By: Patrick Davis
Like most public gathering places in Austin, Austin Oaks Church, canceled in-person services in mid-March in order to cooperate with local, state, and CDC health recommendations. As a result, the church has been live streaming sermons and praise and worship music every Sunday morning. Now, Austin Oaks Church has been facing multiple hurdles when it comes to hosting indoor worship services or other specialized events such as their Celebrate Recovery” or “Managing Stress” events.
In August, the church started hosting outdoor worship in its courtyard for guests to practice social distancing guidelines. With cooler temperatures, they are bringing services back inside.
According to Executive Pastor of Discipleship Chad McCartney, church leadership presumes that attendance will be significantly lower than it was pre-COVID due to the wariness of congregants.
Before the pandemic, the church was hosting approximately 1100 churchgoers between its four
Sunday services. Outdoor courtyard services have had an estimated attendance of 350 each
week. McCartney said that online viewership is challenging to measure because an entire household can stream a service on one screen.
Nicolette Davis, a lifelong Christian, has been watching online church services since the pandemic began. She mentioned her appreciation being able to rewind, replay, and share a sermon but also notices the differences between in-person and virtual services.
“When you sit in church, you’re focused. You’re in the moment,” Davis said.
Davis also shared how she finds it difficult to ignore her ever-present to-do list when listening at home and often does chores while the sermon plays in her earbuds. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Austin Oaks Church has added multiple video production positions, in order to make these virtual services happen. Kalister Harmon works full-time in producing weekly children’s videos and helping out the church with other video needs.
Harmon states that he is “thankful to God for providing this job” and sees a parallel between his career path and a Bible verse, Isaiah 43:19 that states: “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Molly Martin, the director of next steps at Austin Oaks Church, plays an integral role in the church’s transition to indoor services. The challenges of colder weather are the primary motivation for the change. Martin is also aware that the noise of outdoor services may become a distraction to neighboring apartment complexes in the area.
“We need to find a way to be able to gather in person with protocols that keep everybody safe,” Martin said.
In attempts to create a near touch-less experience, the church has included assigned seating with each household, six feet between each household, increased signage throughout the building, limited capacity for the children’s ministry, and the practice of sanitizing before and after each service.
Austin Oaks also offers church services in English and Spanish. Omar Argumedo is the pastor of Austin Oaks’s Hispanic ministry, Nueva Vida. Argumedo shares how social distancing restrictions have been especially hard for the Hispanic community at Austin Oaks Church. Online viewership has been low with the Nueva Vida crowd, and from his point of view,
“speaking to a camera is very cold,” Argumedo said.