Members of entities that are designed to come together have gathered apart for the past two months.

Technology advancement allowed that to occur.

However, that changed for Portland Church of Christ on Sunday morning as that body was among the first in the area to resume having service since the coronavirus pandemic broke in mid-March.

“There was excitement, smiling faces,” pastor Shawn Montandon said. “There was a little bit of carefulness about it. It was still different, but overall, it was good.

“People were anticipating just seeing each other’s faces. That was a good thing.”

Portland Church of Christ last had service collectively on March 15.

“It has been a challenge,” Montandon said. “Obviously, we’re not meeting anywhere to see each other face to face, but there are several things we’ve done in an attempt to still feel connected.”

A Wednesday-night Bible study on March 18 was the last time that Mt. Pleasant General Baptist — which is located in the New Deal community of Cottontown — last gathered together.

“That response wasn’t born out of fear … it was born out of love,” Mt. Pleasant General Baptist Church associate pastor Ryan Whiticker said. “As a shepherd of God’s flock, it’s a responsibility to look after the spiritual and physical well-being of our church members. With this virus, it could be a physical danger to our members. So, we view it as a response of love.”

It has led to a lot of thought and uncertainty for churches in regard to what decisions to make since it’s an unprecedented occurrence.

“This whole situation is not anything we’ve faced in near and recent history,” Whiticker said. “The only thing comparable is about 100 years ago when the Spanish flu came through . A lot of churches closed and dismissed public gatherings. At that time, they had not been blessed with the technology we have now.

“It’s been a difficult time for our church. Church has been viewed as a public gathering. It’s been viewed as coming to the building … but we’ll never cancel church. The church is a community of believers who often gather at a specific location.”

Portland First Baptist Church pastor Tim Colovos echoed those sentiments.

“It has been a challenge,” Colovos said. “Not only our people at our First Baptist have stepped up to the plate, but many believers have. We’ve always heard people say that the church is not a building, but it’s the people. That certainly is true.

“We have never closed. We’ve scattered, but the church is still meeting. We’re just doing it in a way that is the best for our parishioners, in the safest way possible. The Lord is still leading.”

The last in-person gathering for Portland First Baptist was March 8.

Since that time, the church has utilized technology to remain connected.

“First Baptist for many years has been blessed to be on the radio in Portland for the 11 o’clock service,” Colovos said. “At our early service, which would be at 8:30, they would record that and begin to play that at 11 a.m. When all this began, we said that we’re just going to go live in the radio station. We got permission to host a live broadcast of our worship service. We had a couple of guys come in and sing, and then, I would preach. It has gone absolutely perfect.

“We’re also live on our church Facebook page and my personnel Facebook page.”

However, it doesn’t stop there. The Sunday school classes at Portland First Baptist are utilizing Zoom video communications to have classes virtually.

“All of our classes have doubled and tripled (in size),” Colovos said. “We have people who are a part of our Sunday school classes from out of state and overseas. We have people from India we have connected with. We have people from Canada we have connected with. It has gone well … it really has.

“The Lord has really blessed us financially. The last eight weeks of giving were stronger than our previous eight weeks of giving. I had given a challenge the first week of doing this. I challenged our church members in the months of April and May to give.”

Mt. Pleasant General Baptist has experienced similar results, despite not having live-streamed services until the pandemic escalated.

“It’s been a leap and a big transition, from going to not having an online presence as far as live-streaming the services go to live-streaming three times per week,” Whiticker said. “That’s one thing during this time … it has helped us to see new avenues of ministry available. We had a phenomenal response from our church and from others as well. It’s not anything of who we are. God has blessed it.

“Most of our videos reach 10 times as many as we normally have on a Sunday morning. On Easter Sunday, we did a sunrise service at 6 a.m., and by the end of the day, it was up to over 2,000 views. That would be 10 times as many as we would have had on Easter Sunday. Our church has done a great job of adapting, especially adapting very quickly.”

Portland Church of Christ has employed the same methods of utilizing Facebook live videos and Zoom meetings.

“It’s gone very well and pretty smooth,” Montandon said. “It’s something everybody is brand new at. We’ve streamed services for I don’t know how long. To make it strictly virtual, it’s been a bit of a challenge, but overall, it has gone smooth.”

In addition to streaming the service on Sunday morning for public viewing, the church has also been doing a Facebook live broadcast for Bible study on Wednesday evening. Youth minister Sam Thrasher has joined Montandon to record daily devotionals each morning that are posted on Facebook, and Thrasher also has a weekly Zoom class for the church’s middle-school and high-school students that is held on either Friday night or Saturday night.

Also, others in the church have held weekly Bible classes virtually.

“Everybody has been understanding,” Montandon said. “No bad news has come back to me. I’m sure there’s underlying frustration, and that’s normal.

“People are ready to get out. There may be some that are cautiously optimistic, but everybody, as a whole, is ready to be back. People are ready to see each other … but everything has gone well, and everybody has been extremely understanding.”

There’s approximately 300 people who attend Portland Church of Christ on Sundays, but Montandon has recently been preaching to an empty sanctuary — with the exception of individuals on hand for technical support — until Sunday.

