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Churches on Palm Sunday: Online, drive-in, in-person, First Coast churches vary in how services are conducted

Around the world and along the First Coast, Christians celebrated Palm Sunday through a variety of worship styles amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Across the First Coast, many churches continue to celebrate services solely online, while some have found creative ways to meet face-to-face. Meanwhile, others are holding steadfast to meeting in-person.

As worshipers at Shepherd of the Woods Lutheran Church celebrated Palm Sunday from inside their vehicles in the church parking lot, another congregation was filing inside Anchor Faith Church in St. Augustine for a normal service. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced a statewide "safer at home" order Wednesday, limiting movement and personal interactions outside the home.

The order classifies "worship" as an "essential activity," allowing churches to hold in-person services.

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Congregants at Anchor Faith filled the parking lot early for the 8:30 a.m. service Sunday, with a later service planned for 11 a.m. The church held normal services inside the building.

In a statement posted to their website, church leaders wrote, "Safety is a priority for us, as is our relationship with the community that we serve. This is why we recommend following the CDC’s social distancing guidelines within our premises. We strongly recommend that if you are uncomfortable with coming, stay home." 

On the Southside of Jacksonville, Pastor George Johnson of Shepherd of the Woods is trying something new. He spent much of Sunday morning looking at his congregation through their windshields.

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The church has started what it is calling "Drive-In Worship," inviting congregants to park in the rear of the church facing a makeshift pulpit. 

Worshipers stay in their cars and are handed communion and the readings and songs beforehand. They have the option of streaming the pastor's voice through their devices and seeing the faces of their fellow church members.

"I think the hope is that when we're finished with this, that people are more conscious of their need for God, and that we're not quite as independently strong as we thought we were," Johnson said.

"Drive-In Worship" has started becoming common practice at other churches along the First Coast, including Turning Point at Calvary Church in St. Augustine.

Clergy from Anchor Faith Church did not respond to an interview request. The church's full statement can be read below:

"Safety is a priority for us, as is our relationship with the community that we serve. This is why we recommend following the CDC’s social distancing guidelines within our premises. We strongly recommend that if you are uncomfortable with coming, stay home. If you are experiencing symptoms, do not come, stay home. If you have had direct exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, we encourage you to adhere to the CDC guidelines. If you are over 65+ years we encourage you to observe the Governor's “Safer-At-Home” executive order. We have, and will continue to encourage all members of our congregation to adhere to the social guidelines for houses of worship.

Hebrews 10:25 instructs us in not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Our actions always take into consideration the authority that exists within God’s word. This is not a decision we reached lightly. In reaching our decision to continue services, we have been in direct contact with the Governor’s office, the St. Johns county administrator's office, and we have sought legal counsel. Unanimously, it has been interpreted that the Governor’s Executive Order clearly permits our continued religious congregations. We have been given clarification that this law indicates that we are able to meet inside our facility, & conduct our normal 'religious services in a church.'

Our Governor has taken the correct step for the Church during this pandemic. His executive order has listed attending religious services in a church as an 'essential activity.'

According to executive order 20-91 Section 3A(i) an essential activity is defined as “Attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship; and in essence, a church continuing to assemble is not in violation of any law or statute. He has further directed that the services should not be limited to a specific number of individuals. As you can see, we did not take this decision lightly.

During this emergency, we have restricted our activity to Sunday & Wednesday services, and have taken measures to comply with all CDC social distancing guidelines to the greatest extent possible. We are thankful that we continue to have the ability to assemble together physically."

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