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"We are still the church" | Hundreds of United Methodist churches ordered to close until end of July

While churches have suspended in-person worship for the rest of the month because of the rise in COVID-19 cases, they are staying faithful and safe virtually.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — The spike in COVID-19 cases forced hundreds of churches to close their doors yet again.

Many of the Holston Conference's United Methodist districts announced closures through the end of July. Those places of worship cannot have in-person services or activities through the end of the month.

On Sunday, there were no cars in the parking lot and no people in the pews at hundreds of United Methodist churches. Ebenezer UMC in West Knoxville met just twice inside and in-person to worship since the pandemic shut its doors in March.

"During those services, it was great. It was really hard to stay distanced because we were so excited to see each other," Tim Paul said, Ebenezer's senior pastor. "The church building may be empty, but we are still the church."

Paul said each time the congregation met in person, his stomach was churning, and he had a feeling the Holston conference would choose to cancel in-person services. He and the leadership team at the church made the same decision one day before the conference made its announcement.

RELATED: Many Methodist churches suspend in-person worship as COVID-19 cases rise in East Tennessee

"I was struggling with the decision before the conference made the call," Paul explained. "The last thing I would ever want to happen is that someone would get or sick or someone would go to the hospital or someone would die because of a decision I made.”

The spike in COVID-19 cases is what caused the conference to take a closer look at what their churches were allowed to offer. On Friday, July 10, pastors got an email with the news that sanctuaries were required to be shut again and services should be offered online.

When we began preparing to reopen for in-person worship, we did so k... nowing we would have to reverse course if case numbers began to rise. Over the past two weeks active cases for Blount, Knox, Loudon and Sevier Counties have significantly risen.

"It was a big struggle inside, knowing that for some people this is their lifeline of being together," Paul said about the tough decision. "But, they're safe."

While different churches and denominations in the area are wearing masks and social distancing, the conference decided that scaling back open sanctuaries was the best option.

RELATED: 'Jesus would have worn a mask too' | Some churches now requiring masks for Sunday worship

At Kodak UMC in Sevier County, the congregation has been strictly online for 19 weeks.

"It's not about meeting within the church walls," lead pastor Melissa Smith explained. "It's about proclaiming the good news of God's love for all people and doing it in a way that is caring for people."

They were planning to gather in-person for the first time on July 12, with a parking lot service, but the spike of COVID-19 cases in Sevier County spike and the decision from the Holston conference stopped that.

"I knew in my head it was the right choice that the bishop had made, but man, in my heart it just hurt so much because of all the preparation and how much we were looking forward to all being together," Smith said.

Smith said she understands the decision and respects the fact the conference wants to keep everyone safe. She said the whole situation is like a paradox: she wants so badly for everyone to get together, but knows it will have to wait.

Although the sanctuaries sit empty for now, Smith assured that the mission and work of the church are still going on — just virtually.

Both churches have offered online services since the beginning of the pandemic. Both said it was a learning experience at first, but have gotten the technology worked out. 

RELATED: 'Let's care about others more than we care about ourselves' | Local churches move services online to prevent spread of COVID-19

Both pastoral teams work throughout the week to check in on church members, especially the elderly.

Kodak UMC offers a conference call option for their senior members who do not have internet. Smith calls in on the line before the sermon starts to have a candid conversation with the members and to restore their hearts.

Both congregations have not let the pandemic stop their community outreach. They continue to give back to families in need and encourage others to keep pushing through.

RELATED: Words of Faith and Hope from area religious leaders