Amid an increasing number of coronavirus cases, Denton churches continue to face limitations from the pandemic, while leaders and congregants adapt.

At Denton First Baptist Church on Sunday morning, senior pastor Jeff Williams spoke to a socially staggered congregation of about 50 people who were mostly wearing masks. For Williams and other faith leaders alike, the pandemic is an accelerant for change. Although in-person service resumed about five weeks ago, not everyone has returned.

“It’s definitely been slow, and people are worried about coming out,” Williams said about reopening in-person worship services. “We’ve been doing this for five weeks now, and the first two weeks have been our best, but with a rise in [coronavirus] cases, people are more cautious.”

To help reduce the chances of coronavirus spreading, Williams said the church is requiring the use of public face covers during Sunday services. While not explicitly ordered to, he said the decision is about safety and health.

“Last week, I just reminded them that masks are not for you, they are there to protect other people from you,” Williams said. “We are commanded to love our neighbor, and feel like wearing a mask [is] loving your neighbor.”

On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate requiring Texans living in counties with more than 20 cases to wear a face covering, The Texas Tribune reported. The mandate applies, specifically, while in a business or other buildings open to the public, including outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible.

However, exemptions exist under the mandate “based upon constitutional purposes,” Abbott said in a TV interview with KBTX in Bryan. Two of the exemptions, specifically, pertain to polling locations and churches.

For Jim Mann, lead pastor of the roughly 650-member New Life Church, operating worship services during a pandemic was similar to building a plane as it flew. As in-person sermons resumed several weeks ago, he said the main challenge is a twofold dilemma of figuring out online services and reaching out to people without physical contact.

“There are a couple of folks that didn’t have computers or technology or the ability to [access online sermons], and we’ve been able to work around that,” Mann said about solutions like sending his congregants both audio and written sermons. “[But] it’s like that every week, there’s some kind of new challenge that you didn’t think of and that you didn’t plan for.”

He said another challenge, aside from the health precautions and digital divides, is the long-term effects of the coronavirus.

Over the past decade, the overall share of U.S. adults who identify as Christians has shrunk by 12%, while monthly attendance has dropped by 7%, according to the Pew Research Center. As signals of broad-based changes to the American religious landscape are underway, Mann said those changes might end up leading to setbacks.

“The first Sunday we opened back, we did pretty good and had about 40% attendance, but it's kind of dropped off since then, so we’re at about 100 people on Sundays,” Mann said of attendance. “There’s a lot of folks that are scared and they are not ready to head back, but we tell them that there is no pressure to come in-person and that they can watch [sermons] online.”

With online sermons pre-recorded every Tuesday ahead of that Sunday’s service, Mann said the church is continuing to adapt under the premise that the fall months will likely be the same. Although their online component is still growing, Mann said that, because of the trajectory of the pandemic, the church is working to develop an online ministry.

“This is the new normal,” Mann said of online access to sermons. “We’re still trying to figure out how that will look.”

With his sermons available solely online for nearly three months, Williams said that without their current technological resources it would have made everything “significantly worse.” While Sunday’s attendance was peanuts compared to pre-COVID-19 attendance, he said their online sermons average upward of 10 times an in-person service.

Regardless of the mode of worship, though, he noted that at the core of the churches' mission is togetherness.

“It’s about coming together to make a difference in the community, to help those who are needy, to worship and study the Bible together,” Williams said. “We’re still kind of figuring that out but you just have to do things differently.”

RYAN HIGGS can be reached via Twitter at @ryanahiggs.

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