TAC Churches Respond with Innovative Worship Options as Pandemic Continues
By Lindsay Peyton
Across the U.S., church members still feel uncertain about in-person worship. In Texas, as preparations to reopen the state were in progress, the number of COVID-19 cases began to spike, adding to existing concerns. Churches are in the TAC are responding by either postponing their plans to open their doors or by keeping services small. Regardless, they continue to find innovative ways to stay connected.
According to the American Enterprise Institute, a number of people still report “substantial discomfort” when it comes to personal, social and commercial activities during the pandemic. They are only comfortable with necessary or essential outings.
For instance, about 65 percent of Americans feel fine about going to the grocery store or inviting a relative or friend over to their house.
Those numbers change, however, whenever the occasion involves proximity to a greater number of people. For example, of the people surveyed, only 37 percent were willing to go out to eat at a restaurant, 24 percent to go to a movie theater and 22 percent to attend a sporting event.
In-person church services raise the same concerns. The American Enterprise Institute reports that 36 percent feel comfortable returning to the church building.
In Texas, apprehension about returning to worship is coupled with rising numbers of coronavirus cases. Some cities are becoming hot spots for outbreaks, and frontline health care workers and resources are strained.
Listening to the recommendations from Houston Methodist, as well as Bishop Scott Jones, The Woodlands UMC recently postponed reopening plans.
Rev. Susan Kent, pastor of women’s ministry and worship, said staff had only recently begun returning to campus. The church even had teams on alternating days to prevent too many members from being in the building at any one time.
“Then, things started getting really bad again,” Kent said. “We said to only go if you have to, and keep working at home if you can. We need to keep everyone as healthy as possible.”
In-person worship was slated to being on July 22. “Quickly, we had to pivot,” Kent said.
The church already had a strong online presence for worship each weekend and virtual programs and ministries throughout the week. “We’ve been doing online really well,” Kent said. “We decided, let’s keep doing that.”
The Woodlands UMC is keeping an ear to the ground about what the hospital system, school district and other churches are planning. “I would love to open, in a limited capacity, at the end of August or in the beginning of September, if that’s possible,” Kent said. “But locally, numbers continue to go up.”
In other areas of Texas, churches are able to safely reopen. Rev. Keith Tilley, associate pastor at Grace Crossing UMC in Longview, said that members are meeting on Sunday, with limited attendance and wearing masks.
Tilley moved from Faith UMC in Orange in May. His former congregation also resumed services in June.
“You have a mixture of those who want to come back to worship and those who don’t,” the pastor said. “Navigating those waters is where we are now.”
He explained that opinions are divided. “The church is a great, safe place to remember who we are,” he said. “We are citizens of this country, and we’re citizens of this Kingdom, where there is no division and there is no difference.”
Grace Crossing UMC is also keeping a close watch on what other churches are doing, as well as listening to recommendations from the Bishop, Governor and healthcare workers. “You’ve also got to listen to your people,” Tilley added. “They’ll let you know what they are ready to do.”
In the meantime, the church plans to move forward with taking certain safety precautions, like a prepackaged communion. “It is nice to still have communion with each other even if it’s not the normal way we’re used to,” Tilley said.
The church also plans to continue live streaming indefinitely to remain connected with members who are not ready to return. Tilley suggests that other congregations also maintain online programs, even if they are pre-recorded. “It doesn’t have to be a full worship service, just provide something to stay connected,” he advises.
Mission work and outreach can also continue in the church, the pastor explained, even if a church member wants to start small, by mowing a neighbor’s lawn, for instance.
“Walk with the poor. Care for those who are invisible among us,” Tilley said. “Pay attention. The more we do, the more we can see that faith lives.”
Sharing positivity on social media can also be a tool for spreading faith, Tilley said. “We need to avoid getting sucked into arguments,” he said. “Everything we do should be positive and send hope and encouragement.”
Tilley is reminded of what Paul said in Ephesians: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Rev. Kent said that as the church faces more time online, she sees opportunities to further its creativity. “You’ve seen the innovation that’s come out of this already,” she said. “Now we’re pushing into a second wave of innovation. We have to create something long-lasting and sustainable. We’ll never be able to rest on the laurels of what we used to do.”
Kent explained that at first churches had to learn to reach their congregations online for weekly worship. Now, there is time to find ways to engage further with congregations.
“What makes church different? Engagement, fellowship and shared experience,” Kent said. “It’s all about how do we walk together.”
And that’s something The Woodlands UMC wants to pursue in a new platform online, which is currently in the works. Simply changing the focus to make engagement more central has an impact, Kent said. For instance, pastors are now part of chat conversations.
“We live-streamed our services for years, but we never encouraged our pastors to join the chat,” Kent said. “It’s such a simple thing, but it’s huge. Now our pastors are part of the conversation. It gives us a way to make more personal connections.”
Ensuring that future programs are both online and in-person is another high priority for the church. “We will have some people who want to come back to church, but you can’t turn your back on the person who can’t,” Kent said. “Everything has to be hybrid. You have to do both well.”
The congregation is also focusing on being a resource for other churches. “We had never done a webinar before, and now we do them all the time,” Kent said.
Topics of conversation with other churches have included reopening, children’s ministries, music and racial reconciliation.
“We’ve been praying and discussing how we can help other churches,” Kent said. “We have the resources, and now we have the experience.”
Helping other congregations adjust in uncertain times, building more engagement, finding smaller mission opportunities and building hybrid programs are all ways that The Woodlands UMC is preparing for a new normal.
“We’re looking into every area, how we can improve,” Kent said. “It’s an ongoing process. It’s a journey, and we have a long road ahead. We’re not looking back. We want to ask the right questions and become the best that we can be.”
Kent said there are multiple instances of uncertainty in the Bible, where individuals marched into difficult times and asked where God went.
“God was there. He never left you,” Kent said.
She said that the church can spread that message of hope by continuing to push forward and engage with the community. “Instead of just holding your breath until it’s over, we need to look at things differently, not just once, but all the time,” she added. “You have to cast a wider net. You cannot just stop with the way you have done things in the past.”