On the weekends, prior to COVID-19, Northsiders would don their Sunday best and gather for worship service in churches throughout the area.
But now, these services look quite different since the pandemic began more than four months ago. Some congregations have returned to in-person worship, while others have made the decision to remain online for the time being.
New rules have been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus for those who are meeting in person, including requiring reservations for services, spacing families six feet apart and requiring masks or other face coverings, among other things.
Coronavirus has had other unforeseen effects on church services, restrictions on one of the fundamental parts of corporate worship: singing.
Now, area worship leaders are figuring out ways to make a joyful noise while keeping their congregations safe.
“We are trying to create as complete a worship experience as possible through a combination of virtual and in-person worship,” said Jessica Nelson, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral organist and choirmaster.
At St. Andrew’s, in person services have limited capacities of 20 people outside or 10 inside.
“Most of our music making is happening in virtual services,” Nelson said. “Music is really integral to worship in the Episcopal church and congregational singing is at the heart of that music making. So it was important to us to be able to continue that in some form.”
For the time being, the two St. Andrew’s choirs have been meeting on Wednesdays via Zoom to check in and pray together.
The adult choirs, made up of approximately 20 members each, are not singing in person at the moment, she said.
The same is true at Ridgecrest Baptist Church of Madison.
“We are all struggling to figure out what to do,” said Worship and Senior Adults Pastor Greg O’Neal. “I have networked with worship pastors around the state and around the southeast some, and there are a lot of different plans.”
At Ridgecrest, no choirs are meeting at this time.
“Singing is apparently more dangerous than just speaking because the virus can be transmitted much farther than the six feet that is the safety guideline for other contact,” O’Neal said. “One study says singers send out aerosol germ fields as far as 22 feet.”
While church leaders and members alike are excited to return to normal, O’Neal said, “Until the numbers go down, it doesn’t seem prudent.”
For the time being, three to four singers and five instrumentalists are leading music during worship services. The stage that measures 70 feet in width provides ample room for musicians to social distance while they perform.
“We are not asking the congregation to stop singing,” O’Neal said. “I know that has been mandated by at least one state government, but we believe that we have our congregation spread out enough to diminish the risks of singing together. They are wearing masks during the singing to help mitigate the spread of germs.”
In addition to requiring masks, Ridgecrest has also added another service in order to accommodate its congregation and allow for fewer people to be in the building at the same time.
Cleaning and sanitizing takes place between each service before the next crowd arrives.
“We are also doing online services and encouraging our folks with pre-existing conditions or who are high risk to watch from home,” O’Neal said.
“It’s not fun to lead a group of masked folks in singing,” he added. “There’s no sound of voices to be heard, no expressions to be seen. I do hope that we don’t lose the option of singing however, it is important for our folks to have a way to actively participate in expressing their worship.”
Church and ensemble singing and practices have also been suspended throughout the Catholic Diocese of Jackson.
The Jackson Diocese published a set of guidelines for worship services, which includes a limited number of music ministry participants and the removal of hymnals from pews.
All who attend mass in person must also wear a mask and be seated six feet apart.
First Baptist Church of Jackson has also disbanded its choir since March due to coronavirus. However, like other churches, it is a temporary measure to ensure the safety of its congregation.
“We haven’t had a choir since March and we limit our instrumentalists and praise team members on stage to help create a safe distance between each person as they stand and lead worship,” said Michael Bowen, the church’s minister of media and communications.
Other safety guidelines for First Baptist’s weekly worship services include requesting those who attend in person to use hand sanitizer as they enter and exit the building, encouraging the use of face masks when inside the building and setting social distance guidelines for seating as well as navigation throughout the building.
Executive Pastor Geno Lucas at Colonial Heights Baptist Church said they have also taken additional safety precautions.
“Since moving back to in-person worship gatherings, we have required online registrations for all members who are attending so we can cap the capacity of the room at approximately 30 percent, and we have spaced chairs at least six feet apart,” Lucas said.
Due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the area, Colonial Heights is requiring attendees to wear a face mask while inside the building.
“In regards to musicians and choir members, we have a small praise band with instruments and vocalists who are separated by at least six feet at all times while on stage,” Lucas said. “Between services we disinfect the entire room with industrial strength electrostatic fogging machines. All doors remain open and the offering is placed in offering boxes instead of passing plates.”
Christ United Methodist Church has had to make several changes at both its traditional and modern worship services. However, both are being held virtually at this time.
“We currently are still live-streaming both our traditional and modern worship,” said modern worship director Adam Walker. “We had scheduled reopening July 5 with guidelines and sign up, but with the increase in cases and deaths, we postponed.”
At this time, they do not have a set date to reopen.
Walker said in the modern worship services they have a limited number of staff and volunteers each week.
On the traditional side, worship leader Steven Hyland said they are sticking with small groups of singers to help lead worship, with four singers on individual microphones each 10 to 12 feet apart.
“When we resume, I imagine we’ll keep the small group singing format unless the science changes on large choirs, referred to in some research as ‘super-spreaders,’” Hyland said. “With most of my choir being in the at-risk age group, I am not comfortable putting them in harm’s way.”
“It’s definitely an interesting and sometimes frustrating time to be a choral director. However, I am confident the day of large choral performances both professional and religious are not dead, merely paused,” Hyland added.