Amid pandemic changes, churches find a new normal
by Ashlee De Wit
Above: In May the pews at New Hope Church were filled with “people” who wanted to show support for Pastor Dan Roels, who was preaching to a camera and an empty sanctuary during the COVID lockdown. (Photo: Ashlee De Wit)
LANSING, Ill. (July 28, 2020) — Reserved times for Mass and drive-in services, YouTube live sermons and cardboard congregations, online giving and drive-by prayers: the COVID-19 pandemic has forced churches to be creative.
Now that restrictions have been lifting and in-person services have started in many places again, congregations are taking their first steps back toward normal. Information about the novel coronavirus is still evolving, and as we move forward, church leaders are weighing the value of coming together against the risk of doing so. And as things continue to change and adjustments are made, some churches are finding that in certain ways, they might not want to go back to normal after all.
Worshipping from home: churches under quarantine
Cases of coronavirus started ticking up in the United States early this spring. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker banned gatherings of 50 or more in mid-March and issued a shelter-in-place order effective March 21. On May 5, Pritzker announced the “Restore Illinois” plan for reopening: it’s a five-phase plan based on benchmarks rather than calendar dates. The state is now in Phase 4, and under the current plan, won’t progress to Phase 5 (fully reopened) until there’s an effective treatment or vaccine for the virus.
Under Illinois’ lockdown orders, churches were closed for more than two months and looked for new ways to serve their members and the community in that time.
“The past [few] months have all been creative and different,” said Pastor Leroy Childress of Grace Church.
Childress is part of the Lansing Ministerial Association, and he notes that Lansing’s pastors have been keeping in touch with each other as the situation progressed.
“We’re constantly talking to one another, asking, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” he said.
Many churches offered a video or live stream of their services. Some offered Zoom classes for adults and on online version of Vacation Bible School (VBS).
Cornerstone Church’s VBS was online: families could pick up supplies in the parking lot on July 11, and pre-recorded videos launched on Facebook each day during the next week. There were also church volunteers available online to respond to messages and comments, in an effort to make the event interactive.
Returning to normal—sort of
First Church PCA will also be offering an altered form of VBS this year, but it will be in person. They are planning to host the one-day event in two outdoor groups on August 15.
First Church was among the first churches to close their doors when the pandemic started.
“There was a lot of concern because we didn’t know the particular circumstances, and we heard a lot of projections, so we cancelled on the Sunday before the quarantines started,” said Pastor Ben Kappers.
The church was also one of the first to resume meeting: members were invited to attend a service at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Indiana, on May 31, since Indiana reopened on a faster timeline than Illinois.
However, at the end of May, Governor Pritzker relaxed the Illinois regulations for religious gatherings, offering guidelines rather than mandates and allowing a way forward for churches who wanted to return to in-person services. As a result, First Church’s members were able to attend services in Lansing starting on the first Sunday of June.
But even though the church services are live and in person again, things aren’t quite the same. To combat the risk of spreading the virus, First PCA has been offering two services instead of one, with various restrictions. Some areas are strictly mask-only, and some have no singing. Hand sanitizer and gloves are available at the entrances.
Ultimately, the aim is to let people worship the best they can at their different comfort levels.
“We want to let people make up their own minds if it’s a good thing for them or not. About half the church is coming,” Kappers said after the first couple of weeks. “The discussion seems to be [about] what’s essential and what’s not, and it seems like a difficult question to answer. We let people make up their own minds; so far, that seems to be well received by the congregation as a whole. Giving people freedom of conscience is a Biblical mindset, so that’s what we’re pursuing right now.”
Other churches expressed similar sentiments. Many made it clear that while their members are invited and welcomed back, they should not feel any pressure from church leaders to attend services at this time.
“As we go forward, people’s comfort level is all different, and we’re really working hard to make sure everyone knows that’s OK,” said Jeni Fischer, ministry coordinator for Living Word Church.
“Some people will be there the day we open, but there’s no pressure to step out of your comfort level too early—you don’t have less faith because you stay at home.”
Cornerstone Church returned to in-person services on July 5, but their live stream continued.
“We’ve communicated to the church body that the live stream is still a top priority, because we want our vulnerable population not to feel like anyone is pressuring them to come back,” said Lindsey Abbasy, the church’s worship coordinator. “We want them to take their time and know that they’re not going to miss out.”
Balancing spiritual and physical health
Different churches have taken different approaches, but all seem to be striving to find a balance between welcoming people and keeping them safe.
Like Cornerstone, Grace Church had its first week back to in-person services on Sunday, July 5.
“I’m nervous—super nervous,” Childress said in the week before the service. “There are a lot of different aspects to this, and I’m always thinking, ‘How are we keeping our people safe?’ Everybody has an opinion, but there isn’t a book on this. Everybody’s just trying to make the best decisions they can. We want to meet the needs and desires of the people. There’s a lot of different emotions.”
St. Ann reopened its doors earlier in the summer, welcoming parishioners back on the weekend of June 13. On the St. Ann website, there is a video with specific instructions regarding the new procedures in place. The parish has capped each mass at 50 people, and those who want to attend must go online or call the parish office to reserve a space. Masks are required for the service, and marked pews ensure social distancing. There is no singing or hand-shaking. Everyone must enter through the East doors, and hand sanitizer is available at check-in. Trained volunteers are there to serve as guides.
At St. John’s Lutheran, the church’s shared Bibles have been put away, and members are welcomed to bring their own instead. Masks are required for the service, and those who attend are ushered to socially-distanced spots in the pews.
Moving services outside
The sanctuary remains closed at First United Methodist Church. Instead, drive-in services are offered each Sunday morning. The congregation has decided to continue with this format for the time being.
