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Keeping the faith

Churches find creative ways to gather during the pandemic pandemicpandemic

— File photo The Webster City Church of Christ has held outside services for most of the spring and summer, along with offering Facebook Live broadcasts. The church plans to move back inside Oct. 25.

Keeping the faith during the novel coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge, but for many area churches, the experience has brought new opportunities to worship.

The odyssey began when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a state emergency on March 16 due to Covid-19 which closed churches, businesses and gatherings where ten or more people would congregate.

The order forced many churches to rethink, revise and adapt to a new way of ministering to their flocks.

Missionary Alliance Church in Blairsburg missed only one service after the governor’s declaration, said MAC office manager Jill Thompson.

“We are blessed to have the resources to have live-streaming services,” said Thompson. “Live praise and worship services with the praise worship band were live-streamed in April.”

Thompson praised MAC technical director Bob Hinkle, who arranged the broadcast of services and set up many Zoom meetings.

But despite the continued on-line services, there was one aspect that people missed, said Thompson.

“It is hard not to be with your church family,” she said.  “When we can’t be together, you miss the camaraderie.”

The church reopened at the end of May with social distancing and CDC safety protocol, said Thompson.  Another step toward normalcy will be the return of youth group meetings on Oct. 7 and the resumption of children’s church during the regular service on Oct. 11.

“As members of the leadership team, we first looked at this as detrimental,” said Thompson.  “Then we thought ‘Jesus, how do we spin this?’ How do we show obedience to Jesus by thinking outside our box?  Maybe by putting it in a new box.”

The 295-member congregation is praying for a return to normal, said Thompson.

“People think it is worth the risk to their own health, just to be together,” she said.  “But we want to be responsible for each other.”

Trinity Lutheran Church in Webster City locked down on March 17 and staff began a crash course in technology in order to keep members connected with their faith, said Sarah Ostlund, TLC Faith Formation Director.

With her background in education, Ostlund was able to navigate through the video and recording aspects of putting together a weekly service.  Members were asked to send in music requests, spiritual readings and snapshots from home that were put into a weekly compilation for the service.

TLC considered live-streaming its service, but the problem was that nationwide, all churches were live-streaming their services on Sunday mornings around the same time so access to available bandwidth was unreliable, explained Ostlund.  Instead, TLC opted to record and upload the service and posted it on the church’s You Tube channel and Facebook page.

“Basically, we just amped up everything we do, but on-line,” she said.  Computer lessons are available to teach members how to access on-line programs.

In July, the church returned to in-person services at the Briggs Woods shelter or beach and in the lot on the north side of the church, said Ostlund. 

Bible School went virtual with Ostlund taking homebound youth on field trips, such as the time she took a tractor ride to tour area farm fields.

“We are trying to be awfully creative,” laughed Ostlund.

One of the additions has been a daily “Hello” to congregation members from the staff.

“It’s crazy, but members really appreciate the daily hello from the staff with updates and announcements,” said Ostlund.  “I’m mortified in front of a camera, but people have really appreciated it.”

The food pantry also continued to operate and immediately transitioned to on-phone orders only, said Ostlund.

“We felt there was a need now more than ever,” she said.  Orders are place by phone and picked up daily at the church entrance between 2 – 3 p.m.  “Another interesting aspect of this is that contributions from the community have increased.  This is on-going but is now completely altered.”

The Three-Year Old’s Bible Delivery Day was a huge success that took place just at the beginning of the lockdown, she said.  Volunteers took the Bibles to the front door, set them down, rang the bell and then backed away for social distancing.

Unfortunately, the pandemic shut down the After School program as well as the weekly Gift In Faith Together meal, said Ostlund. One-on-one home, nursing home and hospital visits have been replaced with phone calls.  The possibility of resuming those visits is being discussed, said Ostlund.

But the good news is that the kids program will resume on Oct. 7 with the assistance of volunteers to help keep children at proper distances from one another.

On August 30, TLC began to hold services again in the sanctuary with a few changes, said Ostlund.  To achieve proper social distancing, pews were taped off.  Singing is allowed but masks, are required to participate.

In general, the church follows CDC guidelines and asks worshippers to follow suit.

“We never require masks, but everybody wears one,” said Ostlund.

The first time that the congregation returned to the sanctuary since the March lockdown was an emotional one, said Ostlund.

“People were so hungry to be together,” she said.  “The first time back, there were so many tears.  It is just something you take for granted until you don’t have it.”

Individually sealed Communion containers with bread and juice were used and will continue to be distributed at services.  The weekly bulletin is projected on a screen during the service and it is also available on-line.

Even while holding services in the sanctuary, TLC will continue to offer access to worship services on-line in order to meet the comfort levels of all its members. Hymnals will be delivered for people wishing to sing along at home, she added.

Fall orientation will be held at a date to be announced, with a Covid twist – participants will be invited to attend a drive-in movie with their own picnic lunch at the church, said Ostlund.

“Honestly, there has been some joy in the midst of all of this,” said Ostlund. 

