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How churches are making a digital Easter meaningful during the pandemic
Mountain Lake Church Pastor Chris Emmitt pre-records a sermon for Easter on Sunday, April 12, 2020, near Sawnee Mountain. (Photo courtesy Mountain Lake Church)

Chris Emmitt has never preached in a field for Easter before. 

That’s where the Mountain Lake Church pastor found himself one morning earlier this week with other staff and volunteers to pre-record his sermon for Sunday’s service. Under the shadow of Sawnee Mountain, Emmitt looked into the lens of a video camera instead of the eyes of a live audience.

“That was way out of my comfort zone,” Emmitt said.

As Holy Week transitions into Easter for the Christian religion, the time when followers commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus, churches across the country have had to devise creative ways to keep their members connected and engaged while their physical buildings remain closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp urged Georgians to not attend Easter services in person to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. There were 11,483 confirmed cases of the disease in Georgia as of Friday afternoon with 429 deaths.

"I greatly appreciate faith leaders across our state who have made the tough decision to stop the spread of COVID-19 by suspending in-person religious services,” Kemp said in a statement. “Their leadership is literally saving lives.”

Forsyth County churches have been adapting to social distancing guidelines since the COVID-19 outbreak began in Georgia. 

Some, like Mountain Lake, which had been already live-streaming services on its website and social media platforms for the public to view, adjusted with relative ease.

“Instead of being a thing, it’s now the thing for us,” Emmitt said. 

Others had to scramble. Brad Biggerstaff, the assistant pastor at Midway United Methodist Church, remembers Midway decided to cancel in-person services on Thursday, March 11. Biggerstaff and Midway staff then hurried over the following two days to figure out how to continue holding services for its members to enjoy from their homes.

Biggerstaff, who is 25 years old, took the lead. He joined Midway last summer and made it a long-term project to build up the church’s video capabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic sped that process up. 

Biggerstaff and Midway now have a solid operation in place. Like Mountain Lake, they record the service earlier in the week to avoid any potential technical difficulties of doing it live. Biggerstaff edits the footage using iMovie, the video editing software from Apple, and the final product is posted Sunday on Facebook and YouTube. The services get hundreds of views and dozens of comments from members.

“So much of our congregation has been online with us and has enjoyed this process that we’ve been learning,” Biggerstaff said. “I think we’re finally getting the hang of it.”

Biggerstaff thinks the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a “paradigm shift” in how people experience church, that people once hesitant to embrace online religious services are now being forced to. Churches that don’t adapt risk losing younger members, he said.

But the digital experience is no substitute for the “physical community” of in-person services, Biggerstaff said, and that’s been no more apparent during Holy Week. 

“There’s for sure disappointment for me and I know a lot of people that we know we’re not going to be together,” Biggerstaff said. He added, “That personal connection that church is all about, it’s tough during this time.”

Still, abiding by social distancing guidelines is a way for churches to “reflect the way Christ would be with us today,” Biggerstaff said. It also stretched churches’ ability to connect with its members in new ways.

Last year, Mountain Lake held a family service on Good Friday with food trucks and bounce houses. This year, staff created a four-day Easter experience that families could download from its website featuring thoughtful prompts for praying and taking communion as well as interactive games. Parkway Presbyterian provided members with a 14-day scripture reading plan for families on its website. First Redeemer Church and Midway UMC have solicited pictures and videos from members to use in their virtual services.

“Having small touchpoints of, ‘Oh, hey, there’s so and so, who I love so much,’” Biggerstaff said. “We think those are important and powerful moments within our worship services.”

For Emmitt, the moment afforded him the opportunity to try new things. When a friend recommended he film his sermon in a field, Emmitt jumped at the idea. He and Mountain Lake staff identified a site, brought a life-size wooden cross and dug an empty grave. 

“I think it will be a really cool way to represent the Gospel message this Easter,” Emmitt said.

Emmitt won’t be able to see Mountain Lake member’s reactions during his sermon. Comments on Facebook will have to suffice. 

“We’ll still gather, we’ll still celebrate Easter,” Emmitt said. “We’ll just do it digitally. But we’ll still celebrate, and it will still be meaningful.”