Rutherford County churches are solidifying their game plans for this year’s Easter Sunday services and activities, nearly one year after a pandemic caused several to temporarily close their doors.

“It’s affected the way we do church,” said Lucy Phillips, spokeswoman for World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, “This time last year, the church was not open. We live-streamed all of our services.”

Phillips said that the church halted all indoor activities for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic. In May, outdoor services began to celebrate the National Day of Prayer.

One of the church’s parking lots was converted into an outdoor sanctuary lined with rows of folding chairs. Three large video screens were used to project Pastor Allen Jackson to the visitors in chairs, tents and cars near the treeline at the back of the lot.

The space has remained intact ever since, and people continue to visit rain or shine.

World Outreach has more than 10,000 people from surrounding counties who worship there, according to Phillips. The church offers services online and in-person every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Physical attendees can decide if they’d like to view the sermons outside with Jackson or view the live feed from one of several screens in the church’s indoor sanctuaries.

“We’ve seen the attendance creep up as people gain confidence, and as we’ve provided more options and opened up different rooms,” said Phillips. “We’ve really made it a priority to create an atmosphere where people can be comfortable.”

The church has scheduled a three-day Easter festival with food trucks and live musical performances from Christian artists CAIN, We the Kingdom, The Katinas, and Jason Crabb.

The church will also offer baptisms that churchgoers can register for online.

Jackson will deliver his Easter sermon three times: Friday, April 2 and Saturday, April 3 at 6 p.m. and Sunday April 4 at 9:30 a.m. Several church members have volunteered to help newcomers navigate the facilities throughout the weekend.

Mask-on, mask-optional services

Highland Heights Church of Christ in Smyrna, which has a congregation of about 650 members, offers two morning services in addition to virtual services. The 8:30 a.m. service is mask-required, and the second service at 10:30 a.m. is mask-optional.

During the first service, a slide on the church projector reads, “Although we are taught to share ... for germs we do not care!!” It urges anyone feeling “under the weather” to “stay home and get better.”

Pulpit Minister Wayne Cornwell said that the church is currently operating at about two-thirds of usual attendance.

“During the height of the pandemic, we were having about 200 in person and about 200 online,” said Cornwell.

The church organized a “Reopening” committee to make decisions about how the church would adjust to COVID-19, Education Minister and Committee Chair Kelly Campbell said.

Campbell said that the church encountered several obstacles with the reopening process due to the spikes in virus cases in the summer and winter.

“I guess like most churches, we’ve had to back up a couple of times to try to keep things safe, but right now, I feel like we’re in a really good trajectory,” said Campbell.

She said she is optimistic that Highland Heights will resume Sunday night services as soon as Easter Sunday. The church plans to do the same for Wednesday night services in May.

“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, and then have something happen,” said Campbell.

Both Cornwell and Campbell agreed that the Easter Sunday service won’t look drastically different from those of years past, but the online streaming option will still be in place for those who can’t physically attend.

The church scheduled an outdoor Easter Egg Hunt for last Saturday. The plan had children divided by ages, with mask and social distancing guidelines. All Easter snacks were pre-packaged, according to Campbell.

Attendance increasing

Similar to Highland Heights, Crossway Baptist Church in Murfreesboro offers two Sunday morning services at 9:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

Pastor Sherman Boyd said the church encourages anyone who is concerned about mask-wearing to attend the earlier service which typically has a smaller attendance.

“We run between 220 and 240 on a typical Sunday,” said Boyd. “When COVID hit, we’ve dropped down to a pretty consistent about 160.”

Boyd said that the church has seen a surprising spike in donations within the last year, despite a lower turnout of in-person attendance. The church collected a surplus of over $20,000, Boyd said.

“We finished 2020 as one of our best years financially ever,” said Boyd. “People just jumped in and gave online.”

Instead of passing the donation plate through each pew, the church decided to place locked donation boxes near the entrance. He said the pandemic has also given the church an opportunity to improve the video and audio quality of its pre-existing virtual services.

Boyd said that he is noticing more and more people become comfortable with physically entering the building and removing their masks. While the county’s mask mandate has expired, the church leaves it up to the individual to decide what’s best for their comfort level.

So far, he says there have been little to no complaints in taking this approach.

“Part of our DNA is community, so we don’t live in fear at all, but we do want what’s best for each other,” said Boyd, who commended his church’s willingness to ensure the comfort of the older and “more nervous” members of the congregation.

The pandemic has had the biggest effect on mid-week services and special events, which aren’t scheduled to resume until the Wednesday after Easter.

The church is celebrating with a “Holy Week’’ that began last Sunday with regular service hours. A traditional Passover meal is scheduled for Maundy Thursday at 6 p.m. A Good Friday service is scheduled for the following day at 6 p.m., and Easter morning will feature a “Resurrection Sunday Celebration” at regular service hours.

Boyd said that the Good Friday service is typically “more solemn,” and the Sunday Resurrection service is a “big blow out.”

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