As COVID-19 hit the United States, the way churches were able to gather shifted: How did that change the religion itself?
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As the Schedule Changed…
COVID-19 struck America, seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of March, 2020. It changed our schools, our jobs, and our churches. Forced to stay at home, everyone had to quickly adapt to new rhythms, find new ways to do work, and find community in a virtual world.
The church, centered on community and the collective body of believers, turned to live-streams or pre-recorded services to replace gatherings. Some churches already were equipped for this, others struggled.
Members, too, struggled with the change. According to Barna, one in three practicing Christians stopped attending church altogether. Another third switched churches, while the rest remained in the church they attended before COVID-19. Additionally, a small handful of viewers have started attending church during the pandemic, whereas they did not before.
As with many things, it can be hard to stay motivated and involved without face-to-face interaction and even accountability. Unfortunately, there is a side of Christianity that becomes uber focused on a checklist, on crossing off all the boxes. Those who attend church on the weekend, read their Bible, or pray regularly can unconsciously check it off until the next day.
So if churches are closed, there’s little accountability, no one to compare yourself to or impress, does devotion to the church decrease? Does the idea of a checklist become more prominent?
For my family, this wasn’t the case. We have stayed very involved in the church — we still tithe there, we attend all the events we can. From an outside perspective, we’re still doing all of the “Christian things.” And I believe our hearts still love to do it, rather than it becoming a checklist.
My family and I have attended The Summit Church for fifteen years, since before I could remember. I’ve grown up in the kids’ ministry, and now I participate in the students. So when COVID-19 hit, there was no question about whether we’d stay. We watch the weekly live-stream together, often inviting others to join us.
The pandemic has created an entirely different atmosphere for us on Sundays. From pretty hectic to very calm, the change has been good.
For me and my family, time worshiping at home has been sweet, a less produced and busy way to worship. Previously, on Sunday mornings, we would get to church at 8:30 and divide. My sister and I served in the kids’ and students’ ministries, and my brothers attended them. My dad is the Executive Pastor of The Summit Church, so he bounced around while my mom volunteered to check people in. The first service started at 9 and usually ended around 10:15.
For us, the second service was less crazy. We would all race from our classes and volunteer positions and meet up in the auditorium to sit together for the service, which ended around 12. A typical day saw us home by 1 at the earliest, later if we stopped for lunch.
In addition, my siblings and I are all invested in the ministries the church has for students. My youngest brother was in Awana, a cool program where kids learn to memorize verses. My other brother is in the middle school ministry, while my sister and I were in the high school ministry. Each of these met on Sunday nights, from 5-7.
I can’t complain about any one of these things — I love my church and loved the busyness of the day as it was full of community. However, a typical Sunday during COVID-19 looks a good bit different.
TSC has recently switched from live-stream services to services you can watch on your own time. We still watch the service together, but there’s no set start time. Student events have started again, this time from 4-5:15, meaning we can all eat dinner together whereas we couldn’t before. I now understand the meaning of a “lazy Sunday.”
In the quiet of our Sundays, the time spent together has drawn us closer. Doing church at home allows us to spend intentional time together and grow deeper in our study of the Bible.
Quarantine has been a good change of pace, where we have more time to be together.
Of course, I miss all of the gatherings I had, and in spite of how crazy it was, it was a community that I loved. However, I’m not opposed to the change, at least for right now.
The “New Normal” Soapstone Church
Soapstone United Methodist Church has held in-person service for eight weeks now. The congregation gathers at the JCC Pavilion across the street at 8:30 Sunday mornings for worship, wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart.
This physical separation, as well as the emotional separation of being disconnected from the congregation, has proven to be difficult for many.
“COVID-19 changes have reminded me how much I enjoyed the physical interaction with my church family which is now lacking a lot of the closeness and I took for granted,” said Sherry Gardener, a long-time church member.
Soasptone’s Pastor Laura Stern also shared some difficulties she has faced trying to get in touch with others. “I can no longer do hospital visits and home visits are very limited,” she said. “We also hold meetings on ZOOM that used to be in person.”
However, as shown in the picture, COVID has not stopped everything. Recently some youth were able to be confirmed, and the congregation was able to celebrate with them as they stood in front of the people.
