CHIPPEWA FALLS — Aaron Sturgis stood at the pulpit Thursday morning, in front of an empty church, and delivered his sermon. It was the same message he planned to deliver to a full congregation on Sunday. A band was present, and it looked like any other service he has delivered in the past.
However, with no one present, the service was recorded and uploaded to the Internet. His parishioners will be watching his message today through social media.
“We aren’t using the word ‘cancel’ — we’re moving everything online,” Sturgis said. “We’ve been doing streaming (services) for about a year to a year-and-a-half. We’ll place it on Youtube, Facebook, our website, and through our app. We are going to do what we do every Sunday, just without people present.”
With COVID-19 shutting down public gatherings, including worship services, churches across the Chippewa Valley are getting creative to get out their message.
Sturgis, pastor at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Chippewa Falls, said his congregation previously acquired computer tablets, wiped the memories, and downloaded their church’s app onto the machines.
“We have 25 available, and well more than half have been distributed,” Sturgis said. “There are some tech-savvy 85-year-olds that watch us online.”
Sturgis is pleased his church made the decision a couple years ago to invest in all the technology.
“We wanted to be a church where people are at,” he said. “We know the stats of how often people look at their smart phones. The silver lining is we’re getting back to using the Internet the way it was meant to be used.”
With COVID-19 now officially in the Chippewa Valley with several confirmed cases, Sturgis said the church didn’t want to open the doors at all, not even for a small group.
“We had originally intended to open our doors from 8:30 a.m. to noon to relax, pray and have communion,” Sturgis said. “But we heard on Monday that we were limited to 10, so we decided it wasn’t worth it.”
Sturgis said it was important to have a plan in place for people to continue to worship. He is looking at ways to get creative, and perhaps have a production for Holy Week.
“We’re just trying to maintain the sense of normalcy and worship,” Sturgis said.
Pastor Mike Cohoon from Landmark Christian Church in Lake Hallie also has recorded his sermon, but rather than do it from an empty church, he’s gone to a more intimate setting.
“It will be informal from my living room,” Cohoon said. “It’s from our living room to your living room.”
Pastor Brad Crocker will present the Christian message and lesson, and a guitarist will play some songs.
Like Sturgis, Cohoon is working on ways to stay connected to his congregation while they can’t be together. He held an online “Google hangout” with the church’s teens on Wednesday. He also is recording three-minute videos, and asking his congregation to make their own and share them with each other.
“We want them to be light-hearted,” he said.
The church’s elders also divided up a list of the congregation, with each responsible for making calls and checking in on members every few days, Cohoon said.
Cohoon also would like to have the building open, at least for a few hours.
“A church building has a special feeling, where you come in and can feel the peace of God,” Cohoon said.
Cohoon said he anticipates talking to other pastors to see what new outreach methods are working.
Bruce Schmidt, pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Lake Hallie, isn’t doing a recorded service. Instead, the church have opted to do a Facebook live gathering, broadcast from his home. Schmidt explained that his services are usually interactive, where he receives feedback from his congregation, so that will continue with the Facebook live format.
“While we can’t see them, they’ll be able to email or text in, or type right on Facebook,” Schmidt said. “Our church really functions as a community, more than being spoke to, or sung to. We want interaction. That’s a regular part of who we are. In this time of social distancing, we want that social connection.”
Schmidt is optimistic that these online gatherings will keep his congregation united.
“It fills a lot of boxes for us. Church is community,” Schmidt said. “I’m pretty excited about this. I think it will offer some good opportunities.”
Cedarbrook Community Church in Eau Claire has typically made an audio recording of their service and made it available as an mp3 file for download. That is their plan for this weekend, said Rev. Justin Wichman.
“We will be uploading our message onto our website, and emailing it out to members,” Wichman said. “And we’ll have a study guide.”
Wichman said he hopes to be able to provide video of future services in the near future.
“Creating the video component … that is something new for us,” he said.
Wichman said the church has a private Facebook page, where congregation members can discuss issues and ask for prayers, and the church regularly posts messages. He also is urging members to communicate with each other through Skype or similar face-to-face communications technology.
Sturgis, the Central Lutheran pastor, wonders about how a pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on how churches operate.
“We know we’re in a seismic shift in our culture,” Sturgis said. “I don’t know if we’ll look back on this moment 50 years from now and say, this was when churches saw a big change.”