As in-person worship services and church gathering have been suspended due to COVID-19, congregations are adapting and finding new ways of doing and being church.
For some, that has meant live streaming worship for the very first time. Others have set up virtual small groups, Confirmation classes, youth groups, and congregational check-ins. Many are providing at-home resources for worship and faith-building. Some are working with emergency shelters and food pantries to meet vital needs.
Below are some particularly unique ways in which churches and individuals have risen to the occasion and tried new methods of caring for others and staying connected.
What are your creative approaches to ministry amid this health crisis? Email us so we can lift up your idea and inspire others!
Drive-up church: Several churces are exploring the idea of offering drive-up options for all of part of a worship service. This coming Sunday, Park Avenue UMC in Minneapolis is inviting people to drive to church, stay in their vehicles, roll down their windows, and listen to or join with carolers (why not carolers at Lent as well as Christmas, the church said in an email to the congregation) in singing familiar hymns. Those present will be invited to give their offerings from a safe distance and raise their hand if they have a prayer request to share. Similarly, Grace UMC in St. Cloud is exploring the idea of having a tailgate Easter service where families drive to church, stay in their vehicles with windows rolled down, listen to worship, and BYOB (bring your own breakfast or brewed coffee). (Note: If you want to do drive-up church and have everyone tune in on the radios in their vehicles, you can buy an FM transmitter, use it to tap into one of the outputs from the church's sound board, and choose an FM frequency not being used by local stations).
Broadcast church: Hope UMC in Blue Earth is broadcasting its weekly worship service on the local AM radio station. Worship is done from the radio station and includes music, prayers, scripture, and teaching. The church has broadcast services for many years at a cost of $35 a week, but Rev. Russ Jacobsen is making some adaptations given the current environment and hopes this will have especially strong reach because of it. “I am emphasizing to the congregations I serve that ‘the church gathered’ is on hiatus, but this is the time to be ‘the church scattered,’ he said. He has encouraged members to be the church for each other and reminded them of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
Virtual prayer gathering: Rev. Bill Eaves, who serves White Bear Lake UMC, is leading a brief prayer time each night at 7 p.m. using Facebook Live. Typically, he lights a candle, does a short reading, offers some thoughts about it, and then offers a prayer. During a recent online prayer time, he asked people what they are thankful for in the midst of the health crisis and invited them to reply in the comments. Some participate in the prayer time in real-time, and others watch the video later on. “It’s the vision of our church to provide nourishment for the hungers of life, and this seemed like a good way to stay connected with each other and to be grounded in faith at the end of the day,” said Eaves. “This interruption in our daily lives is a hard thing that we’re all having to do together. We need each other—and we need reassurance of God’s presence—especially since we aren’t together physically.” Christ UMC in Rochester is also live streaming a daily evening prayer service.
Virtual camp meetings: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rev. Nate Melcher brainstormed ideas to help his congregation stay connected while simultaneously spreading joy. The result: virtual camp meetings. “Camp is where I first understood I am loved by Jesus,” said Melcher, who serves Richfield UMC in Minneapolis. “Camp ministry is still where my heart is to this day, and using a camp-based origin was exciting for me. The goal is to give people the gift of 30 minutes of fun with their church and friends.” Every Wednesday evening at 8:35 p.m., Melcher hosts a virtual camp meeting that includes a welcome, a song, a prayer, some comedy bits, a reflection, a topical guest, announcements, and a closing word, ritual, or song. He named the first “season” of his camp meeting “Lent in a Tent,” and he broadcasts the show each week via Zoom from the inside of a tent in his backyard. The first episode resulted in more than 350 views (view the second episode here). “One of my spiritual gifts is joyful energy, and this is a good way for me to use it,” said Melcher. “Ten years ago, I made a conscious decision—as a result of a comedy show, no less—to live a life that leans into the hope of Jesus and casts off the cynicism of despair. This attitude is part of my faith and this show helps me to live out my calling in Christ.”
Feeding the homeless: New City Church, a new church start in Minneapolis that’s focused on environmental justice, just announced that it is raising and donating $10,000 to Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis. Simpson operates an emergency shelter and, because of the health crisis, has seen a drastic reduction of volunteers able to supply and serve meals to guests. New City’s donation will provide one month of healthy dinners for Simpson’s 100 guests. While meeting a vital need, this donation will also serve as an investment in a female entrepreneur of color—Ebony Turner, whose catering business, E.T. Delectables, will prepare the meals. “Fear protects us, but generosity shows us who we are,” said Rev. Tyler Sit. “New City Church practices generosity because it’s who the church is and who Jesus is, and we need to remind the world (and ourselves) that in this time of large change and big fear. Furthermore, Matthew 25 (“I was naked and you clothed me…”) demonstrates that God shows up in the lives of marginalized people in ways that the rest of society needs to pay attention to. New City refuses to operate in a toxic charity mindset of ‘we are benevolently giving to those lowly people over there.’ Rather, we see that the liberation of people living in homelessness is inextricably bound up in ours. Coronavirus demonstrates that spiritual truth in a microbiological way: if anyone is sick, we are all in danger. That’s true for poverty and all forms of oppression too (if anyone is oppressed, none of us are truly free).”
