WEST CHESTER—For the first time in his life, Don Lincoln, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, won't be handing out palms on Palm Sunday. And next week, on Easter Sunday, his church will be empty, as will every church in Chester County.
Pastors at churches across Chester County are facing the same dilemma, brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, which so far has claimed more than 8,000 lives in the country.
"It's the first time, and I never imagined it, our building is basically closed," Lincoln said. "And it could be a long time."
But local churches and nonprofits are turning to technology to keep their members engaged. And for many, the crisis has moved up the timeline on implementation.
"With the lockdown, necessity is the mother of invention, said Greg Lafferty, senior pastor of Willowdale Chapel in East Marlborough. "We had to figure out new ways to do this. And I think we will be doing this for quite some time."
Lincoln said his church has been livestreaming services for a couple of years to residents of Maris Grove, a retirement community four miles south of the church. Now, there's link for everyone to tune in, and a recent Sunday livestream saw more than 2,400 views. This, when the average Sunday attendance at church is 860.
"It's clearly different," Lincoln said. "We don't have the substance of the congregation and response of liturgy or the strength of the choir. But people have been incredibly responsive."
For Palm Sunday, Westminster Presbyterian Church is sending out a link for a Palm silhouette that can be printed on home printers, printed out and children can color. At the live stream, three will be a virtual communion, where views gather elements such as juice, wine, water and break bread or crackers to partake at the table as it is consecrated during the livestream.
"This is a viable took, but it's not a replacement for human contact," Lincoln said.
At St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Kennett Square, Pastor Christopher Rogers has been livestreaming mass for the past two Sundays. Jim Jennings, a parishioner at the church, said it the financial investment to make it happen was around $200, but it took a lot of time to set up.
"A lot of churches are livestreaming now," Rogers said. "Livestreaming is awesome for our current time, but I wouldn't want it to take away from people coming to church. For right now it's what we need."
Like other churches, St. Patrick's archives its streaming so parishioners can visit the web site at any time to view the mass in its entirety.
And St. Patrick's is teaming up with First Baptist Church of Kennett Square to stream Stations of the Cross at 7 p.m.
Lafferty said he feels things will not be the same when the nations comes out from the coronavirus crisis.
"Our intention is to keep it going, and I think from here on out, it will be at both ends," Lafferty said. "We certainly will have gatherings again, but we will need to communicate with people virtually as well. I think (livestreaming) is a great way for people to see what we are all about, and maybe down the line they will attend church."
Lafferty said brevity is important in video services. A normal Sunday service at Willowdale Bible runs 75 minutes, while the video version is just 40 minutes.
"We keep it tight," Lafferty said. "Most people don't want to sing to their TV screen."
The nonprofit Longwood Rotary Club, which boasts nearly 100 members, has turned to virtual meetings, and member Dave Haradon said it's turning out to be successful.
The meeting follows the same format, with Dave Foresman giving the greeting, this time at the entrance to Longwood Gardens, and features videos from guest speakers. It's all prerecorded, and Rotarians need to simply click on the link.
"Live broadcasting is challenging," Haradon said. "The best practices are to keep it tight and give people a simple link. And you have to keep them engaged. I think a 20-minute video will give good retention."
Haradon said the virtual meeting has been getting more views than people attending actual meetings.
Just a few years ago, much of this wouldn't have been possible, and Lafferty, like many other leaders of nonprofits in Chester County, and church officials, feel it's here to stay. But the physical nature of an actual meeting or a church service will still be the preferred method of delivery.
"Humans are relational by nature," Lafferty said. "We need face time with one another. We need physical touch. But I think shaking hands might go the way of the Dodo Bird."