St. Thomas Aquanis Catholic Church in Webster City began live-streaming services following the lock-down, but parishioners missed meeting as a congregation, said Rita Wolfgram, church secretary.

“There was a need to get together,” said Wolfgram.  So services were moved to the gym to accommodate social distancing on May 31.  

On Sept. 20, the services returned to the church with social distancing between the pews and masks are preferred, said Wolfgram.  Services at St. Thomas have an alternate schedule every other week.  One week, the service is held at 5 p.m. on Saturday.  The next week, it is held on Sunday at 10 a.m.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Williams, St. Thomas’ sister parish, holds Mass at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning.

“The bottom line is everything has changed,” said Chad Halbach, Pastor of Webster City Church of Christ.

From the beginning of the lockdown, the WC Church of Christ has offered outside services as well as live-streaming access.  Des Moines Street in front of the church has been cordoned off with chairs and tables moved outside at a CDC-prescribed distance.  Despite being exposed to the elements, the location worked.

“We’ve been rained on but we had awnings and a couple of umbrellas,” said Halbach.  “We didn’t boil in the sun, either.  I’m amazed we didn’t chase people off.  But people who really want to worship have found a way.”

“With tables and chairs outside, we have been operating like a mobile church,” said Halbach.  “My hope is that we can get back into the church.

Despite the unorthodox situation, Sunday’s open air church service drew an average of 50-70 people while the live-streaming of the service on Facebook registered between 400-500 views.

The return to in-building services is scheduled for Oct. 25 at 9:30 a.m., and it will be radically different than what worshippers experienced before, he said.  Tables will be reserved with only 50 people allowed in attendance.  The service will only last one hour because children will no longer attend separate services but will be included in the regular service.

“I see the hand of God in all of this,” said Halbach.  “I think it is his agenda to change the church.”

The disruption of customary services has provided an opportunity for the church to re-evaluate their mission, said Halbach.

“We need to take responsibility for our own spiritual development and take it upon ourselves,” he said.  “I see God’s agenda in all of this – to just be a place for people to come and know Christ.”

Halbach suggested that the church may consider the formation of small groups for future worship and questioned the need for a church that is housed in a 80,000 sq.ft. building.

The First Congregational Church in Webster City spent the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown in limbo because they did not have the equipment for live-streaming, according the Pastor Craig Blaufuss.

But like other area churches, they examined their assets and moved forward.

“We have some fine audio equipment in our sanctuary, so I used some editing software and we were able to record and splice it together to create a 30 minute audio recording,” said Blaufuss.  

The service was then emailed to worshippers who had internet access.  For people without internet, Blaufuss burned CDs and delivered them to their homes.

By July 5, the congregation felt a need to gather together in person, so the church accessed the vacant lot on the south side of the church and held its first outdoor service since the lockdown was declared, said Blaufuss.  Members of the congregation provided a portable audio system and a piano.  They also brought their own chairs.  Bulletins were provided along with lots of hand sanitizer.

Children at the service received a gift bag which included treats and an activity, he said.

For Communion, each member received a sealed biodegradable container with a gluten-free cracker and a grape inside.

Even though the service was outside, people were required to wear masks.

“That turned out to be a good idea because when people saw each other again, they forgot social distancing,” said Blaufuss.  “People spent a lot of time visiting.  They were missing that fellowship.”

Over the course of the summer, the congregation was sprinkled on a few times but services were never cancelled.

As summer wore on, the church voted to return to indoor services in September.  Following stringent protocols, the church removed all seat cushions and set up social distancing perimeters.  Bulletins and the collection plate are located inside the entrance door.  The church will not use any fans that could circulate the virus and the building is heated with boiler heat which is deemed safer.  

Masks are required for everyone, said Blaufuss.

The congregation is encouraged to move outside after the service if they care to visit, he said.

Missing from the service is the choir.  The decision to eliminate a choir was devastating, said Blaufuss.

“It was a sadness, but a necessary precaution,” he said.

The Passing of Peace was suspended for the outdoor services and has not been reintroduced indoors, Blaufuss said.  Neither was the coffee time following the service.  In addition, the pastor will light the altar candles and enter and exit from the same door.

One of the hardest decisions of all these precautionary efforts is that the church is not encouraging visitors.

“It is the antithesis of what we profess,” said Blaufuss.  “But at the end of the day, we need to eliminate any variable and protect our current members.”

The church is beginning to open up for limited meetings in three areas of the building.  Following a meeting, the vacant room is disinfected and then locked for three days.  In order to use a room, church members must make a reservation.

“There is no entrance to the rooms for three days following a meeting because it is believed that the virus dies within 72 hours,” said Blaufuss.

While services were held outside, 30-40 people attended each Sunday, said Blaufuss.  It was a better attendance than he had anticipated but he believes the numbers will decline with a move indoors. 

“Some people just don’t feel safe,” he said, so the audio sermons will continue to be available.

Blaufuss hopes for the development of a vaccine so that church life can return to normal.

“We hope that this is only temporary and that everyone understands,” he said. 

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