“It’s been really well received. The majority [of our members] are uncomfortable sitting in the building at this time,” said Pastor Dave Price. “We are erring on the side of safety.”
Price approached the mayor and village officials at the start of the lockdown and got approval to host services in the parking lot outside of the church.
“I decided to haul out my old PA system from my rock-n-roll days,” Price said. “People sing in their cars; it’s basically like a normal worship service. For the benediction, I say ‘honk if you love Jesus,’ and you get 40 cars honking at once.’”
Neighbors don’t seem to mind the noise—the church hasn’t gotten any complaints. In fact, dog walkers occasionally stop to listen a while to the service, and some people in need have come by while leaders are setting up to ask the church for help.
“It’s been kind of neat to help that way,” Price said.
Other Methodist churches—in Morgan Park and Evergreen Park—have called to ask Price about what they are doing and are now in the process of setting up their own drive-in services.
Lansing’s Methodist church serves communion—individually wrapped and handed out with gloves and masks—on the first Sunday of each month. Price notes that some people, even members of other denominations, have been attending just for that.
“We are open to all; as Lansing clergy, we’re all working together to try to meet the needs of the people,” Price said.
New Hope Church has also been hosting outdoor services for much of the summer, but has returned inside now, just for a few weeks.
“We want to be sure we have the program down for when we have to be inside: when it’s cold or it rains,” said elder Jill Feikema.
While indoors, the congregation is limited to 50 people, per the state of Illinois guidelines. The church’s plan is to go back out to the parking lot soon, which allows for more people to attend.
During outdoor services at New Hope, church members can get out of their cars. Many bring lawn chairs; they keep their distance and some wear masks as well. Others listen from a distance: neighbors sit on their porches, and passersby in cars pull over to listen. Some church members stay in their cars, too, and can listen to the service on the radio—New Hope now broadcasts each service on 94.1 FM, which reaches about a quarter-mile radius around the church.
“That way, they can still see everyone,” Feikema said. “It really has been the best to be in the parking lot. Our default will be to be outside unless the weather is bad, and we’ll stay outside until we can’t anymore. It’s flexible and allows everyone to come who wants to, and they won’t feel like they’re at risk.”
Living Word was able to use the great outdoors as well: when the pandemic started, the church moved its Thursday prayer meetings to Zoom. But later they took a cue from Childress, who hosted an outdoor prayer meeting in June, and started meeting in their church parking lot each week.
Finding the good
As things continue to change and shift, many are looking forward to a return to normal life. But some churches have decided that not everything needs to go back to “normal.”
Zoom has become a necessary part of community life for many, and at Living Word Church, the members’ newly acquired video chatting skills may prove useful.
“One of the good things to come out of this is people’s comfort level with technology,” Fischer said. “Those who never thought they would have to use Zoom have learned how. Our small group leaders have been hosting Zoom meetings to stay in contact, and now that people are more familiar with it, it’s an option going forward. Even after this whole thing is over, there could be a snowstorm, or something like that, and we don’t have to give up on it [meeting].”
In The Upper Room Ministries (ITURM) has noticed that since they began live streaming their services during lockdown, they are getting three times as many views as expected, far more than their typical congregation on a Sunday morning.
“We have continued to live stream even though we’re meeting with proper spacing,” said Rev. David Bigsby, pastor of ITURM. “About 25 percent of our congregation attends; we have a number of senior citizens, and I recognize that they have some deep and abiding concerns.
“One of the lessons that has come out of the unfortunate experience of this pandemic is what live streaming means to us,” he added. “We’ll continue to do that going forward, even when there is no fear of gathering.”
Bigsby noted that they are also likely to continue doing prayer services on Zoom, as a matter of time and resources, and that the lockdown has encouraged them to look at other things differently as well.
“This [pandemic] has caused us to be more sensitive to outreach and evangelism,” he said. “We are looking for each person to be more engaged, and looking for other avenues to reach people.”
Abbasy of Cornerstone made a similar comment.
“One thing that we optimistically hope for is that we have managed to grow our body through this,” she said. “Time will tell, but we’ve been able to reach so many more people with these sharable services and transitioning to a lot of online options. I know we have a lot of people who have connected with us virtually that have never connected with us in person. I’m hopeful that this may be an onboarding ramp for people who could connect with us in person in the future.”
Cornerstone has even formed new ministries in response to the pandemic: their Connection Team and Emergency Care Team are reaching out to individual church members on a regular basis, offering prayer and other assistance. The teams are working with church deacons to collect donations and allocate them to people in need. They are reaching out to all of their congregation’s essential workers, writing letters of encouragement.
“We’re thanking them and praying for them, and this is a whole bunch of people who, if not for COVID, would not have received all of this encouragement from the church,” Abbasy said. “Some people have been exceptionally blessed by it, and I hope that something like that will continue.”
According to Abbasy, even though the teams were formed because of COVID, the Connection Team will remain long-term, and the Emergency Care Team would be on standby, in case of other big needs that arise in the future.
In this time of adjustment, the methods may be changing, but the goals remain the same.
“At Grace, we have 80 years of history doing church one particular way,” Childress said. “Now we’re finding ways of adapting and being creative, and that creativity is very much alive in all the churches.”
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is maximize our ability to get God’s people the Word and help foster relationships,” he added. “That is the task in front of us: trying not to let people get left behind in the chaos.”
- Lansing churches (directory)
- Lansing churches find new ways to minister (March 19 article)
- Posters, cut-outs, and stuffed animals fill in for congregation at New Hope Church (May 17 article)
- Doing digital church: Lansing’s Cornerstone Church shares adjustments they’ve made during quarantine (May 12 article)
- Bethel Church takes prayer on the road to area hospitals (April 6 article)
- Lansing pastors, church members gather for prayer (June 1 article)
- Photos: A weird week in quarantine (April 17 photo collection)