The concern over the spreading the COVID-19 virus certainly applies to Sunday church gatherings.
One Hayward Church responded to the call for more social distancing by calling off its in-person meeting and instead gathered totally online.
With Gov. Tony Evers order shutting down all schools starting March 18, Element Church was about to lose its access to where it holds Sunday services at the Hayward Center for Individualized Learning (HACIL) facility in the back of Retreat Home Center.
“We were told we could meet on the 15th, but we just thought that we know we are going to be off until April 12th (when school is scheduled to be reopened) and so we just took everything online instead of gathering together,” said Pastor Wade Bishop.
The church posted on Facebook and Instagram that the 120-150 people who typically gather together wouldn’t be meeting in person but would gather around their computers for live streaming.
“We got everything ready Saturday night and went live Sunday morning,” said Bishop.
On Sunday Pastor Bishop spoke from the attic of the church’s office off Main Street in a space that had been especially prepared to be a small studio for video recording.
The church typically uses Facebook Live that also streams to YouTube for its Sunday services so members who are not present can participate online, so Sunday’s online service was not completely new to most.
But on the 15th, the church used a new online venue developed by Church Online, a free open-sourced platform that offers a live chat and prayer rooms, as well as a connection to ministry services and online giving.
“There are some people who just don’t like using Facebook,” Bishop said, but added they liked the intimacy of the new platform.
The video and audio from the attic studio were better than typically recorded at HACIL because the space is smaller and it’s easier to control lighting and sound.
During the Sunday, March 15 online service, 300 viewed the sermon and 40 participated in a chat room facilitated by member Morgan Poppe.
From its origin, Bishop said, the church has always had a friendly relationship with technology.
“We have to learn it and we have to know how to use it and navigate it, especially as a church,” he said.
However, social media has been criticized for reducing actual contact between people, thus leading to more isolation, which is contrary to Element’s Church motto of “no one does life alone.”
“We want to make if very hard for people to isolate,” Bishop said, but added the reality of modern life is people are using social media.
“When your business is connecting with people, you have to go to where they are,” he said.
Another church motto is, “Church isn’t about a place but people,” and not being able to meet in a place, he said, is a reminder that it’s all about the people.
“I think churches should be doing this anyway,” he said. “It is super affordable and the learning curve isn’t that bad because the technology is so advanced.”
People who attend the Hayward church in person drive from Spooner, Siren, Winter and Minong. With a totally online service, the people gathered around computers in small groups at homes across the region. Because of all these remote gatherings, Bishop can see where going completely online might result in a church planting in other communities.
“I actually believe we can use what is happening right now to further the kingdom and possibly plant churches,” he said, referring to the current crisis. “We hate that it is affecting our elderly and local businesses and our schools and the health of people, but when it comes down to it, we can’t gather together, but look at the potential to reach out to other people.”
The Record looked around at how the COVID-19 issue is impacting other churches.
Pastor Gary Hilgendorf of Spider Lake Church said youth and after-school programs have been suspended because of the mandatory school closure starting March 18.
Hilgendorf said his congregation is not greeting others like they have previously in order to reduce contamination; those not feeling well are encouraged to stay home.
The pastor officiates at four different services and each service at this time of year typically attracts 50 or less, so he is not as concerned about people passing the virus.
A Facebook note from Pastor Chad McCallum of Hayward Wesleyan Church on Friday, March 13 said based on advice of health organizations the congregates are encouraged to not shake hands or have any direct physical contact.
“I realize this feels unnatural when you’re surrounded by people you know and love and when you are trying to be friendly and hospitable to people who are new to the church,” he wrote. “But this is an effort to protect the health of the whole church, especially those who are at higher risk should they be infected.”
On the Facebook page for St. Joseph Catholic Church of Hayward there is a March 12 letter from Diocese of Superior Bishop Most Rev. James P. Powers, telling members if they are concerned about their health they are not obligated to attend Mass.
“I strongly encourage our elderly, very young and anyone with a compromised immune system to accept this dispensation,” he said.
A member of the St. Joseph parish said the church has implemented several practices out of concern of virus infection, including refraining from shaking hands during services and not accepting the communion host on the tongue but in the hand.
And recently, Frist Lutheran Church of Hayward notified its congregation out of concern for COVID-19 it would not be offering its Wednesday night community supper until further notice, the first time the supper has been suspended in 23 years.