It is no secret that North Louisiana is part of what the rest of the United States refers to as the Bible Belt. A recent study conducted by researchers at MIT, Baylor and Duke demonstrated that religious Americans were better able to weather difficulties than those who were less religious. Thus, how religious Americans cope with today’s unprecedented disruption to the normal practice of their faith could have larger implications for the overall wellbeing of society.
Many pastors and denominational leaders have struggled with questions related to the immediate concerns facing the church. They had to quickly face issues like, “What is the best way to take our services online?” or “How do we take care of the elderly and vulnerable members of our faith community both in services and while many are now home alone with no one to check on them?”
While many church leaders struggled with these issues, Union Parish has been blessed with some wise and caring leaders who realized quickly that churchgoers want and need support from a church community.
They seek prayer, emotional support and encouragement from their church body and from their pastors.
Kurt Auger, pastor of First Baptist Church, Farmerville, knows this well. “The hardest thing for any church is being separated. The church is family and we depend upon each other for support, encouragement, love and fellowship. Being separated is very hard,” said Auger. FBC shut down immediately when Louisiana issued the shelter at home order on March 13. They missed one Sunday of worship completely before going to an online format. “We would broadcast our service live on our Roku channel, Facebook Live and our website,” said Auger.
Ben Walker of Farmerville Church of Christ closed the doors of his church on March 22 and his church did broadcast a service each Sunday via Facebook Live. While the online services helped with hearing the word, there is no substitute for in person, face-to-face fellowship within a body of believers. “Keeping people engaged with the word of God and remaining aware of their needs has been one of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic,” said Walker. He continued, “but perhaps an even broader issue has been trying to keep people trusting in the Lord instead of our government.”
Bobby Joe Douglas, pastor of TheWORD Baptist Church closed the physical doors of his church on March 15, but they did not miss a beat as far as conducting a service for members. “We immediately started having service on ZOOM conference calls and have continued to offer our services on ZOOM. We have also offered Spiritual Growth Development Services Monday through Friday from 7-8 p.m.,” Douglas said.
All three pastors had members of their congregation contract COVID-19. None of these cases was a result of church activities but did cause concern for those who were ill and the rest of the congregation. Both Auger and Walker lost church members to COVID. “Those we lost broke our hearts and caused us concern for all of our members. Losing loved ones pushed us to be extra careful as we moved forward,” said Auger. Douglas has not lost a member to the virus. “We had two members who contracted the virus and they came through by the grace and faith of God,” said Douglas.
First Baptist and Farmerville Church of Christ are now conducting in-person services although they are following all guidelines set forth by the CDC for the protection of all congregation members. Auger’s church has a 9 a.m. mask-only service that is primarily senior adults and those who might be susceptible to the virus. “We also have an 11 a.m. service where masks are worn until seated, but we allow the mask to be removed once everyone is in their seats,” Auger said. “Of course we try to keep at least a row of separation between our folks and we sanitize our worship area between each service,” he continued.
Walker’s church is also using every other pew in the auditorium to maximize social distancing and they have removed all songbooks and other items from seatbacks. “We encourage people to wear masks but do not require it,” Walker said. Both churches have hand sanitizer readily available to all attendees.
Even though The-WORD Baptist Church is not having in-person services, Douglas encourages all of his members to adhere to CDC guidelines as they go about their daily lives. “Wearing your mask, washing your hands and social distancing are all very important but we also teach walking in faith,” he said.
Each pastor expressed sadness and regret that in-person meetings and socializing has been so limited but all three have quickly adapted and learned how to minister to their members during this pandemic. “In the absence of physical visits, we have been making more phone calls and checking on our members via text messages and social media. Social media has been very beneficial in helping to stay in contact,” said Walker.
Auger’s staff put several new ministry methods in place, “but the one I am most proud of is our Ministry Tree which allows our people to stay connected through regular phone calls and card writings,” he said.
Douglas stays in touch with his members on a nightly basis. “We, as a ministry, contact our members to ensure that they are ok. We are in constant communication with them during our Spiritual Growth Development Services,” Douglas said.
Each pastor wants all of their members and even those in the community who might not attend church on a regular basis to know that while 2020 and the pandemic have been hard, they do not have to live in fear. “This too shall pass. And when it does, we need to be able to look back and see our faith throughout this ordeal. Stay faithful to God. Trust in Him to provide, to sustain and to deliver,” Walker said.
Douglas encourages the community to follow Matthew 6:33, “but seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he said. “In His Kingdom He warns of the things to come but He also teaches us on how to overcome whatever the world throws at us so I would encourage everyone to seek the Kingdom of God. Do not walk in fear nor intimidation because in 2 Timothy 1:7 God gave us a spirit of power, love and of sound mind,” Douglas continued.
Auger sends a like message of encouragement to his members and all of the Union Parish community, “We all need to hang in there. We are all in the same boat and the storm seems to be raging, but I am thankful that I know the One who calms the seas and the One who holds the world in His hands. We serve a risen Savior who loves us and guides our lives. Jesus will never fail us so hang in there!”
For more information on how to attend one of the services for any of these churches, they can be reached by calling the church offices. First Baptist can be reached at 318-368-3849, Farmerville Church of Christ can be reached at 318-368-8666 and TheWORD Baptist Church can be reached at 318-791-2444 or 318-497-1783.