Emmaus Lutheran Pastor Mark Winkler preaching outside

SUNDAY MORNING AT THE DRIVE-IN — Emmaus Lutheran Church Pastor Mark Winkler preaches in the parking lot of his Orange City church, standing in the bed of a pickup. Attendees stayed in their cars. Others tuned in digitally with Facebook Live and YouTube. “It’s not the joyful regathering we were really hoping for,” Winkler said. Still, he said, it’s good to be able to offer more than the online services the church was limited to since March. “We’re doing what we need to be doing right now,” Winkler said. “It’s not very satisfying, but it’s what we need to do right now.”

In any typical year, the holiday season is a time to celebrate family and enjoy quality time together. But 2020 is no typical year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made churches rethink the fundamentals of congregating.

From online broadcasts to drive-in services, West Volusia’s churches have had to find ways to adapt in the face of the pandemic.

“We’re doing what we need to be doing right now,” said Emmaus Lutheran Church Pastor Mark Winkler. “It’s not very satisfying, but it’s what we need to do right now.”

The Orange City church began offering prerecorded sermons months ago, and Winkler has been very happy with the hundreds of views each sermon gets on YouTube.

While the church now has started offering in-person services — attendees wear masks and social-distance — Winkler said the shift has been hard.

“It’s not the joyful regathering we were really hoping for,” he said.

For Christmas, Emmaus Lutheran staged drive-in services in the parking lot, so people could sing Christmas carols and not risk spreading COVID-19.

Others have tried the drive-in method, including Trinity United Methodist Church of DeLand, where Pastor Todd Bardin said the unconventional worship method has been a success.

“We have a mini FM radio station, and people come, but stay in their cars. That way we maintain social distancing,” he said. “We’re looking for creative ways to stay in the community during this season. People have really responded to that.”

Bardin said Trinity also broadcasts services on its website and YouTube channel, and has seen great digital turnout.

“We have more people watching online than coming to the drive-in, but our worship has about doubled in attendance,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

Financially, Bardin said, Trinity is also in good shape.

“The church is very generous, and we’re actually going to finish the year in the black, which hasn’t happened in a long time,” he said.

New Hope Church of Deltona Pastor William Bradley outside

MAKING IT WORK — New Hope Church of Deltona Pastor William Bradley preaches with two praise singers, LaShandri Joseph and Valerie Peacock. The Deltona church moved services outside in March, Bradley said, and has not moved back inside since. Of course, he said, they are looking forward to when the congregants can safely gather inside of their church, but in the meantime, turnout for church outside has been good. "People really love it," Bradley said. "It gives people a chance to come and stay in their car."

Bardin said Trinity United Methodist is even considering adding staff.

Winkler told The Beacon that, financially, Emmaus Lutheran isn’t thriving, but isn’t struggling the way some area churches are.

“Offering has been down, but we aren’t spending as much, either,” he said. “We’re not using as much electricity, air conditioning or water.”

Another church offering outside services — what they call Praise in the Park — is New Hope Baptist Church in Deltona. Pastor William Bradley said New Hope has not offered inside services since March.

It isn’t where they would like to be, he said, but people are enjoying the opportunity to gather at all.

“It’s been a blessing, and people really love it because they don’t have to stay home,” Bradley said. “We stay connected, but there’s no contact.”

Worship in the digital age

The shift to online worship has been new to some, but old hat to others. First Assembly DeLand Pastor Mike Modica said the church has been posting services online for the past 10 years. Pandemic or not, they have no intention of stopping.

“We were ahead of the curve, thank God. We were really ready, we had all the equipment. By the third Sunday in March, we were outside doing full service with drive-in church,” Modica said.

First Assembly DeLand conducted drive-in services for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, but Modica said the setup was too much to deal with every week. With such success online, he said, the church has been fortunate enough to proceed almost normally.

For in-person services, like First Assembly’s Christmas service, Modica said, only about 40 percent of the chairs are kept in the sanctuary, so worshippers can maintain social distancing.

Expanding virtual offerings has also helped churches that are unable to have in-person services, COVID-19 or not. For Bob Mulkey, pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church in DeLand, it wasn’t COVID-19 but a tornado that forced a change.

New Covenant Baptist Church new building ground breaking

BREAKING GROUND — New Covenant Baptist Church members and staff break ground for a new building on South Blue Lake Avenue in DeLand Dec. 12. The church has been conducting services virtually, due in part to COVID-19, and in part because it does not have a building of its own. The congregation has been unable to continue renting space in the DeLand Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist Church because that church was heavily damaged by the tornado that hit DeLand in August. Pastor Bob Mulkey said he hopes construction on New Covenant Baptist’s new building will be finished by the end of 2021; for now, the congregation will continue to meet virtually.

New Covenant doesn’t yet have a building, and has been renting space from the Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist Church in DeLand, which was damaged by the tornado that ripped through the city in August.

“Our services are online, and it looks like they will be for a while now,” Mulkey said.

Still, he said, attendance has been good. The congregation numbers nearly 75, and most online services draw a viewership of between 35 and 50 people.

Mulkey said the church recently had a groundbreaking ceremony for a planned location on South Blue Lake Avenue near Freedom Elementary School. He hopes construction can be completed by the end of 2021.

While every pastor The Beacon spoke to expressed a desire to return to normal in-person services, the shifts have been not unlike working an office job from home, or ordering takeout from a favorite restaurant instead of dining out. While the COVID-19 pandemic has flipped the entire world on its head, with some protections in place, life can go on semi-normally.

Pastor Mike Modica said even once the pandemic subsides, he thinks people will appreciate having the option of digital services, and many churches The Beacon spoke to plan to take similar action.

“I think some people will be comfortable watching online, even after this coronavirus ends. There’s going to be a sensitivity to every flu season,” Modica said. “I think people will get used to, anytime there is a sickness, being able to continue online.”

Pine Ridge Fellowship building Deltona

CHANGING TIMES — Pine Ridge Fellowship at 1045 E. Normandy Blvd. has already closed its day care and preschool facilities, and is considering selling its property and downsizing. The church is the product of a merger a few years ago of First United Methodist Church of Deltona and Pine Ridge Fellowship. The new church kept the First United Methodist property, and the Pine Ridge name.