BRISTOL, Va. — Books and words, books and words everywhere. Walls bulge with titles many, authors numerous.
It’s akin to standing within the brain of a learned history professor.
Yet within the hug of the stacks sets a preacher, every day. Bible near, steaming cup of coffee in hand, he prepared to speak upon prompting from his wife, who stood behind a tablet employed as a camera.
Thus began the day’s devotional as streamed live online by William Houck, senior pastor of Bristol’s NorthStar Baptist Church.
“It’s just my belief that our country has turned away from God,” said Houck. “If, in this moment of challenges I can give a moment of scripture that will make them turn to God, then maybe it will turn them to the Lord.”
Houck provides daily devotionals on the church website and Facebook page. He doesn’t ask that only Christians or members of his church watch. Young, old. Black, white. Believer, atheist. He invites all to watch, listen, and perhaps inculcate that which he seeks to impart.
“If I can go into their homes for 15, 20 minutes to provide help,” Houck said, “then that’s being a friend.”
Expect not condemnation. Warmth exudes when he speaks, soothing words that form sentences that equate to blankets for the cold, food for the hungry. He seeks to welcome, not alienate. He offers love and friendship in a climate that for some permeates mistrust, and Christ in an oft-doubting time.
“The Bible says that iron sharpens iron, a brother sharpens a brother, a friend sharpens a friend,” Houck said. “We’ll touch the pharmacist, touch the businessman, touch the out-of-work people who are scared. I hope to provide comfort for those who are scared.”
NorthStar does not beam such transmissions alone. Many local churches beforehand and most in the pandemic’s midst — such as Reynolds Memorial United Methodist Church in Bristol, Virginia — broadcast main Sunday services via stream through the internet.
However, a growing number of churches now augment those online offerings. First Christian Church of Bristol, Virginia, includes its Wednesday service online each week at 7 p.m. On Bristol’s Tennessee side, Tennessee Avenue Baptist Church does likewise each Wednesday at 7 p.m. Avoca Christian Church in Bristol, Tennessee, hosts a kids’ service each Sunday at 10:45 a.m.
Furthermore, in addition to Sunday and Wednesday sermons, Bristol, Tennessee’s Judah Church streams weekly Fireside Chats on its Facebook page.
“I do it every Wednesday night at 8:30,” said Dale Wright, senior pastor of the Judah Church. “I do it outside beside a fire pit from my porch. It’s caught on.”
Quickly. Wright said that Fireside Chat views began at about 300. Last week, he said, the number exceeded 11,000.
“People are looking for leadership from our local civic leaders and pastors,” he said. “We hear so much every day that creates fear. This is an alternative to the news.”
Few if any local churches embrace streaming more abundantly than Blountville’s Celebration Church and Abingdon’s Highlands Fellowship. Each engage its youth as well as adults, children, and even singles in numerous ways through online platforms that employ live streams.
“We are trying to reach kids in their homes,” said Derek Lester, Highlands Fellowship youth pastor on its Abingdon campus. “We want to give them relatable experiences and faces they know.”
Highlands provide several online options beyond Sunday and Wednesday services. They include Around the Table, conversations geared to adults each Thursday at 7 p.m. For students, there’s Watch Party Wednesday each Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“On Wednesday nights, we will have 50 to 100 people,” Lester, 34, said. “There’s a short, concise message, a worship time, a worship song, questions and answers.”
Questions fielded may run the gamut from problems at home to isolation and even to God. For those who seek more privacy, Lester said they can speak with an individual in a private chat room.
“We all have questions. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Where’s God now?’” Lester said. “It’s normal and OK to have questions, even about God.”
There’s no mystery. Mount Worry grows exponentially skyward as Americans struggle to survive during an ever-widening abyss of economical stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. People fear for their lives and livelihood.
During times past analogous with today — the Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, consternation strode hand in hand with rivers of trepidation among large segments of the populace. People worried. Tomorrow bore the unknown. The future, well who knows?
“The Bible is a book for life,” Houck said. “I know the value of Christians coming alongside and saying, ‘Let me help you.’”
Alas, accounts stack as if from the center of State Street to the craters on the moon from Christians turned away from churches for one reason or another. Yet many believe that during this time of crisis, through the darkness came streaming technology to reroute that trend.
Indeed, online streaming of church activities has only just begun. Expect it to long outlive COVID-19.
“Oh, 100%,” Wright said. “We’ve seen a positive impact. It’s easy. Absolutely, we’ll do this beyond the pandemic. Real church goes out into the world.”
It’s a hand up, a path given, a way beyond.
“Praise the Lord for that,” Houck said. “That’s a true miracle.”