Churches adapt, worship, keep reaching out

By Mike Genet and Bill Althaus The Examiner

Heading into the Advent and Christmas season, many area churches have continued to live-stream or record services, continuing what they pivoted to in March and April, while cautiously welcoming limited numbers of worshipers back.

First Baptist Church in Independence, like many area churches, has continued to offer live-streamed or recorded services throughout the pandemic, even as it has allowed limited attendance.

But the current surge of COVID-19 cases has tempered or curtailed plans to open a bit more and have larger services for Christmas.

Robyn Miller, pastor at Woods Chapel United Methodist Church in northern Lee’s Summit, said their church had been online with services until returning with socially distanced services in the fall, but recently went back online with new public health guidelines.

“We simply believe it is safer for our congregation,” Miller said. “We have always live-streamed our services available, and we will continue to live-stream all our services.”

“We have a more traditional service, with hymns and an organ, and a more modern service with a band. We try to offer everything members of our congregation are looking for.”

The church is taking reservations for those wanting to attend Christmas services, though Miller said a spiritual community can still be one without all the physical presence.

“This is a time where people are seeking sanctuary, but a sanctuary does not have to be in a physical building,” she said. “You can find sanctuary in your living room while we struggle with large gatherings in our community.”

“Matthew 18:20 says, ‘When two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.’ This isn’t just true when you gather in a church; it is true wherever you gather.”

“When it became allowable, we started having people,” said Dr. Kevin Payne, pastor at First Baptist Church in Independence. “Some were resistant to the mask thing, but we’re all doing it now.”

But the people returning have been few enough, and First Baptist’s space is large enough, that social distancing is possible without setting an attendance limit. The church has live-streamed services, Payne has recorded sermons for online viewing, and Bible studies and virtually all group meetings have been online.

“We didn’t anticipate this,” Payne said about the pandemic being so prevalent for so long, “and the only thing we can do is what we’re doing.”

“I think across the board, everybody’s struggling. We’re trying to function as normally as possible within the restrictions we have, but a lot of my people are staying home. What I’ve been forced to do is more time on the phone talking to my people, and I write a letter (online) to the congregation every few weeks. They did seem to appreciate the personal touch of a letter.”

Some churches with in-person services use various methods to promote social distancing, such as taping off whole pews, marking available spots and noting appropriate distances while in line. They’re also offering hand sanitizer, requiring masks, sanitizing worship spaces after services and using other methods besides the traditional collection baskets to take donations.

Singing often is limited to one or a couple unmasked musicians, save for those in the congregation singing underneath their masks.

Timothy Lutheran Church in Blue Springs returned with services at its two locations in August – one service at each location – with distancing and sanitizing modifications.

“We no longer pass an offering plate, but have an offering box on a pedestal in our lobby,” said Diane Mayfield, the church’s business manager. “We live-stream our services and will continue to do that for members of our congregation who do not feel comfortable returning to our two churches.”

In a message to his congregation, Pastor Brian Hetzel of Pointe of Hope Church in Blue Springs specifically asked people to keep their masks on at all times in church and encouraged moving small-group meetings for church to online and to share worship service recordings on social media.

“We ask you to do this out of concern for others, if not for yourself,” Hetzel said regarding masks. “Our doors remain open, but I want to remind those of you with ongoing health issues to stay the course. I know it’s been quite a sacrifice for all of you, and I’m praying for you. We will as a church keep practicing social distancing, and ask that people keep 6 feet away from those who are not in your party.”

For any church, it has become a case of making the best with what they can.

“We’re coping OK,” said Rev. Bob Stone, pastor at Nativity of Mary Catholic Parish in Independence, adding that with about 40 percent capacity the church can spread out close to 80 people.

“It was really difficult when we completely shut down,” Stone said. “We’ve been live-streaming from the beginning, and that’s been working fine. We’ve been having Masses for quite some time, and even a couple meetings.”

Stone said although some members of the parish have been diagnosed with COVID-19, there have been no cases of spread in the church, even with the elementary school on campus. For Christmas services, he said, they could live-stream services in the parish hall if there’s overflow from the limited capacity.

“We think we’re doing a pretty good job,” he said. “I think we’re coping and doing everything we can do.”

The parish has also started phone trees to keep in touch with parishioners who haven’t been to Mass since March. While parishioners appreciate the live-stream option and hope it will continue to some degree when the pandemic ends, Stone says they also know that’s not the same without receiving the holy eucharist, a central part of the Catholic faith, in person.

“When this is over, nothing’s going to replace that,” Stone said. 

Similarly, Payne says, his church is doing OK, but longing for more return to normal.

“It’s beginning to be a chore,” he said. “They understand the needs of these restrictions, but they’re chafing at it.”