Stripped of their glamorous programs, pushed outside of their beautiful buildings and cut off from all the big plans they had for the year, Minnesota churches have found that even when all the extras are gone, the beauty of faith remains.
After a few months of trying to figure out how to sanitize a very hands-on, hug-centric vocation, silver linings began to emerge from the COVID storm cloud, some of them surprising.
“I like to say that we’re becoming experts in trying to make the best of the bad situations we find ourselves in right now,” said the Rev. Brian Scoles, pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul, who is preparing to celebrate Christmas in a pandemic. “I think that these days the little things mean more than ever.”
For some, it was a return to the simplicity of the first church model.
“I think the silver lining is it got us back to the basics of church — just gathering together, being a community, being a family,” said the Rev. Jeff Kerr, pastor of Homestead Community Church in Farmington. “Church can become a lot of other things, but it really brought us back to the basics.”
Many enjoyed doing church outside in the summer so much, they intend to make it a tradition.
“Hey, Jesus didn’t have a building,” said the Rev. Jenny Lind Larsen of Christ United Methodist Church in Maplewood. “Folks came to realize it’s not the building but the people.”
Others became, perhaps for the first time, acutely aware of the needs in their communities and rose to the challenge.
“Our church became a site that the American Red Cross uses every month for blood drives,” said the Rev. Dana Nelson, pastor of Galilee Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roseville. “So far, this year we have collected 271 units for a total of 813 lives saved!”
The pews may have fewer parishioners in them, but the tithe checks haven’t stopped coming in.
“Our giving has increased, too, which we attribute to the greater sense of connection our ‘podrishioners’ are feeling,” said the Rev. Charley Swanson, communications pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, where everything is online. The “podrisioners” are parishioners who podcast the church’s sermons.
Nationally, churches are seeing their financial situation remain steady. According to Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm based in Ventura, Calif., 73 percent of churches polled reported that financial giving has either stayed the same or increased.
“It’s been a good year financially,” Kerr said. “And we’ve also seen people step up in giving towards money that we’ve been blessing other people with, like supporting some families in need this this season. So, the church has really stepped up generosity-wise.”
Church leaders may be known for keeping a stiff upper lip when it comes to suffering, but when the pandemic broke their ministry model, there was quite a bit of panic behind the hastily set up video camera. But somehow they managed it and flooded the internet with messages of hope and goodwill.
Some took easily to the virtual format, while others were pushed, as it were, onto the information superhighway and expected to drive and stay alive.
Barna Group said, like it or not, hybrid services are here to stay. People like choices, and watching church from home is a choice they’ve come to expect.
Even more surprising is that the 65 and older group, often seen as avoiding virtual communication, has really taken to it.
“Our 65+ group has become more active than ever,” Swanson said. “Once they learned how to use Zoom, they’ve been gathering online much more than they did in person. Everybody’s obviously becoming more comfortable with video technologies.”
He said the virtual format has also allowed them to collaborate and share resources with other churches, such as bringing guest speakers in via video.
And, while the virtual community has a different feel to it, the reach is substantially larger.
“Although our Cancer Companions support group had to meet online, this ended up being a very good thing in one respect,” Scoles said. “We had a participant from Dublin, Ireland, join us. And so did a woman in Arizona.”
In any crisis, people are often forced to take a serious look at their lives. Those unsatisfied with what they’ve found, are seeking out the church for help.
“We’ve felt more and more like we are essential,” said Kristie Kerr, wife to Jeff Kerr at Homestead. “They’re really needing to just talk with somebody, so we’re doing everything we can to be able to stay open so that we can be there for people.”
COVID-19 took a lot from Minnesotans: their fun, their livelihoods and, for 5,000, their very lives. As we surveyed the wreckage of 2020, we also saw the silver linings that came out of the pandemic for this daily series of stories. For other articles, go to twincities.com/tag/coronavirus.