“I rely a lot on facial feedback,” Montandon said. “I like to look people in the eye. There are several who you learn to count on that can give you some feedback with facial expressions. It’s different to just be focused on a camera, to stay focused on a camera. It’s very different, but I made due and made it work. Hopefully, last Sunday (May 10) is the last one I’ve had to preach for a camera.”

The decision to gather again on Sunday was one that the Portland Church of Christ leadership made based on the state’s gradual reopening.

“From what I’m seeing, and what the governor is allowing, the state opened back up about (three) weeks ago,” Montandon said. “Our shepherds were kind of monitoring that. There are some more loose guidelines. They just decided that this Sunday will be a good one.”

Attendees on Sunday sat positioned on every other row, and they sat on opposite ends of the alternating rows as well.

“In the auditorium, we had a little less than a quarter of what we would normally have on a Sunday morning,” Montandon said. “It was different. It was wonderful, but it was odd. The Sunday before we quit meeting, we had 300-plus in the sanctuary. To come back to this eight weeks later, there was only 70 in the auditorium. So, it was a different experience.”

Whiticker has also employed the use of Zoom meetings to meet with the Mt. Pleasant youth group, and the church has also conducted Sunday school classes via Zoom meetings.

“It’s been a blessing to see their faces, interact with them, see them laugh and see them smile,” Whiticker said. “It’s not the same, but it’s been a blessing. On our first Zoom, some were very emotional. We offer those (Sunday school classes) to give a little bit of normalcy in this.

“It’s definitely a challenge. These folks, we see every week multiple times. It’s just like the Bible describes, it’s brothers and sisters. It’s a faith community and a faith family. It’s a difficult thing to not have that closeness. It’s been a challenge on several of our members. We have several families and members who have been here most of their lives. It’s been definitely been a transition but they have been able to support it. It has richly blessed our church family.”

Mt. Pleasant has held drive-in services the past three weeks, utilizing a speaker system the first week and then an FM radio transmitter after that. The number of attendees for that has increased, with cars being parked in a zig-zag manner to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

“That was even a great experience,” Whiticker said. “We could wave to each other. They would honk horns to say amen.”

Like most churches, Mt. Pleasant is looking at the possibility of having services in its sanctuary soon.

“The answer to when and what the appropriate response is, it is a million dollar question … and for our whole nation,” Whiticker said. “The past two weeks, we’ve transitioned from just live-streaming to having a drive-in service. What we’re trying to do is to get back to normal, but to do it in a way with a routine of phases. We want to continue to flatten the curve, slow the spread and do our part to help the community slow this virus.

“What it’s looking like to us, for a couple more weeks, we’re going to continue the drive-in service route and then at the end of this month or beginning of June, we’ll look at moving back to meeting together. We’ll do that with the social-distancing measures. Right now, it’s kind of a hurry-up-and-wait situation.”

However, Whiticker expects the congregation to be anxious to move in that direction.

“If you would have asked our church members, they would have been raring to go (back) in week three or four,” Whiticker said. “This is great, but we are looking forward to the day we get to come back in. It’s been a blessing … it really has. The first Sunday we’re back in, it’s going to be a long service … I can tell. There’s an old saying, ‘You don’t know it’s a good thing until it’s gone.’

“I think they are going to come in and pray like they never have been before. They are going to sing those same songs they’ve sang 100 times a little louder. Once we get past the social distancing, I think they’re going to want to hug each other a little tighter and a little longer. We’re anxious for the day we can get back. I think that’s something everybody is looking forward to. I’m sure at every church, they are.”

Colovos has benefited from communicating with other area pastors over the past two months.

“Many of the local pastors in this area gather together online each week for prayer, and we share ideas,” Colovos said. “Many will have a similar start-up plan. We want to walk back into this together. It’s been great to meet together, hear their struggles and to encourage one another. It’s been a difficult task, but we know the Lord is going to see us through this.

“Nobody had signed up for this. Nobody wanted this virus to happen in any part of society, including churches. As a pastor, it has been a very difficult decision to readjust our schedules — our church gatherings — during this time. These are uncharted waters we are in. I appreciate the church family of understanding the sacrifices we’ve had to make during this time.”

Portland First Baptist has been looking at its plan for the coming weeks.

“Right now, we’re in the process of putting our reentry phase back together,” Colovos said. “We’re going to make an official announcement to our church family on May 24 of what that will look like. Our tentative plan is that when we do go back is that we are going to offer three morning worship services, instead of two. That will allow our people to get thinned out even more to maintain social distancing. We will also have an overflow room. There will be nothing else going on other than those. We plan to keep that plan for a minimum of six weeks. Toward the end of those six Sundays, First Baptist will make another announcement of what is to come after that.”

Colovos said there will be no public materials used — no bulletins handed out and no Bibles placed in pews — and no exchange of materials, such as passing an offering plate.

“It is going to be different,” Colovos said. “Some people will be able to fully accept the temporary change. It might be difficult for others. We are asking that the Lord will use this time to allow the church to march forward. We are doing everything in our power to honor the Lord and to be sensitive to our members.”

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