Breakfast boxes: Rev. Rachel Devereaux, associate pastor at Cross Winds UMC in Maple Grove, was hungry often as a child; her family simply didn’t have the resources needed to support four children. As an adult, addressing food insecurity is especially close to her heart. That’s why, when all Minnesota schools were ordered to close, she knew she had to do something to help students who relied on schools for meals. This week, she and her husband Jeff started providing “breakfast boxes” to families in need. Each box contains a box of cereal, a gallon of milk, a jar of peanut butter, two loaves of bread, 18 eggs, a pound of bacon, and a bunch of bananas. They have delivered 50 boxes so far, and not just to families; boxes have gone to college students having a hard time now that dorms have closed and a variety of others struggling to make ends meet. “In the Bible, you see Jesus eat with people of all different backgrounds and walks of life, and through those meals, the community of Christ was born,” said Devereaux. “Jesus took a plain loaf of bread and a meager cup of wine and turned them into the body and blood of Christ so that every time we took part in eating, we would remember the love that he has for us. It’s my hope that providing food to people helps them know that they are loved—more than they will ever know—and that my community is made that much richer by knowing them and sharing in the meal together.”
Feeding the community: Since January, Faith Church has served a free weekly Loaves and Fishes meal in its Farmington community—which in December lost its only grocery store. The church recently canceled in-person worship and other gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but leaders knew that many residents relied on them for a hot meal and felt it was important to keep providing one. So last week, they served 142 “to-go” meals; rather than people eating in the church building, they brought meals to people at the door of the church or directly to their vehicles. Then the following day, Faith Church was the host site for a carefully orchestrated grocery distribution that served more than 1,400 people in and around the Farmington community—small groups of volunteers prepared grocery bags filled with more than 20,000 pounds of food from Second Harvest Heartland and an additional 30 pallets of dairy products from Kemps. People were invited to drive up to the church and pick up a grocery-filled bag from outside the building to keep or to deliver to the doorstep of someone else in need. “We are called to love others, to trust God through Christ Jesus, and to give all we can to ensure we are ready to host the work of Jesus every day, in every way,” said Rev. Karen Evenson.
Virtual story time: Each day, Revs. Bethany and Luke Nelson—who serve Park UMC in Brainerd and Emily UMC—have used Facebook Live to read stories to the kids at Park UMC; the segments also include a brief prayer and sometimes a song. These are short, unscripted broadcasts intended to keep kids connected with their church family while they are apart. The Nelsons are also using Zoom (a video conferencing platform) to hold virtual office hours, do pastoral care visits, and host small groups. “The way that we do church has dramatically changed over the last few days, and our goal at Park is not just to reproduce what we've done in person to an online format, but to consider the current needs of our congregation and figure out how we might address them,” said Bethany Nelson. “We can’t avoid what’s going on, but can control our reaction and try to do so with intention and love.” (Note: Because most books are copyrighted, before reading one virtually, look up the publisher to see if it has requirements or restrictions in place; publishers that have lifted all restrictions, and allow books to be read virtually during the health crisis, include Kane Miller and Beaming Books—and author Matthew Paul Turner has done the same for his works.)
Paper airplane contest: Church planter Jeremy Peters, who is connected to The Grove in Woodbury and Cottage Grove, and his wife Chelsey wanted to come up with a way to create community online in the midst of social distancing. It had to be easily accessible and something that anyone could participate in no matter their resources. What they came up with was a virtual quarantine paper airplane contest that they advertised and hosted via Facebook. Families could choose to work together and enter one airplane, or each person could submit their own. Each airplane had to use just one piece of paper (no tape or additions) but adding color and design elements was encouraged—and entries were submitted in the form of videos that anyone could watch. Kids 13 and under could even win prizes mailed to their homes. The feedback was extremely positive. In 24 hours and with very little promotion, 33 people (kids, parents, and grandparents) submitted videos of their airplanes. More than 100 people interacted with the Facebook event. Some of the participants were from The Grove, some were community members, and some were friends and family. One entry was from a 5-year-old who was in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. “The operating values for our church plant are to encourage meaningful relationship, nature the goodness in our kids, and contribute to the well-being of our community,” said Peters. “We’re convinced that the paper airplane contest and future events like it are missional ways of living into those values, ‘planting seeds’ (as it were) that will lead to fruitful and faithful opportunities in the future. We’re steadily building connections and trust that will hopefully carry over when times aren’t so fragile.”
Meeting needs and checking in: Minnehaha UMC in Minneapolis has recently been intentional about using its programming and ministries to forge connections and build relationships, but those efforts have changed and ramped up significantly in light of the COVID-19 crisis that’s put members at a physical distance from one another. This week, the church created an online system for connecting people who need assistance with people who can provide assistance. If members themselves or others they know need a phone call, grocery shopping or delivery, rides to the doctor, or any other essential services, they can request help. And if members are willing to provide those services, they can let church leaders know and be connected with those who need it. The church is also assigning a “buddy” to regularly call and check in on all older members and starting a pen pal program to give members of all generations a way to keep in touch and support each other.
Sewing surgical masks: As hospitals and health care workers scramble to prepare for an influx of patients amid COVID-19, many health care facilities are already facing a dire shortage of protective gear—especially face masks—and accepting donations of homemade masks. Rev. Ruth Ann Ramstad, who serves Brunswick UMC in Golden Valley, recently ordered hundreds of yards of material and has begun making masks to give to local hospitals. They’re not just ordinary cotton masks, but instead ones that use non-woven fabrics, which are scientifically proven to be more effective. Why is she doing this? “It may be extremely helpful to vulnerable people, and even if it isn’t, it is a positive way for privileged, anxious people to do something immediately positive,” said Ramstad, who worked in both a sewing factory and a hospital residency prior to entering vocational ministry. “I find it very comforting that God has allowed me to have all of these disparate experiences and skills become obviously relevant” at this particular time. Ramstad’s prayer for the people who will ultimately receive the masks she makes: Stay well, and know that you are loved. Ramstad recommends the sewing instructions and patterns available here, and she has lots of extra specialized fabric, so anyone wishing to buy some to make masks is welcome to contact her (651-368-5196 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church