Leighton Johannesen, ministry director at Hervey Bay Baptist Church.
Leighton Johannesen, ministry director at Hervey Bay Baptist Church.

‘It’s a reset’: Virus shutdown forces change in church

AS CONGREGATIONS prepare to start meeting in person again, Fraser Coast church leaders aren't quite ready to let go of online services.

In fact, Leighton Johannesen, ministry director at Hervey Bay Baptist Church, said taking church online had opened up new opportunities to connect with parishioners.

He said the coronavirus enforced restrictions on gatherings had given church leaders an opportunity to stop and ask if what they're doing is really working.

"I think through this time, it's a reset of church mindset and the way we do things," Mr Johannesen said.

"A lot of people have been asking 'what is church all about?' Is the modern style of church effective?"

Mr Johennesen said the church - one of the largest on the Fraser Coast - would start in-person gatherings again mid-August.

Strict social distancing rules will be in place but he said the church's large, warehouse-style building in Nikenbah could easily accommodate 250 people at once while sticking to the guidelines.

While church members are certainly eager to start meeting again, Mr Johannesen said feedback from congregants and church survey data suggested it was time to do things differently.

"What I'm hearing from people is the need to be the church in the community, rather than having the community come to us, which has been our model for a long time," he said.

"If there's going to be a change, it's going to looking towards how we serve the community and not having the Sunday service be our main attraction."


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Mr Johannesen said church staff had reached out to older members of the church who may have been feeling isolated throughout the COVID-19 shutdown.

He said while the elderly certainly counted on Sunday morning services for social interaction, there was not the sense of urgency to get back to it that many might expect.

In fact, he said, older people had been early and eager adopters of prerecorded online church services and live streaming.

"A lot of feedback coming from older people is that leaving their house on a Sunday morning is really hard," Mr Johannesen said.

"The online platform has actually helped them feel connected while not having to deal with their transport issues or health issues."

Andrew Crighton, senior pastor of Hervey Bay Church of Christ, said the experience at his church had been different.

He said older church members struggled with the Facebook live technology and there had been efforts made to start meeting in person "as soon as we could".

"We're very hopeful that we're going to be able to go back and meet for a Sunday gathering on July 12," Pa Crighton said.

Numbers and social distancing will not be a challenge for his church as a Sunday service usually has about 50 people attend, he said.

"We fairly quickly transitioned to Facebook Live but it doesn't replace the meeting in person and the interaction you get through that," Pa Crighton said.

"When we got to the point we could meet with 10, we started having dinners together. We've been doing that ever since."

Tinana Christian Church. Photo: Karleila Thomsen / Fraser Coast Chronicle
Tinana Christian Church. Photo: Karleila Thomsen / Fraser Coast Chronicle

David Shipp, assistant pastor at Tinana Christian Church, said his congregation would also start meeting again on July 12.

The size of the TCC building means numbers will have to be capped at 60 people, to allow for social distancing, so Sundays will be split into two services, plus a separate children's program.

Pa Shipp said shifting to online church had been a "steep learning curve" but it had forced innovation.

The church has introduced a YouTube series called Tinana TV, aimed at kids and families, which Pa Shipp intends to maintain after restrictions are lifted.

He said they hoped to continue filming and broadcasting services as feedback on this had been overwhelmingly positive.

"I think what's happening with a lot of the other pastors I've been talking to is we're pushing the things we've been wanting to do but haven't had time to do," he said.