During this pandemic, Soapstone has, in some ways, grown stronger as a community. “I really feel like right now is our chance to really show our faith just by living like good Christians. I participate in studies and try to listen more, so I follow up with folks with phone calls, texts, or cards,” said Katie Cable, also a member at Soapstone.
“We have seen the community come together for prayer and outreach in new ways,” said Stern. The pandemic has forced people to adapt, but Christianity is still strong, and the beliefs are still the same.
Social Distance Youth Group
The Soapstone youth group has started meeting back in-person Sunday nights, with a few changes. Everyone is supposed to wear masks as much as possible, and it is all held outside. There are creative new games to let people still have fun while staying farther apart — one useful tool being pool noodles. Pictured was one game played where a youth had to feed another as much pudding as possible within a certain time, using a spoon attached to a pool noodle.
At the end, when everyone would normally hold hands to pray, pool noodles are held between each person as substitutes. Even with these differences youth still have fun and enjoy seeing each other. “I think people are still enthusiastic and participate in the youth activities,” said Graham Woodward, a youth at Soapstone.
With the stress of school and the pandemic, it is good for the youth to have time to relax, be with their friends, and learn about God while still following precautions to ensure everyone’s safety.
Young Life is a nationwide program that aims to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow their faith. Leesville Road High School gives its students access to this outside-of-school program that welcomes any student. Leesville Young life does a combination of activities that include weekly meetings, bible study, volunteering, and annual trips.
How exactly do the effects of COVID-19 reflect on Young Life and the youths growing connection with Jesus Christ?
Though churches and worldwide religious practices have changed drastically due to the COVID-19, Young Life’s goal is to keep its members connected to one another and faithful through different times.
Over quarantine, the only form of connection Young Life had to its members was texting. Leesville leaders are all college students, so the members of the club follow their lives on plenty of social media platforms. When restrictions were lifted by North Carolina Governor, Roy Cooper, the leaders were able to personally meet with members one-on-one in a socially distanced manner. The only other gatherings are Campaigners which is held outside and has a maximum number of people who can attend.
Campaigners, a weekly Bible study focuses on breaking down the gospel while using group therapy and discussion to allow the youth to talk about their lives with people who can relate to them best. Young Life is working to find a way to do a trip this fall, but as of now the extent of the club consists of socially distanced meetings once a week.
Camden McKinstry, a Leesville guys Young Life leader, explained via text that even though Covid-19 has changed ministry and the way Christians pursue people, the message of Christianity remains the same through it all. “The avenues in which the gospel is being shared has had to adapt and be innovated,” wrote Mckinstry.
It was tough for Mckinstry and other leaders to adapt to changes in the Young Life program because the club is so socially dependent. “It’s so reliant on in person communication,” wrote Mckinstry. The club focuses on the youth engaging in personal activities to form bonds with other members, but there was only so much participation and connectivity the club could have through technology.
COVID-19 has altered the world’s outlook, but as for the universal concept of religion, Christians and Young Life haven’t lost their values and message even when their religion can’t be practiced the way it typically does.
The History of Church Buildings
Most people have been going to the outdoor services, but an issue presents itself as winter and cold weather arrive. Since most church services are held in the morning, it will soon be unbearable to stay outside for the span of a service. Churches will either have to make accommodations to move inside or figure out another way to keep the congregation together.
At Asbury United Methodist Church, indoor services have returned. Offered at 9:30 and 11:00, reserved seating is available through signing up the night before. While inside, members must wear a mask even though chairs are spaced out.
For people more susceptible to COVID-19 – or if they don’t feel comfortable in public yet— all services are live-streamed at asburyraleigh.org. Online viewing gives people the option to stay home and reduce exposure to the virus.
Asbury Church offers several bible studies, whether virtual or in person. One of the bible studies is called “God Girls,” and it mainly consists of highschool, college, and young adult women. The group used to meet in restaurants or cafes to read and talk. When the stay at home order began, the bible study group went from meeting weekly to not at all for four months.
Anna Beavens is a college member of the bible study who recalls the disappointment from not being able to meet together. “It was a place outside of my home where I could talk about my faith with others and learn,” she said via text.
Now, with fewer restrictions, the group meets in the church parking lot and forms a circle with their cars. This way of getting together incorporates social distancing while still getting the personal connection aspect that might be missing if done online.
