As Senior Pastor Harold Hendren rose to deliver his first sermon in more than three months to congregants at New Covenant United Methodist Church’s Summerhill Campus this weekend, he knew he was addressing a unique audience.

“Normally, I would be presenting this to a thousand people or so inside the sanctuary,” Hendren exclusively told viewers watching on New Covenant’s page on the online video streaming site Vimeo. “But these are unusual times. It is unusual, but we want to make this as authentic as possible.”

With houses of worship across the country closing its doors to in-person services due to COVID-19, many sanctuaries are turning towards virtual worship to remain active. More than 40 houses of worship in and around The Villages did just that over the weekend, broadcasting services and other events on their websites, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and elsewhere.

And interest was there, with New Covenant’s Vimeo service garnering more than 2,300 views. More than 1,300 views were recorded for St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church’s Sunday Mass on its YouTube page.

Church @ The Springs saw more than 10,000 views for its three broadcasted services on Facebook. And St. George Episcopal Church in The Villages counted around 700 views for weekend services on its Facebook page.

“This is an unusual crisis we are facing right now with COVID-19,” said Rev. John Kelly, rector for St. George Episcopal, during his online service. “But I believe, as many people do, that wherever you are, you are joining us in holy worship.”

But with so many houses of worship broadcasting at one time, attempts to view a service on Facebook proved difficult for some. Hope Lutheran Church experienced problems with posting a worship video on the social media site due to what it called “disruptions to streaming services” caused by so many live events happening at once. Hope Lutheran did offer a streamed service on its website, as well as First Baptist Church of The Villages, which encouraged Facebook viewers to go to the church’s website as an alternative.

Despite the glitches, early reaction to virtual worship has been positive.

“Watched the service last night, so well done,” wrote Jack Duarte on New Covenant United Methodist Church’s Facebook page. “Thanks so much for being a beacon of light to us.”

“Thank you to everyone whose hard work and caring made this morning prayer service possible,” wrote Anne Gates Kincer on St. George Episcopal’s Facebook page. “It was wonderful!”

First Baptist Church of Leesburg went outside the box and held a drive-in service Sunday morning at its Downtown Campus. Around 150 cars were in the church’s parking lot for the event.

“I would guess there were around 400 people in attendance,” said Senior Pastor Cliff Lea of First Baptist Leesburg. “Given the success of the first drive-in service, we plan on doing this again at 9 a.m. on March 29.”

Other churches are working to stay open for live worship through the COVID-19 crisis. First Baptist Church of Lady Lake is keeping its doors open for worship and prayer, but is implementing new procedures due to calls for social distancing.

Paul Spoltore, the church’s executive assistant to the pastor, said seating is now organized in 1-5 person arrangements, each around six feet apart. Open Door Community Church in Summerfield also hosted an in-person service Sunday, but gave congregants the option of listening to worship on their car radios in the church’s parking lot.

Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.