As congregations navigate the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on worship, responses can vary greatly, even in the same town.
After using only online platforms for worship for 12 weeks, Journey Mennonite Church’s campuses in South Hutchinson, McPherson and Yoder, Kan., reopened for in-person worship on May 31 and have been offering physical and online options ever since.
First Mennonite Church in Hutchinson has been looking at the same community data and is still online-only.
Journey directional pastor Jim Ostlund said church leaders looked at state guidelines on group gatherings and have kept in touch with county health department officials on a weekly basis.
“We could have opened the doors and packed them in,” he said of state exemptions for churches on limitation mandates. “But we didn’t feel that was safe, so we took a more conservative route.”
Ostlund believes about 60 percent of Journey’s participants are meeting online, and 40 percent are gathering in person. The South Hutchinson facility spaces people in multiple services in chairs. The McPherson location clusters by households at round tables. There is no requirement for masks during worship and singing, but they are recommended as people enter and exit buildings.
At Yoder, families were sitting together “living room”-style at couches.
“In recent weeks our Yoder campus is experimenting with some house-church opportunities,” Ostlund said of groups of 10 to 15 people gathering in “missional communities” that meet to watch online videos and pray together. “. . . Having online and on-campus and on-mission missional communities gathering is an adaptable strategy to meet people where we are, understanding not everyone has the same perspective on the pandemic and the wearing of masks.”
First Mennonite Church’s leadership team and a task force of members who work in medical professions have thus far concluded livestreamed worship services are working, although there are plans to reassess the situation on Aug. 9.
“We would want to see the community transmission numbers go down,” said Pastor Tonya Ramer Wenger. “. . . We’ve figured out in our space we can seat 15 or 16 households safely. I don’t know when we’ll decide when that should be. . . . People really enjoy watching worship drinking coffee on the couch.”
She has taken part in a weekly online gathering of about 40 Reno County pastors, nearly all of whom serve churches that returned to in-person worship before the state experienced a spike in positive cases in July.
“Some of those big churches are back and singing, and there’s definitely a spread here,” she said. “There were definitely some churches when Reno County spiked with a transmission rate going on, and a few decided to go back online. . . .
“Things keep changing. Even though I felt a little silly being the only one not back in person, I’m really glad we stayed the course because we didn’t have to deal with the flip-flopping and agonizing.”
First Mennonite is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Western District Conference, which is split somewhat evenly between churches worshiping only online and others meeting physically indoors or outdoors.
New Danville Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., has been meeting outdoors since late May. Several congregations in MC USA’s Virgina Mennonite Conference have done the same.
A member of LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference), New Danville’s challenges ranged from high-tech questions about digital solutions to seeking refuge from the sun and rain.
“We have two mature trees, but the problem is as the sun moves the shade gets smaller,” Pastor Robert Brody said. “We’ve set up a few 10-foot by 10-foot canopies for some additional shade and have trimmed down the services to only 50 minutes to an hour.”
Brody said some visitors have been attending services, and the congregation is contemplating how to move indoors when the weather cools in the fall.
“We’ve grown so much in the last five years that a typical Sunday doesn’t have any empty seats,” Brody said. “So we’ll probably start doing two services to be able to have some kind of distancing indoors.”
Five miles to the north at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, worship still takes place only on Zoom, with a recorded sermon and music.
Congregational care pastor Susan Gascho-Cooke said the worship committee discerns with a congregational COVID task force.
“We counted it up, and we have something like 75 medical professionals, from doctors and licensed practical nurses to dieticians,” she said. “So we have a deep bench to choose from.”
In non-COVID times, a typical Sunday would bring 180 to 200 people to a Sunday worship service. In the spring the church averaged about 110 devices logging on to Zoom for worship, which dipped a bit in the summer to around 90 devices.
With about half the congregation 65 or older, the congregation has chosen to move slowly, building in a two-week gap for action if there is a broader shift to reopening activities.
“That task force has really helped us narrow down what’s wise and what’s doable,” said Gascho-Cooke, who worked for five years as a hospital chaplain in an infectious disease area. “The numbers here have never felt great, so in that sense there haven’t been great arguments not to be cautious, in my opinion.”
Lancaster connections prepared Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., for its switch to worshiping online via Zoom in March. That’s the way it met with LMC two years ago when it began the process of joining.
Yellow Creek worshiped online or outdoors until returning to its sanctuary on May 24.
“Even in talking to a lot of other Mennonite churches, there was a wide range of perspectives on the severity of it,” said associate pastor Doug Gerber. “There was a push that we want to be back in. That was a conversation everyone was having nationwide, no different than here.”
Alternate pews are blocked off, sanitizer is available and masks are recommended with roughly 90 percent of congregants doing so. Masks are required for singing, and the number of songs is limited. Typical summer attendance is about 200, but this year it has been 60 to 100, without about 30 households joining online.
When positive cases spiked in the Elkhart County area about a month ago, Yellow Creek monitored the situation, but Gerber said leaders determined it “occurred in a population other than our congregants.
“It was about the time trailer factories opened back up to the workers coming back in. We also had a number of Amish where we even saw a bit of a disregard for spacing and masks,” he said. “We have some individuals in our congregation who would be in some of those groups, but not a large percentage.”
Across town, North Goshen Mennonite Church has met in-person only once, outdoors, to meet a pastoral candidate. Otherwise the congregation has worshiped exclusively online.
Worship commission chair Becky Nussbaum is a nurse at Goshen Hospital. She and another nurse practitioner at the church have felt COVID-19 is still too prevalent to have regular in-person gatherings safely.
The church has held online worship services twice a month and started a newsletter and a weekly meditation in English and Spanish sent by mail and email.
“June is when Elkhart County became a hotspot, and our church is about 30 percent Latino,” Nussbaum said. “The most affected people are Latino and Amish. We have a lot of elderly people, and we thought we just can’t meet.”
She said the congregation also looks to Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church for direction. That’s where Goshen Hospital infectious disease officer Dan Nafziger attends. It is also not physically gathering.
“We had someone die from COVID-19 three weeks ago,” Nussbaum said. “I think that makes it real to people. He was 83 years old, so he had some risk factors.”
Many USMB churches minimally regathering
U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches national director Don Morris said on July 31 that a majority of U.S. MB churches had begun at least minimal in-person re-engagement.
“Many are doing in-person as well as online for those who aren’t yet comfortable in meeting,” he said.
Some California churches had been regathering but had to reverse course after positive cases spiked there.
“All churches that I’m aware of are practicing the social distancing and meeting requirements required by their state,” he said.
An MB Foundation survey completed by 31 percent of USMB churches in June indicated 75 percent of those congregations were starting to meet in person.