Churches Close But Worship Doesn't Stop

Mar 30, 2020

During the Easter season is when many churches are busy collecting palm leaves, planning choir programs and preparing for one of the most important days in christianity. But this year, churches across the world are implementing changes, like going digital, to continue to provide services while maintaining social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Really, over kind of the first two weeks of March, everything changed on a daily basis," said Mindi Welton-Mitchell, the senior pastor for the Queen Anne Baptist Church in Seattle. "It was so fast that you'd make a decision and the next day, that decision would be moot for in terms of how we were doing worship or how we were having a meeting, or even planning ahead. Like we planned ahead, some tentative things, and that's all off the table now because of how quickly everything changed.”

President Donald Trump extended social distancing guidelines through the end of April on Sunday in the latest of an ever-changing view on the coronavirus pandemic. Trying to keep up is a struggle many churches have been facing across the nation, as well as in Cache Valley. While Lent is the season of sacrifice in preparation for Easter, giving up social interactions and gatherings was not in the plans for many practitioners.

But some were better prepared for the shift than others, according to Hillarie Watterson — a local member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

"You know, one thing that has, to me, really helped us at this time is like a year and a half ago, our church kind of switched to more of a home-centered and church supported church program," she said. "It didn't change much other than it was more, we were learning more at home and supporting it at church rather than going to church learning and coming home and supporting that, you know?”

For others, like Stephen Sturgeon — the vicar at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Logan — supporting congregational worship from a distance is a new venture.

“In a weird way, we're sort of in a church worship laboratory at this time, where, you know, all the normal models have had to be set asides, so there's actually an opportunity for churches to think of non-traditional ways, think of how to do things creatively," Sturgeon said. "And, you know, while the overall situation we're in is not good, having this opportunity to do a little bit of experimenting may actually be a plus in the long run, because when this is all done, we can then glean out of that what seemed to work well, what's worth keeping going, and we'll also know the things that didn't work well that we can put aside for good.”

For example, Sturgeon is planning a driveby service for Palm Sunday to maintain social distancing practices, while still letting the congregation participate in a vital aspect of the year’s worship.

“Maybe on Palm Sunday, what we'll do is parishioners can come, and I'll be out curbside, and I'll hand out palm fronds to them," he said, "because we've already bought them and paid for them and they're on their way so we're gonna find a way to use them that way.”

In-person meetings have been replaced with FaceTime, Zoom, texts and phone calls across multiple faiths. But for many, connecting with each other is not only a key factor of worship, but in fostering a sense of community, as well. Which is why Mary-Anne Crow Muffoletto was so grateful that the First Presbyterian Church of Logan was able to put last Sunday’s service online to be streamed via YouTube.

“It's a challenge right now because churches are about community and getting together and sharing concerns, sharing celebration in learning and worshiping together. So how do you do that when you can't physically meet?" she said. "One of the ways is through social media and computers. We have methods of communicating that we didn't have when I was a child, so that’s been a wonderful tool.”

Other tools not to be discounted? Old school technology, like picking up the phone, or sending cards and letters, according to Welton-Mitchell, who compares Zoom meetings to old party-line phone calls. 

“I've also encouraged my congregation that pastoral care is not just the work of the pastor, it's all of us. So I've encouraged them to send cards and call," Welton-Mitchell said. "And I spoke to one of my seniors actually just about half hour ago and she has received cards and phone calls from church members. So she's feeling very much like she's keeping in touch with everything going on, which is great because she's 91. And it's stuck in her assisted living and really literally cannot even leave her room.”

And in Watterson’s neighborhood, a sidewalk chalk art project has given kids an opportunity to get involved, as well.

“Something so simple as that, but I feel like it just kind of keeps the kids connected," Watterson said. "You know, just because you can feel a little isolated, but it does keep you kind of connected to those neighbors or those people that are part of your community.”

In fact, Watterson said this confusing time is just as weird for kids as adults. But she says having a home-centered worship experience on Sundays can still be special.

“The two Sundays we've been able to do this, they they've all shared things that, you know, maybe was making them feel nervous or worried," she said, "and we've been able to talk about that and I just have thought after that, you know, maybe if we weren't in that setting, we wouldn't have gotten to those feelings.”