With social-distancing guidelines being extended through April, churches are preparing for an Easter with empty pews. (Stock)

We are approaching Holy Week and Easter, a highlight of the Christian church year.

It’s a time traditionally when most worship communities are alive with special services and gatherings. But probably not this year.

For most worshipers there may be no Easter lillies on the altar, no Easter bonnets or dresses in church, no Easter throngs.

Church doors are largely closed due to COVID-19, so local churches are having to find new ways to worship and connect. Many local churches shut their doors as the first federal and state recommendations for social gatherings were issued. Others stayed open and monitored the situation as the guideline numbers shrunk. And all doors officially closed when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz finally issued a stay at home order last week.

“For the past few years we have been including online and digital options in addition to our regular services, but with the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing, it is now our only option,” said Shelly Hilgers, Faith Lutheran pianist and worship accompanist.

Faith Lutheran has been posting audio sermons on its website, but lately has moved to recording an entire service and releasing it for view during regular worship times.

“We gather as a staff (at least six feet apart) and record the prayers and litanies. We have the hymns and music recorded, as well as the sermons,” Hilgers said. Faith also has some fun games, like members voting on their favorite Lenten soup, and posting pictures of their Wednesday evening Lenten meal at home.

Indeed, the Internet and social media have become the new church nave, pulpit and altar -- at least temporarily.

St. Joseph Cathlic Church is streaming daily Mass live through Facebook and readings are posted on the parish website. The parish also has an app with daily readings.

Local pastors also are sharing encouraging video and written messages electronically with their members, like this one from Pastor Phil Wagner at Trinity Lutheran:

“God is our dwelling place,” he wrote. “He is not temporary like this social distancing stuff or the coronavirus.”

An entry on the Freshwater Community Church website emphasizes “Freshwater is all about helping you BE the church.” In response to the coronavirus, Freshwater is encouraging members to “be the village.” To start small “villages” (via Facebook groups) of 50 people or less “to connect, to be there for each other, to help meet immediate needs – to band together like a tight knit family – to support one another in the days and weeks ahead.”

Promise Community Church is another local church that has been gradually moving toward online services while monitoring COVID-19 conditions . At one of the final services at Promise before the doors closed, Pastor Mark Sullivan notes there were more online participants than there were in church.

He calls Facebook a good platform “for some interaction and connection,” and says he is grateful for the Waconia Ministerial Association during the evolution of conditions around COVID-19.

“There’s a real sense of community in the group and it has been really helpful to me gleaning from other churches what we can do to keep our worshipers connected,” Sullivan said.

Governor Walz’s original stay at home order was set to expire on Good Friday at 5 p.m., but with the current state of events including the president’s extension of restrictive social distancing guidelines, Sullivan expects Promise’s Easter service will not be in person.

Promise Church normally has an Easter egg hunt as part of its children’s ministry on Easter Sunday. This year, it will be adjusted, he said, with Easter eggs with sealed candy dropped at the homes of people the day before Easter.

“Anything that people can participate in and helps them feel connected to the church is vital at this time,” Hilgers said. “I think this will also bring a renewed appreciation of gathering in person when that time arrives.”

“Having done only one other Mass without a congregation before March 19, I will tell you it is strange not having people before me,” Father Stan Mader wrote to his St. Joe’s parishioners. “And I hope you also yearn for other members of the body of Christ.”

When shelter-in-place/stay-at-home orders finally are released, there’s a strong chance that church pews will be overflowing the following Sunday.

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