By John W. Coleman
Congregations across the Eastern PA Conference are finding new or expanded ways to move worship and other ministries online because of government stay-at-home orders prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. While churches are allowed to operate as “essential services,” they cannot host gatherings above 10 people, and their members are asked to stay at home.
That may change this weekend for some churches in the conference’s less populated northwestern region, like Northumberland County, which may return to limited onsite worship this Sunday. Today Gov. Tom Wolf moved such regions, which have had minimal exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic, from the extreme red phase of almost total closure to the less severe yellow phase. That phase allows some commercial and service establishments to reopen with restrictions and lifts maximum mitigation measures put in place statewide in early April.
Meanwhile, churches in ongoing red-phase areas will continue to hold worship, Bible study, prayer sessions, small-group meetings and other activities online—through livestreamed and recorded video, and video-conferencing, mostly using Zoom. Many report growing participation in their online gatherings, including non-members. And some suggest that even when they can gather onsite in their church buildings again, they may continue their expanded online outreach. Some may even create special online ministries for participants who can’t or don’t wish to come to the church.
Bethel Hill UMC in Lansdale goes beyond just offering worship on Facebook. They also use Zoom video-conferencing for Bible studies and choral music. “I am also recording a Bible story for kids from Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids by Phil Vischer (one of the Veggie Tales creators),” said the Rev. Sue Ketterer. “I air it on Saturday mornings on our Facebook Live page. It’s better than just watching cartoons, right?”
Particularly challenging for some churches in April was how to celebrate Holy Week, including Palm Sunday and Easter, while members were exiled from their sanctuaries, and also how to celebrate Holy Communion, which traditionally requires gathering together and consecrating sacramental elements onsite.
Notwithstanding the ongoing controversy over whether celebrating communion online is theologically acceptable or not—even under extreme conditions like a pandemic—some churches are doing it to minister to their members, especially in such perilous times when they are uncertain of when they will return to their sanctuaries.
Some pastors, like the Rev. Robert Johnson of Tindley Temple UMC Philadelphia, have consecrated communion elements—sealed, single-serve cups of juice with gluten-free wafers—and mailed them to members. The Rev. Jim McIntire blessed Royersford UMC’s elements, and volunteers delivered them to nearby members’ homes in doorknob bags. Members consumed the elements while watching the online worship services.
Churches also found creative ways to celebrate Holy Week, using online services and drive-in, drive-through and even onsite activities with gathering restrictions.
Cornwall UMC had drive-through communion on Palm Sunday. The Rev. Tim Kriebel, pastor, blessed the elements during the online service, church Webmaster Marcia Riegle reported. “Then people got into their cars and drove to the church to receive communion. Pastor Tim and Judy Troxell donned gloves and masks and gave the elements to people through their car windows.”
The church’s youth group had planned to sell cake pops and Easter eggs in church as a popular annual fundraiser to pay for their trip to the Creation festival each summer. But even the pandemic could not shut them down. They managed to do drive-through sales instead, even though the 2020 Creation Festival is canceled.
Like many churches First UMC of Wind Gap began offering weekly, video-recorded worship sermons online. That included a Good Friday Tenebrae service. They also have a public Facebook group, “Because You Matter Ministries,” that informs others about its free-food distribution ministry during the pandemic and also includes brief, daily devotions. They give out about 40 boxes or more of food, according to the Rev. John Vidal, pastor. (Look for another story next week about churches feeding their communities during the pandemic.)
Some churches with livestreaming worship capabilities are partnering with neighboring churches that lack it, so they can livestream together. Grace-St. Paul’s UMC in Jim Thorpe live-streams worship on YouTube along with three other area congregations that lack high-speed internet access or the capability to livestream.
The Rev. Brad Leight, pastor, jointly leads worship with the Rev. Dan Meader, pastor of Coaldale UMC, Summit Hill UMC and Centenary UMC in Weatherly, “enabling each congregation to see their pastor,” said Leight.
The Rev. Jim Anderman of First UMC Palmyra also jointly leads worship on livestreamed video with the Revs. Jared Stoltzfus and Jason Armold, pastors of Bethany UMC Palmyra and Rocherty UMC Lebanon, respectively. All of them model social distancing, of course, said Anderman. Meanwhile, First UMC members are making masks to distribute and engaging in weekly Bible study via Zoom.
And the pastors of Mount Hope (Rev. Mike Miller), Memorial Quarryville (Rev. Chris Eden), Rawlinsville (Rev. Catherine Weaver) and Mount Nebo (Rev Chandler Evans) all have “banded together” to offer combined worship on Facebook Live for their churches, hosted in Memorial’s sanctuary.
“Rather than attempt to make it look like a normal Sunday, or to give the impression that a lot of people were in the sanctuary, we opted for a smaller look and feel–as if we were simply in the living room with viewers” said Eden. “Each pastor took a piece of the service and made it theirs, so that their own congregants could connect with them.”
Eden and Memorial’s members have considered doing more congregational care online as some other churches have done. “It’s a new effort inspired by the old Wesleyan discipling practices of Methodism,” said Eden, “of banding members together during their isolation.” Members would be organized to contact one another weekly using voice or video phone calls.
The Rev. Candy LaBar creatively helped members of Wesley UMC Bethlehem express their thanks to health care and service personnel working on the front lines of the crisis. They did it with the aid of an online photo college. Although she describes herself as a novice, she used Google Draw to compile and edit images submitted in texts and email, all bearing messages of thanks. And then she created a PDF version and sent the virtual collage to members. (See photo.)
“The church is always at its best when tested by the fires of adversity,” said Bishop Peggy Johnson. “These amazing pastors and their mighty lay people have taken a crisis and turned it into an opportunity to do much good and even greater works than before. I stand in awe of these creative, hardworking ministers of the Gospel.”
How is your congregation doing creative ministry both online and offline? What are you learning and what are you sharing with others? NEWSpirit Communications wants to know. Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Share your good ideas and inspiration with us, and help us to share it with others around the conference. More determined churches are seeking to explore and experiment with creatively doing ministry in the midst of coronavirus. But many need help, not only to start but also to do it better.
Also, learn more about how our conference and churches, and even the UMC, are responding and supporting ministry in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our Coronavirus Ministry Response webpage.