Churches return to in-person worship after restrictions lift
By Lindsay Peyton
Churches across the Texas Annual Conference are celebrating the return to in-person services. Still, several are retaining their online presence, one of a number of lessons learned from COVID-19. Congregations of all sizes, now seven months into the pandemic, are pushing forward, with many reporting that attendance, giving and mission remain strong.
Attendance, in-person and virtual
Rev. Jerry House, Lead Pastor at Christ UMC College Station, explained that the past few months have been a whirlwind, filled with challenges, struggles, learning and adjustment.
“It’s been trying, it’s been frustrating and it’s been exciting,” he said. “I’ve probably never worked harder than in the past seven months – and it’s been a whole different kind of work.”
He is not alone. Clergy have navigated what church looks like with closed doors and how to deliver sermons to video cameras instead of people in pews. Now, pastors are preparing to reopen and move ahead in uncertain times.
At Christ UMC, a task force, which included medical professionals, paved the way for returning to in-person worship on June 21, and attendance has gradually increased. “We’re at about 50 percent of what we saw in February,” House said.
There are 4,100 members of the church. Individuals not going to in-person services on Sundays have been faithfully watching the livestream. “That means we’re still reaching all of our people,” House said.
In fact, the virtual option has even increased the reach of Christ UMC – allowing missionaries and members of other denominations to join the church online.
Before COVID-19, Christ UMC offered livestream. “But it was really basic,” House said. “We didn’t invest in it.”
That has changed considerably during the pandemic. “We had to upgrade our technology significantly,” House said. “We added cameras and people. It’s a lot different than before.”
Sunday school classes also moved to a hybrid model, allowing both in-person and Zoom attendance.
FUMC Atlanta took a different approach. The church never went online and instead held a few drive-through services until members could return. “People were really eager to get back,” Pastor Drew Weber said.
Services resumed on May 17 at the church, which has 308 members. Sundays were in-person when Weber was appointed to the congregation on July 1.
He said that usually, there are between 120 and 140 people in attendance on Sundays – and about 90 percent of members wear a mask. They sit on plastic chairs are wiped down between services.
The dedication of members to their church has been heartwarming to witness, Weber explained. “I’m blown away,” he said. “The spirit of this church is amazing. It’s done my heart and soul really well to see folks so eager. Church means something to them.”
In fact, an evangelism group is forming at the congregation. Members are preparing to reach out to others to bring them to Christ. “They’re ready,” Weber said. “It’s in their culture to channel the Holy Spirit and be an evangelical church.”
In-person services resumed on May 10 for the churches served by Rev. Jeff Hastings –FUMC Groveton and Prairie View UMC, Nogalious Prairie. Broadcasting sermons started April 12 and remain a key part of services.
Listening to members was an essential part of reopening, Hastings said. “Getting their input was critical,” he said. “The numbers in our community were also extremely low. You weigh all that together and listen to the needs of the people.”
Before COVID-19, Prairie View had about 30 members and two families moved away. Now about 20 individuals attend on Sunday. A similar sized group attends worship at Groveton UMC.
At Prairie View, Hastings explained that a few members cannot get the Internet. “You have to go outside or use your phone,” he said.
At Groveton, however, Facebook Live is more accessible for members – and they fully embraced it. “They just jumped on the bandwagon,” Hastings said. “We talked and voted to purchase new AV equipment. It wasn’t a baby step. We went all in.”
The congregation saw an advantage in having online services available in the long-run. Decisions made in response to COVID-19 will set the church up for sharing weddings and funerals in the years to come. “This is part of our future,” Hastings said.
Now, the Groveton services are even being watched out of state – by a couple in Arkansas that has not found a local church yet. Families in Willis and Austin also stream the sermons.
Hastings’ pastoral duties expanded to a new medium – and now reach a larger area. He even calls families who are out of the area during the week to further serve as their minister. “We do a devotional over the phone,” he said.
Members still giving, despite uncertainty
At FUMC Atlanta, Weber explained that members are still giving – and often are even more supportive of the church. “Our finances are better this year than last year,” he explained.
Christ UMC College Station is also finding that regardless of whether people watch online or in the pews, they continue to help the church. “We’re actually experiencing stronger giving than we did last year,” House said.
