After a nine-month struggle to do ministry in a pandemic, pastors use creativity and flexibility to celebrate Advent safe from the coronavirus.
United Methodists aren’t thrilled about observing Advent and Christmas seasons amid COVID-19, but many are looking at ways to safely add personal interaction to virtual worship.
“It’s very challenging,” said the Rev. Sheron C. Patterson, senior pastor at Hamilton Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, informally known as The Park. “People are fatigued with Zoom and webinars. Getting people in the Christmas spirit with the COVID is challenging.”
Fatigue or not, Zoom, Facebook, and other internet portals will be the pipeline through which many experience church during Advent and Christmas this year. But there are efforts afoot to find creative ways to augment and enhance the experience.
At Benton First United Methodist Church in Benton, KY, the Rev. Leah Howe and Worship Director Scott Gibbs are doing what they call a “yard worship tour” to bring some much-needed personal interaction with the congregation.
“Scott and I go to houses, mostly of those who are not comfortable in large group gatherings, and we have a worship service in the yard, on the patio, and some in sunrooms,” Howe said.
Mask-wearing and social distancing are expected at these events, she said. The church has had seven yard worship services so far, and there will be more if the weather is warm enough, Howe said.
At The Park, where it was announced early during the COVID-19 crisis that there would be no in-person services until 2021 at the earliest, Patterson has made mental health assistance a priority, as well as getting technical training for her predominately elderly congregation.
“We have a program called ‘Leave No Senior Behind,’” Patterson said. “Because so many don’t have the technology, we have sermons by phone, so they can dial a certain number and hear the sermon for the week. We email out the newsletter, but we also print one out and send it to their homes.”
Art Mosley, the audio-visual expert at The Park, is available to go to church members’ homes and help them get up to speed technologically.
“If you want to stay connected, this is a must,” Patterson said.
Once online, church members can access two Zoom seminars called “Beating the Holiday Blues,” featuring mental health experts teaching about grieving.
“Grieving being in a prison of our homes, grieving isolation, grieving that COVID has taken away from us the basics of community and fellowship and being in church together,” Patterson said. “That’s really my gift to the church, continued mental health (help) during this stressful time.”
Although some churches are meeting in person again, most church officials advise against it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 266,000 people in the U.S. have died because of the coronavirus, and more than 1 million new cases and more than 10,000 deaths in the past week were reported.
“I am asking you in the strongest way possible to refrain from in-person indoor worship for the Advent and Christmas seasons,” wrote Bishop David Alan Bard of the Michigan area in a Nov. 16 message to United Methodists there.
“I am deeply grateful for all the ways you have encouraged the wearing of masks, social distancing, and handwashing. It has helped. Yet, community spread has become so prolific that we need to do more to protect public health, promote the common good and care for the well-being of others in the name and spirit of Jesus.”
Some churches are distributing Advent-in-a-box kits, with crafts and worship instructions that can be done at home.
Advent-in-a-box kits also are available for people with intellectual disabilities, for a group called the Flames that meets once a month at Centennial.
In western Pennsylvania, three Christmas-themed skits by United Methodist writer Dawn Conroy have been made available along with scenic backdrops that can be used for internet broadcasting. Each skit includes instructions and advice to guide churches through the process. Conroy has permitted churches to use the material for free as long as the author is credited.
On Christmas Eve, three outdoor services are tentatively planned at Cathedral of the Rockies, with carols, candles, and Scripture readings.
The Rev. Angela Bulhof, the pastor of University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, LA, faces a double whammy this Advent season. COVID-19 an obstacle, and her church was severely damaged by Hurricanes Laura and Delta this year.
“The first one did a lot of damage with wind,” Bulhof said. “We had two walls, and a huge chunk of the roof just got torn off our church building. … We had flooding with Delta, so some of the rooms that didn’t get touched before had water seep in.”
“So, we’ve arranged with our good sister church there to have a Christmas Eve ‘Eve’ service (on Dec. 23),” Bulhof said. “We’ll have maybe 30 in attendance and about 60 online.”
University United Methodist Church has a new motto, Bulhof said: “The Church Is More Than a Building.”
“We learned that we didn’t have to have access to our church to be the church, to be the body of Christ,” she said. “It was more important to love our neighbors enough, to get a handle on what this virus was and how we needed to keep each other safe.”
The Christmas sermon at The Cathedral of the Rockies will be COVID-19 related, Anders said.
“I think you always speak to the issues of the day, but they don’t necessarily overwhelm the good news of the Gospel message,” he said. “We’ve lived through this really awkward time, but people have lived through really awkward times before.
“That’s the Gospel story, right? They were carrying a lot of stress, too, and yet God showed up with good news to all people.”