When the Wilson Heights First Church of God closed its doors last March because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Rev. Cornelius Atkinson never imagined that one year later his ministry would still be virtual.
On Sunday, as Christians around the world mark another Easter sunrise, Atkins and his congregation will hold an outdoor service, offering members an option to worship in their cars or on the church lawn.
“It allows for people to come and have that worship experience, to have that fellowship and be in the midst of each other,” Atkinson said this week. “There’s a segment of people accustomed to that kind of fellowship, and it’s hard for them to shake that.”
Atkinson and his Heights Ministries in Charlotte’s Historic West End are far from unique. The Covid pandemic has forced churches citywide to wrestle with a similar challenge: How to keep members safe while still giving reverence to Christendom’s most sacred of days.
At First Baptist Church-West, also in Historic West End, deacons will gather outside the church at 10 a.m. to distribute Communion kits to all who drive up.
“I think it’s important for our people, particularly on Easter Sunday, to be able to share in one of the most sacred rituals that the church has, and that’s Holy Communion,” said Dr. Ricky A. Woods, the senior pastor there.
Woods said members who pick up the factory-sealed communion kits can take them home to view his Easter message online.
Like other pastors interviewed for this article, Atkinson said that despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, Easter is a reminder that blessings can flow from unwanted trials.
“I do believe Covid-19 has expanded the reach of the church beyond its walls and beyond its members,” he said, noting the now-widespread use of technology to livestream church services.”
Atkinson said the use of the internet and social platforms has allowed him to reach as many as 1,200 people some Sundays over the past year. His sanctuary, meanwhile, has a seating capacity limited to about 140 people.
“Before Covid, we didn’t have YouTube, we didn’t have Instagram, and we were not on Twitter,” he said. “Since Covid, we have expanded into those mediums because it has helped us to expand our reach and our capability to reach our people.”
Another Covid result, he said, has been an uptick in membership giving.
Atkinson, a former state chair of the Church of God Association, said The Heights Ministries isn’t alone in experiencing a financial upswing. He asserts, based on conversations with other ministers, that many Charlotte churches are seeing similar patterns.
He attributes the increased giving to an increased role that houses of worship have played during the pandemic.
“Though the church was not open physically, the church was still open,” Atkinson said. “As pastors, we have been more busy than when people were physically meeting in the church. The needs have increased — communicating, mental stress, hearing the pastor’s voice and words of encouragement.”
According to a Gallup poll this month, church membership continues to fall in the United State, dipping below 50% last year for the first time in the 80 years that Gallup has been tracking church attendance.
Atkinson said he believes. that churches can reverse those numbers, especially among young people, if congregations continue to embrace technology.
About two miles away at The Park Church Beatties Ford, Bishop Claude Alexander Jr. also was readying this week for another Easter Sunday under the Covid cloud.
Alexander said his Easter message will center on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but also on the need to overcome and transcend.
“The opportunity here has been for us to demonstrate that we are more than a people who simply gather,” he said.
The Park Church will stream its Easter service on Facebook and YouTube at 9:45 a.m.
At First Baptist-West, Woods sees a spiritual lesson far bigger than technology — a message that speaks to a fast-pace society and of the need to slow down.
“We all oftentimes move through life in a mad rush, and in that mad rush we want things to happen a particular way and happen very quickly,” he said. “Life doesn’t always happen that way. And one of the things that this pandemic has done, it is causing us to have to slow down, it is causing us to have to pull back.”
Woods said the pandemic also has emphasized the importance of community and collaboration.
“There are things that we can’t do by ourselves,” he said. “We need partners. We need people to help us, whether that’s getting testing done, whether that’s getting vaccines, whether that’s providing meals, whatever that might be.”
Each of the pastors interviewed was cautious about predicting when they might reopen their churches.
Atkinson said he surveyed his congregation about six months ago, and 70% of those who responded indicated that they were not comfortable returning to in-person worship — but that was when Covid numbers were higher in Mecklenburg County and no vaccine had been approved.
Atkinson said he plans to survey his members again, with an eye toward reopening, perhaps, in late September, after Labor Day — and even then with reduced seating.
“The (Covid) numbers will dictate that to us,” he said. “If our numbers in the area of Mecklenburg County are within the CDC guidelines, we will come back. If not, we’re going to continue to wait and continue to have virtual ministry.”
Woods, at First Baptist-West, said he talked this week with Mecklenburg Health Director Gibby Harris, who he said cautioned against rushing to reopen churches.
“In spite of the number of vaccines that we are getting done, it’s nowhere near where we need to be before we start opening fully back up,” Woods said.
As a member of the county’s faith-based Village HeartBEAT health program, Atkinson said The Heights Ministries has been instrumental, along with other Black churches in the collaborative, in pushing for no-appointment vaccination events in Black and Brown communities. As a result, he said, a good percentage of his congregation probably has been vaccinated.
Still, he said, his members have not pushed him to reopen the church.
“They say 40 days creates a new habit,” Atkinson said. “We’re more than 365 days in now. People have gotten to the place where they understand that, if I see you on Zoom, we’re fellowshipping. If I hear your voice on my conference call line, we’re fellowshipping.”
When asked about the sermon he will preach Easter Sunday, Atkinson smiled, his eyes seeming to shine with anticipation.
“Focusing on the cross and Christ and his resurrection,” he said. “That will be the focus of my Easter Resurrection Sunday message. We still need him, and we still need to know that we have a resurrected Lord and Savior, that he hears the cry and knows the mourning, the concerns, the needs of his people, and he is there to meet those needs.”
QCity Metro Publisher Glenn Burkins contributed to this report.