KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Members of the Church of the Savior United Church of Christ are back to virtual worship after leaders decided that was best to keep their community safe.

Reverend John Gill, the senior pastor at the church, said they’ve been keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 data. His and other church leaders’ top priority is to keep their congregation safe and think about the community as a whole.

“As it’s so often the case during this pandemic, the right answer is not always totally clear. But, we felt that as an act of support for our families, educators and medical providers, and as I said, for us it’s always been about loving thy neighbor as yourself,” Gill said.

Gill said they’ve been like that since the beginning of the pandemic. When churches were never told, but merely suggested, to cancel in-person services or go online, Gill said they chose to move their worship virtual even though they weren’t prepared to do so.

“We weren’t streaming before that time, so we spent a couple of weeks using an iPhone to stream our services,” Gill said.

After a few weeks, they purchased their own equipment. He said they try to make their online services as normal as possible for those at home. The new equipment and music helped with that.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is that people find it very meaningful and it’s really helped get through this time,” Gill said.

Gill said they’ve continued streaming their services online ever since, although they have gone back to in-person worship twice. They first reopened their doors after last summer, with safety precautions in place such as masks, social distancing and meeting in smaller groups. But, once the winter surge hit, they went back to virtual-only worships.

Gill said they reopened again in the spring, but yet again there was another surge. Church of the Savior has its own COVID-19 Task Force that includes members who are medical professionals and educators.

“Pretty much every council meeting, we look at COVID numbers throughout this time. See what’s happening, and base our decisions around that, as well as what we see to be the needs of our community,” Gill said.

Gill said recently, his members have been talking about the current situation in schools and at the hospitals. It’s those personal experiences that help make a hard decision a little easier.

“Hearing stories of a member who couldn’t get their child in for an appendectomy for about six hours and then didn’t spend the night because the hospital was so full, we really had to think about it again whether we should pause worship or not,” Gill said.

So, his church will have virtual-only services for the month of September, but possibly longer depending on how the COVID-19 situation progresses.

He said it’s not easy to go virtual, but his members have been great about continuing their worship at home and participating in community service safely.

“We’ve got people who have continued to deliver food to the food pantry that’s on our grounds, and we’ve stayed engaged with Family Promise in Minvilla Manor downtown, providing food and hospitality in safe ways to those who are struggling with homelessness,” Gill said.

He said they also try to think of creative ways to meet in person and safely while they have online worship, such as hosting an Advent event outside during Christmas.

Gill said that during these times, it’s all about practicing what you preach and showing your neighbors how much you care about their health and well-being.

“Pausing our worship once again is a way of practicing that in a concrete way. But we long to be together and we look forward to getting back together as soon as we can for Sunday worship,” Gill said.

You can join Church of the Savior’s worship live stream on their Facebook page starting at 10:50 a.m. on Sundays.