The Rev. Janet Onnie leans toward the microphone to greet her congregation, as she does almost every week, but this time things are a bit different.
“I’m delighted to see you all virtually,” Onnie tells worshipers at Tri-County Unitarian Universalists, “and I am so thrilled to be with you in this grand leap into the 21st century.”
For the first time, instead of filling the pews, Onnie’s congregation Sunday watched the service on Tri-UU’s Facebook page.
Moving services online is just one of the ways local churches are working to balance spiritual closeness and social distancing.
Others are tending to their flock’s needs — and guarding against the coronavirus — by adding drive-in service or encouraging people to stop by for a personal chat out in the courtyard.
The need for distance makes it a challenge for churches to provide the spiritual guidance many seek during times of crisis. “While churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship may not be able to physically gather for the foreseeable future, faith leaders continue to play an important role in our communities large and small,” a senior White House official said.
Faith continues to play a large role in the lives of Villagers. While church attendance continues to decline across the nation, houses of worship in and around The Villages continue to expand to meet demand, with more than 120 churches in the area.
Tri-UU was one of the first local churches to move online after normal services were suspended to promote social distancing as a way to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Many more will be jumping into the online realm this weekend, as more than 40 area houses of worship have announced online worship plans.
“When it was suggested that the faith communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing our doors, we turned our focus to figuring out the technology that would keep us in community,” Onnie told her virtual congregation. “It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s exciting to be connecting with you and to see you connecting with each other in new ways.”
Prior to Sunday’s online service, Tri-UU members and others who are subscribed to the church’s email list received a message on how to watch virtually, as well as information on the selected hymns and Onnie’s sermon.
Despite some technical issues, Tri-UU member LaRae Donnellan said she was happy with the initial online service.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to worship together when we could not meet in person,” she said. “It may not have worked out the way we wanted initially, but the important part was we were together.”
While streaming services may be new for many churches, one is offering its streaming expertise to other sanctuaries to help them stay active and engaged.
Church @ The Springs, which is known for services where messages are streamed from its main sanctuary in Ocala to its campuses in Lady Lake and southwest Ocala, announced its offer this week.
“If there are churches in The Villages and Lady Lake areas that are unable to live-stream, we want to help,” said Mike Storts, campus director for The Villages Campus of Church @ The Springs in Lady Lake. “The church wants to offer them assistance in recording and streaming services for its members.”
Houses of worship interested in having their services streamed can contact Storts at 352-348-5707 or email@example.com.
St. George Episcopal Church also will begin streaming services this weekend, but the Rev. John Kelly has been determined to find a way to maintain more personal contact.
“These are tough times, but it gets the creative juices flowing,” Kelly said. “Despite the sheep being scattered, we still must be good shepherds and keep the group together.”
Starting Monday, Kelly and other members of St. George’s clergy will be outside in the church courtyard at 1250 Paige Place to meet with anyone who would like to stop by for prayer or to chat about whatever’s on their minds.
“Chatting in the Church Courtyard” is scheduled from 9-11 a.m. Monday through Friday, but Kelly said it might be extended if need be. The church will practice social distancing norms during the courtyard chats.
Two other area churches plan to bring the word of God outdoors as an alternative to indoor services.
First Baptist Church of Leesburg is putting together a drive-in service at 9 a.m. Sunday at its Downtown Campus, 220 N. 13th St.
“Our staff was brainstorming about ways we continue to worship amidst the necessary closures, and of my colleagues mentioned this idea of a drive-in service,” said Cliff Lea, senior pastor. “We thought he was joking at first. But he’d heard that a few other churches around the country might be trying this. The more we thought of it, the more we realized it may be worth a try.”
Attendees will receive song sheets with lyrics, as well as information on how to hear the service on FM radio.
Live Oaks Community Church also is getting into spirit of drive-in worship. The church plans to hold services outside on “The Grove” at its Woodridge Campus at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and again at 8:30 a.m., 10:15 a.m. and noon Sunday.
Live Oaks has long offered the drive-in option at its Oxford location, and church officials say these special services are an extension of that.
The Live Oaks Woodridge Campus is at 12070 County Road 103 in Oxford.
Les and Joyce Ison attended Live Oak’s drive-in service for the first time Sunday.
They rely on their faith as a way to find strength and comfort during a time when fears of the new coronavirus have turned life upside down.
The sermon that Senior Pastor Chris Holck delivered was titled “Don’t Be Afraid Little Flock,” taken from a passage in the Gospel of Luke.
He told the congregation that phrase stood out to him because of the current times, relating the fears and worries of Jesus’s disciples to peoples’ fear of the unknown with COVID-19.
“We can’t change outcomes by worrying, but we can change our ability to go through the day in a healthy way, to be able to conquer the things in front of us,” said Holck, of the Village of Bonnybrook.
Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or email@example.com.