congregation are among those that have been financially impacted by the pandemic.

“We have a few members (that are) out on furlough or that were actually let go (from a job) because their department was eliminated from that company’s budget,” he stated. “So, we’re working on some things to help them. (Also), we had a couple of people that were infected with COVID-19 but thank God they’re doing well.”

Jones shared that he and a few operational people conduct its one-hour Sunday 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services via Facebook Live. Visitors to https://ggcstl.org can also find later uploads of those recordings. The church added a Monday night 7 p.m. prayer service and changed their midweek Wednesday service to a talk show.

“(We) have different guests (online) and stay social-distanced,” he stated. “Monday night’s (prayer service is) a conference line. (We) have a prayer line of people dialing in from their homes and we pray together.”

Along with Saint Andrew United Methodist, Greater Grace has begun plans for determining how they will resume services in its building.

“We’re encouraging people to really pray for our health care professionals, our president and those in our governing positions,” stated Jones. “We are all in this together and we all need to work together. If (the reopening of the county) goes seamlessly (we’re looking to resume) by the last Sunday of May and will have a protocol that we will share with the congregation – what we all should do to be mindful of one another while we come together to worship God. I think the biggest thing now for us as Christians is really learning how to apply what we have been hearing for years. That goes right to the element of loving one another. If we love each other I am going to respect your space, because I want you to do well and vice versa.”