Creative Worship: churches find a way
Even though the governor allowed places of worship to open for indoor worship in June, most were not ready to do so, neither the members nor the faith leaders and staff. Now several months later and with more experience, some are preparing to open their doors fully, while still adhering to a state mandate of 100 people or 25 percent capacity.
At St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Avon, Pastor Julie Reuning-Schere, who has been serving as the church’s leader for three and a half years, reported that St. Matthew’s began offering outdoor services at the end of August.
“We offer a modified service every Sunday with social distancing and without Holy Communion,” she said. “It’s now a service of the Word, with preaching, scripture and prayer. And we are trying to do what we can with music. Ours is a cautious approach to serve God and Community.”
Her church has not yet opened indoors, and she considers the outdoor services as “just a precursor.”
Pastor Julie added, “We will continue to monitor COVID. If we feel that the safety measures are holding, then we will consider reopening indoors.”
The online services have been offered to bring parishioners together around prayer and scripture. It has been a sad experience for the pastor, but she believes it has strengthened the congregation.
“But the question is, what will it be like after COVID regarding membership? Our current number of 400 is a good one, but perhaps it will not be forever,” said Pastor Julie.
West Avon Congregational Church in Avon reopened on September 13 outdoors.
“That was our rally day and we held a traditional outdoor service on the front lawn. We will continue outdoors as long as the weather allows us,” said Mary Scripko, the director of education and activities.
Church staff and members have been involved in meetings with deacons, trustees and health professionals to plan for reopening indoors.
Over the summer they offered Sunday online services, which have consisted of a mix of live and recorded segments. Everyone was invited to send in a video for posting. Pastor Brian Hardee learned to work with the computer program to add the inserts, and then he preached from his living room.
Outdoor services have been rigorously coordinated. Members are able to reserve a place online specifying the number in their group, and deacons usher people to their assigned spots, with verbal reminders to wear masks at all times. They bring their own lawn chairs. Bathrooms are available for emergencies. All spots are six feet away from people who are not in the immediate group or family. There is a cutoff number. According to state mandate outdoor events can include up to 150 people.
“We have plans to open inside immediately in the case of bad weather. Ushers will lead people in as they come, and seat them on alternating sides. They will sit front to back and exit the other way. Masks will be required all the time. And there will be no seats in the choir loft because there will be no singing, only the music director and organist and maybe an in-house instrumentalist,” said Scripko.
At the front of the church, the pastor will stand at the pulpit the entire time, and Scripko will be at the lectern on the side.
“I will handle all the readings, in lieu of members coming up to read. There will be plexiglass shields around both areas,” she said.
To ensure that the environment is as safe as possible for everyone inside, the sanctuary’s many windows will be open, and fans will move the air from side to side rather than from the top down. Their indoor capacity will be 50 to 60 people.
“Volunteers will be wiping down surfaces such as the pews and seat pads. We will take off the fabrics on the pads and take out all hymnals and bibles,” said Scripko.
The administration is also involved in conversations with a cleaning company to deep clean on Mondays.
“The bottom line is we need flexibility and patience going forward. And we will listen to feedback. That’s the only way this will work,” she said.
Valley Community Baptist Church in Avon began offering indoor services on June 27, and in August expanded to the outdoors.
“There was a mixed reaction to indoor services. Some people were ready right away, and some were not,” said Michael Guersch, communications director.
So they now have a combination of indoor, outdoor and online offerings for a total of four services each week – one indoors on Saturday night in the sanctuary, two on Sunday morning in the parking lot at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., and one online on Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
“COVID forced every church from every background to be online. Rev. Rob O’Neal, our senior pastor, is thrilled about indoor services. It’s easier to preach to a person than a camera lens. But we still tell people it’s OK not to attend in person,” said Guersch.
He expects the outdoor program to continue through the fall. Up to 150 sign up in advance for a party of up to 8 people. They park in the upper lot and bring lawn chairs or blankets.
“When they are in their spot, they can take off their masks, but they need them on to walk around. People seem to enjoy being outdoors. When it gets cold, we will bring people indoors,” he said.
Valley Community Baptist in Simsbury, a sister church, began with outdoor services in June but has not reopened indoors yet. According to Guersch, the building is not large enough to open with 25 percent of capacity as mandated by the state.
“Some churches have done live-streaming for a long time, but most here have not and learned how to do things along the way. When COVID hit we had to learn to do church in a different way. We thought we could to back to what we knew to do well so we opened indoors. Then we added online and had to learn different logistics for music on the screen, and then we added outdoors. So we are coming together in three ways now,” he said.
Guersch added that some people are still wary of going indoors and sitting in a mask for an hour with other people.
“This has been a time of great challenge and great blessings. For example, we reach people online now that we have not been seen or they can’t get to church. There are people from 10 states online with us,” he said. VL