This is the first in an occasional series spotlighting faith-based communities in Sumter, Clarendon and Lee County with a focus on how the congregation and its leaders are reacting and adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All our coronavirus coverage is free to the public. It’s the right thing to do as a public service to our community. If you find this article helpful or informative and want to support our continued coverage, please subscribe or support us with a tax-deductible donation.
To find all our coronavirus coverage, including helpful local resources and website links, click here.
The first week Alice Drive Baptist Church elected to not have in-person services due to the coronavirus pandemic was on March 22. When it resumed in-person services on May 31 following the implementation of social distancing, disinfecting and cleansing guidelines, the Rev. Clay Smith said attendance was about half of what it would be pre-coronavirus.
However, with the spike in positive coronavirus cases and deaths in the weeks following, in-person numbers dipped.
"That has fallen off now to about 20% to 25% of a normal crowd," Smith said. "We think a small percentage of that is just summer stuff, but the much larger is that people are still uncomfortable coming to a large public gathering. We have the benefit of being able to arrange our chairs where the rows are 6 feet apart, and we've got it about as socially distanced as we can. But still we recognize that there are some who just aren't comfortable coming back yet.
"Essentially, some of it is older people, and some of it is families with young children, and some of it is just people that if they get sick - they're self-employed - then they wouldn't be able to work. So that just puts them in a difficult position, and they just don't want to take any chances."
That hasn't deterred the church itself from limiting its worship services, though. The Loring Mill Road church is still having three Sunday morning services as well as a Monday service, while its Pocalla campus on Bethel Church Road is having two Sunday services.
Smith said the biggest combined number upon return to in-person services was 730, whereas the typical number is 1,500. And while those numbers have dropped off, Smith doesn't think that has come because of a state of fear.
"I honestly feel that it's shifted somewhat," Smith said. "I think at first people had a lot of fear, and now people are more like, 'We need to be wise, and we're really ready for this to be over.' Most of our people, they're not rattled by it. They really are walking in faith, I would say."
While the number of people coming to the church is obviously down, Smith said the tithes and offerings to the church have remained strong.
"We have been extraordinarily blessed," he said. "Our people have continued to give, and we're within 5% of our giving projection goal.
"It shows some good, spiritual maturity on their part, that they're not just thinking about church as just what's in it for me, but they're recognizing this is a time where they want to lean in and say, 'We want to be generous for what our church is doing and continue to support our ministries.'"
When the in-person services were stopped, many churches turned to online and social media options. Fortunately for Alice Drive, it was already well-versed in producing services online.
"We had already been doing online, and we actually hired a part-time online minister to do that for us," Smith said. "So we're really thankful God led us in that direction because we didn't have to scramble at the last minute to try to figure out how to do it."
As one might expect, the numbers of those participating online have increased dramatically. Prior to the shutdown, Smith said the church had an average of about 350 devices linked to the services. Since then, it is between 1,000 and 1,200 on a Sunday.
The good thing, Smith said, is it's not just locals watching the services.
"What's amazing is I know of a couple of situations where some smaller churches, like in Oklahoma and Florida that have not reopened, they have some family connections, so they're watching us online, which is just like amazing to me," Smith said. "We have a thing that shows you the geographic cluster, and there's like 20 devices in northeast Oklahoma that watch us every Sunday."
Smith said he knows the church is being watched by those living overseas, as well, and that's likely due to the church's military connections with Shaw Air Force Base.
"That's really humbling," Smith said of the services being viewed in countries such as England, Afghanistan and Qatar.
Along with the Sunday and Monday services, Alice Drive also has student meetings outdoors on Wednesdays and also holds small "life groups" meeting in person and via Zoom, as well.
Smith doesn't see any increase in services at the church happening at this time.
"Right now, we're probably going to stay right where we are, and we're just looking for signs that the infection rate goes down and the death rate goes down," Smith said. "And at that point, then we'll probably consider moving back to having Sunday morning groups. But right now, putting people in small rooms in small groups may not be the wisest thing for us."
As people deal with the pandemic and other issues, such as movements against systemic racism and racial injustice, taking place in the country, Smith thinks being connected with the Lord is imperative.
"People need to be responsible for caring for their whole soul," he said. "So they need to be wise about how they take care of their body, but they also need to be nurturing that spiritual relationship they have with the Lord. This is a time to really stay connected to a church or get connected to a church, get connected to whatever gives you some spiritual hope. And that has to be something that right now is intentional because there is just so much going on that wants to rob us of our hope."
More Articles to Read