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'The church is not the building,' so this Pleasant Ridge pastor moved his sermons online

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Posted at 6:00 PM, Apr 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-02 18:00:24-04

CINCINNATI — The Rev. Derek Terry gave his Sunday sermon over Facebook Live this week. He’s been doing it since March 15, but it still feels strange.

“It’s totally different,” he said Thursday afternoon. “It’s weird for me. I’m used to seeing faces, getting feedback and nods. We’re missing the fellowship.”

Although Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order does not affect religious services, Terry made the decision to stop in-person worship at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ to protect his congregation from COVID-19. Legal restrictions or not, large face-to-face gatherings of any kind can potentially result in dozens of new infections if one asymptomatic person attends.

“I think, as a leader, we just have to make those tough decisions and say that public health and people’s health and safety is more important than trying to keep the building going,” Terry said. “The church is not the building.”

Not every church has made the same decision. In Monroe, Ohio, Solid Rock megachurch continues to hold large services each Sunday and Wednesday despite direct orders from the Butler County General Health District. In Tampa, Florida, pastor Rodney Howard-Browne did not agree to cancel services at his church until police charged him with a crime for defying the governor’s orders.

Terry’s biggest concern is his staff. Churches often rely on tithes and offerings from the busy Lenten season to help pay their staff for the entire year, he said. Even if worshippers were in the pews at St. Peter’s, many of them are likely too anxious about their own financial futures to give now.

“I’m not trying to beg them for money when everything is so uncertain,” he said.

But without help, St. Peter’s can only continue paying its entire staff through April. By May, Terry will have to begin conversations about who will go without.

“We’ve been here since 1876,” he said. “The building is paid for free and clear, but it’s 11,000 square feet, and keeping it running takes a lot.”

He said he plans to look for other ways to connect with his community and have faith in their support as the pandemic continues. In the meantime, he’ll continue giving sermons from his office chair, with frequent guest appearances from his dog.

The circumstances are bad, he admits. But being pushed to make modern worship more creative might be an opportunity.

“Most churches are based on a 1960s model,” he said. “And that model is completely different. We don’t drive the same cars we did in 1960. We don’t dress the same way we did in 1960. So maybe we should worship differently.”