About a year ago, we carried a story about how local churches were preparing for Easter, with the coronavirus on the doorstep and gathering restrictions in place during what typically is the most alive and active season of the Christian year.
At the time, with sanctuaries largely empty, we speculated that church pews could be overflowing when restrictions were eased and COVID-19 was at bay.
We’re not there yet, but during this Holy Week and Easter, many churches are holding in-person worship again – although the worship experience runs the gamut from indoor seating, spaced and socially distant, to continued drive-in or outdoor parking lot services, depending on the kind of weather, to online service options.
“We have all become televangelists during this time,” Father Stan Mader of St. Joseph Catholic Community joked earlier, and now he says the experience over the past year has been a bit like entering a foreign county with a limited knowledge of the language.
It’s been a year of learning and coping, and never a more creative time to be a minister, he says.
Pastor Mark Sullivan at Promise Church in Waconia agrees. A year ago, Sullivan and family were applying gloves, “sanitizing everything,” and making plans to drop off Easter eggs with sealed candy at local homes the day before Easter to take the place of the church’s traditional children’s ministry Easter egg hunt.
“We have learned a lot about how the virus spreads since then,” he said. And Sullivan notes “you almost needed to be an attorney to sort through changing guidelines for church attendance over the past year.” Faith leaders also shifted skills, from pastor/orator to technician, re-imagining worship services, Bible study, prayer meetings and other spiritual activities with digital and online options.
While church doors are open again, the bottom line, Sullivan says, is some parishioners aren’t going to feel comfortable coming back to church until people are widely vaccinated, and others won’t want to come back until they can return without a mask and resume normal church activities.
The Sullivans even had to deal with their own bout of the virus, which put the entire church leadership team online for a couple weeks.
It’s fortunate that information technology has evolved to a level not available even a few years ago, Mader notes. At the same time “it has put everyone just a second a way from church,” and enabled churches to reach a broader community.
For example, St. Joe’s has had regular church participants from as far away as Texas and Tennessee, according to Mader, and some former Promise members who moved away from Waconia have returned through online virtual Bible study, Sullivan notes.
Technology also extends the “shelf life” of the worship experience, with viewers logging in to see recorded services at all hours of the week, not just Sundays, ministers have observed.
At the same time, the combination live/online church experience also presents its own set of challenges, much like educators faced in the “hybrid learning model” trying to teach to an in-person class and students logged in remotely.
As an example, Sullivan noted that the music presented at a recent Promise worship service sounded good in person, but came over muted in the online version, so he routinely reviews the weekly services to see how they worked and can be improved.
A final challenge is how to evaluate the level of spiritual engagement. While faith leaders encourage worshippers to dress up and make special provisions for the online service, such as lighting a candle and establishing a proper setting, they note that is difficult to gauge the level of engagement.
So, some questions we leave with this Easter are: Will distance/online worship remain a church component after the coronavirus subsides and when, if ever, will church pews be overflowing again?