Ocean State pastor: Church has left the building

Ocean State pastor: Church has left the building

Churches planning to continue online efforts

SMITHFIELD – God and prayer are always essential, says Rev. Michael Woodward, of the Ocean State Baptist Church. He says this time of stay-at-home rules have shown again that the church is the people, not a building.

“We’re not a building. We are a church wherever we pray,” Woodward said.

Woodward said the lesson he feels God is giving during the coronavirus outbreak is about “unchurching churchianity.”

In other words, he said, the church was never closed. Essential gospel and mission never left, Woodward said. Members of Ocean State wear a shirt with the saying, “Church has left the building.”

With a membership of 1,200, Woodward said bringing the church back to the building, located at 600 Douglas Pike, will not be as easy as it might seem, even if at 25 percent capacity for services.

For Ocean State, 25 percent of a regular Sunday service equals about 300 members, he said. Even with best practices, Woodward feels the services will have too many people in attendance to be safe.

Woodward, who said he thinks of everything in biblical terms, said that now that the waters of quarantine are receding, it’s time to come out of the ark.

“But, we’ve got to do it wisely,” he said.

There are three levels to worship, he said: First is safety, then is testimony, and third is the quality of worship. He said in-person worship is still about three to six weeks away.

For now, the church will continue with online services and with Woodward’s daily 8 a.m. Facebook videos called Coffee O’Clock. He says staff will eventually reach out to members to sign up to come into the building.

When reopening, he expects to hold two or three services of around 80 people at a time, and then work up to normal levels.

“We’re at a yellow light. It’s not green yet,” he said.

The difference now that Gov. Gina Raimondo has said church can reopen is that he will record his sermon from inside the church, said Woodward. In solidarity with other members, Woodward said he and other pastors have given sermons from home.

“Church never stopped being essential. We did everything essentially important. Neither the governor nor the president can decide that,” he said. “God decided church was essential thousands of years ago.”

Ocean State Baptist Church has flourished during the quarantine. By Woodward’s estimates, it’s gained more than 1,000 followers online and 12 new members are joining the church. When possible, he said he will hold a baptism.

The church will continue to present services online even after the building reopens.

Woodward said he was impressed by the church’s reach online, seeing people watching across the country and around the globe.

A survey sent out last week found that approximately 50 percent of Ocean State respondents will return to church services if allowed, Woodward said. In reality, he said that number is more like 20 percent.

“People like to tell me, yes, I’ll come. You know, they feel bad saying no to me,” he said.

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Rev. Francis Santilli, of Saint Philip Catholic Parish at 622 Putnam Pike, said his church is ready to welcome people back into the building. He said members are signing up online at saintphilip.com or calling in at 401-949-1500.

So far, he said, the response to reopening services is encouraging. He said as word is slowly getting out, the parish is getting more and more calls.

Attending Mass is still more about health than age, Santilli said. If members feel healthy enough to attend, they are welcome to come, he said. Members are asked to wear masks during service and to bring their worship aid. They must maintain a physical distance of six feet apart in lines when entering and exiting the building. Families may choose to sit together, and others should remain socially distant. Seating will go from front to back, and be assigned.

Holy Water will not be available for now, and there will be no offertory collections. The parish is still waiting for further instructions on giving communion.

“Use your prudent judgment, if you don’t feel peaceful with coming, stay home,” Santilli said.

He said the obligation to attend Mass is relieved indefinitely, and members can “feel very peaceful to stay home.”

Services will remain online while the parish transitions into normal operations, he said. After the positive response from home-bound members and seniors at nursing homes, he said, the parish will continue streaming services online indefinitely.