In her five years in God Girls, Beavens realizes more than ever how important her connection is to this community.
Asbury Church has a strong youth group — called 412 and DASH — which includes middle school and high school students. The kids met every Sunday to eat snacks, play games, worship, and have small group. However, this year has been different.
412 and DASH now meet for a shorter time without group games and snacks. In order to accommodate social distancing guidelines, the youth group has been trying to stay outdoors for as long as they can. They meet outside for games such as disc golf and then go inside to worship and listen to the youth pastor. After, they return outside again for small groups with each grade.
Between 412 and DASH, volunteers clean all bathrooms and chairs with CDC approved sanitizing products. The time in between also allows for the facility to air out.
Michelle Keown is a key leader in the student ministries and helped decide the changes for this year. When considering the upcoming winter season, Keown, via email, said, “We are clearly praying for a mild winter so that we can stay outside, even if it means wrapped up in blankets for as long as possible.”
Due to COVID-19, the youth group has had to cancel their mission trip for the summer. Mission trips are highly anticipated so when the decision was made to cancel the trip, it was disappointing to those who value the tradition.
Keown said, “All of our mission trips and overnight retreats and such are canceled. We are thinking outside the box with things such as our day retreat in Efland at Chestnut Ridge where parents can drive and we don’t have to put people in close proximity to one another…”
In an effort to keep people distanced but still together, the youth group will offer an outdoor retreat at Chestnut Ridge camp. Here, the youth group will do several activities like canoeing, ziplining, archery, and high ropes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, faith has been tested in all members of the church. While services were completely virtual, did members commit to making it a part of their Sunday or did they let the church fade into the background?
Now, as services and groups are returning, the people who didn’t commit over quarantine are less likely to come back. Whether it’s kids or adults, if they lose the habit of going to church weekly, the lack of consistency and relationships will affect their faith.
The Heart of Worship
The church hasn’t stopped worshipping during COVID-19, but the way they worship has changed.
Before COVID-19, Summit students worshipped indoors. Being inside made it easier for the worship leaders to prepare because “everything was already set up and ready to go,” said Chloe Paramore– a worship leader in the student band– via GroupMe.
In the midst of the pandemic, the student worship band has had to follow CDC guidelines, bringing in extra challenges. Praising God hasn’t stopped, but it has “changed the method of how we do student worship,” said Reagan Jones, a Summit Church intern, by text.
During the summer, every aspect of the student ministry got moved online. This didn’t stop the student worship band from worshipping: They met virtually through Zoom and “wrote the two new worship songs for our students,” wrote Paramore.
On September 13, The Summit Church started allowing in-person youth group Bible studies to start back. To sing and praise God in person, the team had to “engineer a way for students to be engaged in the worship,” said worship leader Averie Chapman (via text). This meant being smart by wearing masks, social distancing, and worshipping on the basketball court.
It’s amazing to see students back together and praising God on the basketball court but being outside has brought new challenges: Students are uncomfortable when singing through masks and don’t have lyrics on a screen. Every Sunday, leaders also have to bring all the sound equipment needed from inside the building which is tricky.
Worship services amidst a pandemic take more planning to figure out what is right, but the student worship leaders don’t see that as a bad thing. If anything, COVID-19 has made a good impact on the idea of worship. Now students are learning what real worship is: “Worship is simply our musical offering to the Lord,” wrote Paramore.
Students learned that it’s not about how great the music and lights are; worship is about praising and having “an encounter with Jesus,” texted Jones.
Christians know that God is always there, but they have to “be intentional and choose praise,” wrote Chapman.
The Lord doesn’t change, no matter how our circumstances change. He is still the same God that is worthy to be praised. Although the students are taken out of their comfort zones, the heart of worship hasn’t changed.
Has It Changed?
COVID-19 has tested the limits of many people’s faith. It’s been challenging in the lack of community, the fear of the virus, and the hardship of loneliness.
Here’s the answer: Christianity has not changed. The focus — spreading the gospel to all people — may have been altered in its execution, but not in its necessity. The foundation of the church remains steadfast in the face of uncertainty because their hope is in Jesus. So, while physically the church may look different right now, the heart and faith behind it remain constant.