Members’ support of the congregation is especially critical, as Christ UMC is in the midst of a $14.8 million capital campaign. The project will transform the church into its dream campus.
FUMC Groveton and Prairie View UMC, Nogalious Prairie are also thriving financially. “We had about a two-month dip in the middle of this, but it was really short-lived,” Hastings said. “The people here are just so faithful.”
At Groveton, the plates are in the back of the congregation to prevent germs being spread when plates are passed. Those watching live can mail a check to either congregation, and in fact, Hastings said mail-in donations have increased.
“I have to admit that I was a little concerned at first,” he said. “I was hoping for the best, anticipating the worst and planning for it too – but that never happened. It reflects the dedication and commitment of the congregations.”
Still the hands and feet of Jesus
Mission work has also continued at the congregations, from members constantly checking on each other and shut-ins at FUMC Atlanta to a new youth group at Prairie View UMC, Nogalious Prairie.
FUMC Groveton also started a “blessing box” in collaboration with the neighboring Baptist Church. This mini-food pantry, stocked with canned and dry goods, is never locked and always available to families in need.
The church is also working with a nearby gas station – to provide gas cards for stranded travelers. In addition, they created gift bags to give to each person in the family in a car. For example, a child bag comes complete with snacks and activity books.
Prairie View has started gathering donations for Christmas gifts to give to CPS. Hastings explained that businesses and individuals might have a harder time helping this holiday season. “Prairie View is trying to pick-up the slack,” he said.
Each church is in a different area – and can respond to needs in a different way, Hastings said. “Part of the challenge is that we can’t do what did before,” he said. “It gets us to think creatively.”
Christ UMC has been innovative with its mission work. For instance, when its UM ARMY trip was canceled for the summer, the congregation hosted its own in July, Missions Director Steve Godby explained. “We did a full-fledged camp right here in College Station,” he said.
Camp was simply reimagined to make it safer, Godby explained. Lunches were catered, and students stayed at home overnight. Their parents drove them to the job site. They practiced social distancing and wore masks. Each night, volunteers sanitized all of the tools.
Still, the youth were able to construct much-needed wheelchair ramps. “We were all very precautious, and we took it seriously,” Godby said.
In addition, volunteers helped the homebound with chores and repairs. The church also sent a card with a wooden cross to each frontline worker in the area. Inside was a note with a phone number for a prayer partner at the church. “We matched people at church with workers who just needed someone praying for them,” Godby said.
Since COVID-19 hit, Godby has led efforts to write procedures and guidelines to ensure the safety of church staff and members. Taking the time to carefully consider each risk and plan for returning to the building helped Christ UMC protect its families and continue its services.
“We found each possible way to do everything as safely as we can – but this is not stopping us,” Godby said.
Christ UMC will continue its annual Church Has Left the Building (CHLB) Day – full of service projects in the community. Instead of meeting at the church, volunteers will gather in cars in the parking lot before they begin their work.
Godby said there are also opportunities to serve through Zoom. Being in mission can be as simple as becoming a pen pal to a senior citizen who has become isolated at a retirement home.
“We can’t be dormant,” Godby said. “We just have to be safe and smart.”
Learning from COVID-19
In the early days of the coronavirus, House preached a sermon focused on “God is bigger than this.”
“We want to remind our congregation that message is so important,” House said. “We get intimidated by the global pandemic, but God is bigger than that. We’ve just got to trust in him to carry us through. Our faithfulness and our boldness will ultimately win the day.”
Weber said that leaning on faith is essential. “We have never made COVID the main story,” he said. “We’ve always focused on the body of Christ, meeting and making adjustments to make it as safe as possible. When COVID-19 is so front and center, fear darkens the light of Christ.”
He believes that the pandemic could create opportunities for restructuring church – and collaboration between congregations.
Hastings said that one of his main takeaways from the pandemic has been the importance of listening to his congregation. “Instead of leading with ideas, we should lead with questions,” he said.
Flexibility has also been a key to navigating the pandemic, Hastings said.
“We tend to get locked into the tradition of doing things the same way – and we don’t even realize it,” he said. “COVID-19 has forced me to approach things in new ways. Flexibility kicks in; creativity kicks in. We need to look for new opportunities to fill all of the need in our communities. I think that’s where the future lies.”