During the next few weeks, as we become accustomed to dating our checks 2021, we will likely also issue a sigh of relief that 2020 is now happily in the past.
A year ago we had no awareness of such phenomena as coronavirus, COVID-19 or pandemics. We didn’t guess that we would be regulated by such things as social distancing, home confinement and certainly couldn’t believe that we would all be wearing masks whenever we came together. Now, these practices have become the new normal.
The last time I went to church was Feb. 9, 2020, nearly a year ago. And this wasn’t my fault. The church didn’t want me; indeed, the church newsletter told me to stay home. If I came to church I might either catch or spread the deadly virus.
And this exclusionary policy not only had an impact on us church-goers, it had a severe impact on the churches as well. So last week I contacted several pastors to find out how they coped with the 2020 pandemic, what lessons they learned, and how they viewed their welfare during 2021.
The universal responses pointed out that the church is not the building, but the people. All pastors I talked with said that they deeply missed seeing the people in church on Sunday, and looked forward to filling the pews again this year.
One of the major challenges they faced during the shut-downs was adapting to the technology that brought the congregation back together on Sunday. Most churches used Zoom, or broadcast some form of worship service online.
Now this wasn’t a simple, automatic process. Pastors are trained in theology, not technology. Yet the good news was that nearly all the churches had people in their parish who stepped in and quickly helped to set up the process that virtually brought the congregation together, not only on Sunday morning, but several times during the week.
Technology was not an obstacle, but became an opportunity. Several pastors expressed gratitude for the probability that they would use this technology in more creative ways as the new year unfolds.
Holidays became more of a challenge. When the virus appeared in February, most predictions expected that it would be over by Easter. This did not happen. Some churches held outdoor sunrise services, with attendees maintaining social distancing, but there were few sanctuaries decorated with spring flowers and filled with members clad in their Easter finery.
And when the pandemic intensified through Thanksgiving and Christmas, the impact became even stronger. Singing was only a way to spread the virus, so there were no choir cantatas, no services where we could sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.”
Some churches held virtual pageants, with children reading their parts from home over Zoom, and the organist playing the carols from the church organ. One church organized a Christmas “trail walk” around the building and its campus, re-creating the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the trek of the Wise Men across the desert.
All churches need money, so I asked the pastors how their finances held out during the year, and nearly all praised the generosity of their people, who mailed their contributions, or dropped them off at the church office.
One person told me that he couldn’t travel, or even eat in a restaurant, so he had even more money to give to the church. Most pastors indicated that their churches were able to donate to food pantries or meals on wheels, and actually increased their outreach.
One pastoral service ministers perform regularly is the visitation of their people in the hospital, but the virus pretty much prohibited them from this ministry. They were, however, usually able to make phone calls into the rooms. There did not appear to be many church members who had contracted the virus. Did this indicate that belonging to a church would keep you safe? I have seen no statistics on this.
When I spoke to the pastors about how they expected the new year to unfold, most were quite hopeful. They felt that they had learned something about using technology, and would use it in more creative ways, involving more members, such as taking more leadership roles in the Sunday services. And yes, they felt and expected that the new vaccines would enable them to open their doors again, because it is important for persons to come together to worship God.
The Christian Church has been around in some form for more than 2,000 years, and the Jewish faith for that many more. The future is bright, and the pandemic has simply taught the church leaders to be more creative. So, as we all enter 2021, we say to all the churches, Happy New Year.
Harry Bronkar is a retired Baptist minister living in Seven Lakes. Contact him at email@example.com.