Waters: Churches move online, preaching gospel of social distance

Attendance up as clergy find new ways to bring church home

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Published: April 03, 2020 4:00 AM CT
David Waters
Special to The Daily Memphian

David Waters

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

What Sunday mornings in the Davis household were like before the pandemic:

Wake up at 7:30 a.m. Dress in church clothes. Grab a snack. Bolt out the door. Eat in the car. Get to church just in time for Sunday school.

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What Sunday mornings in the Davis household are like during the pandemic:

Wake up at 7:30 a.m. Put on whatever feels comfortable. Make a good, hot breakfast together. Sit at the dining room table together. Flip open the laptop and watch the worship service together.

“We miss being with everyone at church. We miss having that time to greet and hug and love on people,” said Calvin Davis, husband of Deshundra and father of Callie and Caleb. “But it’s nice having more family time at home.”

 The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at the University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid-use agreement. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.

Like hundreds of their fellow members of First Baptist Church-Broad, and thousands of their neighbors, the Davis family’s church-going routines have been altered but not ended by the novel coronavirus.

Christians are not going to church, but they’re still having church.

Congregation members are sharing links and photos instead of handshakes and hugs.

The people usually in the pews are now worshiping, praising and praying in the sanctuaries of their own homes.

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The faithful are attending Sunday school, Bible study and choir practice on YouTube and Twitter, and turning Facebook into a fellowship hall.

As Memphis and Shelby County practice being “Safer at Home,” more and more churches are working to turn the Bible Belt into a safety belt.

Ministers are preaching and teaching the Gospel of Social Distancing.

“Make sure your family is safely distanced one from another,” Dr. Keith Norman, senior pastor of First Baptist-Broad, told his virtual congregation in a livestreamed service last Sunday.

“Wash your hands with soap and warm water. Cover your mouths when you cough and cough into your elbow. Make sure the faith and the facts you have are greater than the fear being cast into the land. God’s grace is sufficient and greater than the virus.”

First Baptist-Broad, like many churches during the pandemic, is becoming a health and wellness resource for people who are safe but anxious and isolated at home.

“This is affecting everyone, not just spiritually but physically and emotionally,” said Norman, who also serves as vice president for government affairs for Baptist Memorial Healthcare.

“We’re more isolated than ever, which means we have to be more creative and innovative about finding ways to be more connected than ever.”


The young woman was dressed all in black, her face covered by a sheer fabric hood.

“I’m a virus,” Jacklyn Selvy said, looking into the camera. Her message was being livestreamed to members of Kingdom Seekers International Ministry of Arts in West Memphis.

“I’m the cause of social distancing. I’ve come to shut everything down. Every school, every business, every relationship. I bring separation and confusion, havoc and chaos, selfishness and abandonment.”

The actor smiled behind the mask. “Who you got to come to your defense? The church?” she scoffed. “Come on now. I can’t be defeated, if the saints can’t work together.”

The performance was part of a three-act “demonstration of the Word,” written by Pastor Jonathan Davis and performed by church members during last Sunday’s online worship service.

Like other clergy who suddenly find themselves in digital pulpits and empty sanctuaries, Davis is looking for new ways to engage churchgoers who can’t go to church.

“We’re trying to help people worship God in a different and safe setting, and also give people a break from Netflix,” said Davis, a Chicago native who founded the church eight years ago with his wife, Jessica.

“This is a difficult time for everyone,” Davis said. “We can’t be together in the same space, but we can be together in other ways.”

Davis and a number of his fellow pastors in West Memphis have found other ways.

Last Sunday, the sanctuary at First Baptist Church West Memphis was empty, but the parking lot was full.

Pastor Josh Hall stood on scaffolding outside the front door and conducted a service for dozens of members parked safely in their cars. The service was simulcast on 95.9 FM.

“Good morning everybody,” Hall said into a microphone. “If you can hear me, give me a big honk.”

Car horns blared their mechanical amens.

“Good morning from the parking lot,” Linda Vose Youngblood instant messaged from her car,

“Good morning FBC!!” messaged Kim McKinness.

“Hey Aunt Peggy,” Shannon Johnson Holt messaged, adding a smiley face emoji.

“Good morning brother Josh,” messaged Charles E. Wheeless.

First Baptist West Memphis has about 750 members. Regular Sunday worship attendance is about 300. The livestreamed service from the parking lot has had 3,000 views.

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The livestreamed March 29 service with the three-act play at Kingdom Seekers has drawn more than 6,000 views. Regular Sunday attendance pre-pandemic was about 200.

Those numbers reflect a pandemic phenomenon.

While church giving is down, attendance is up, according to a new Barna survey of Protestant pastors across the country.

Barna surveyed 434 senior and executive pastors, asking them how online attendance and giving fared the past two Sundays.

A third of the pastors said they were not offering digital options March 22; only 7% were not March 29.

More than half the pastors said their online attendance was higher than the typical in-person attendance. One in four said it was “much higher.”

Meanwhile, half of the pastors surveyed reported that giving to the church the past two weeks is down “significantly.”

For Norman and other pastors, the liturgical season of social distancing presents a unique opportunity and a challenge.

Church leaders are encouraging members to use PayPal, Cash App, Venmo and other online services.

“We will get through this, but it’s not going to be business as usual for anyone,” Norman said.


It hasn’t been business as usual for the Davis family since spring break began March 16.

Their two kids, Callie, 8, and Caleb, 5, have been home from Farmington Elementary every day since.

So have Calvin, who works in IT for FedEx, and Deshundra, who works in IT for International Paper.

Church isn’t the only part of their lives being lived at home and online.

“We’re spending a lot of time online, meetings and school lessons, but we’re also spending more time offline and together,” Calvin said.

“We’re making meals together every night. We’re playing board games. Caleb has discovered Battleship.”

The Davises appreciate what their church leaders are doing to stay connected and keep them informed.

Norman has enlisted 50 “ambassadors” to call each and every one of his 5,000 members at least once a week.

The church is inviting members to make “e-ppointments” with professional counselors, including psychiatrists and psychologists.

The clergy staff is offering a variety of online activities every day, including #TableTopTuesday and #ThrowbackThursday.

Last Wednesday’s online Bible study was led by a financial adviser. He responded to email questions and Facebook comments.

He talked about how to manage savings, retirement and other funds during the pandemic. He also explained how small business owners and unemployed individuals can apply for assistance.

“This session was very helpful,” Deshundra said. “The church is doing a great job helping us prepare for whatever’s ahead.”

Each online worship service includes a “health moment,” a coronavirus update delivered by a medical professional in the congregation.

Last Sunday’s online service included a children’s sermon delivered by an animated likeness of minister Kendra Moore.

“The kids loved it,” Deshundra said. “My son called it a talking head, but my daughter said it looked just like Ms. Kendra.”

Another portion of the online service included several photos posted by people watching the service at home, including the Davis family.

“The kids started yelling, ‘That’s us, that’s us,’” said Deshundra. “I’m sitting there thinking I should have put on something other than a T-shirt.”


First Baptist Church-Broad Keith Norman


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