As in-person gatherings continue to be canceled and more restrictive guidelines seem to be announced almost daily in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rev. Nate Melcher started brainstorming ideas to help his congregation stay connected while simultaneously spreading joy.
The result: virtual camp meetings. Camp meetings were large-scale revivals in the 1800s that brought isolated people across the land to build faith and know they are not alone. “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.”
So 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). The primary intended audience is his congregation, but Melcher is thrilled that other Minnesota United Methodists are tuning in as well.
His guests are people who have some insight on topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, at the March 18 camp meeting, Richfield UMC member Barb Rogers talked about the more than 100 days of self-isolation she experienced due to health issues and gave insight into what prolonged social distancing can be like. On March 25, Rev. Emily Goldthwaite-Fries of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative discussed the impact of COVID-19 on Minnesotans experiencing homelessness. Next week, Rev. Rich Zeck of Brooklyn UMC will reflect on his experience leading First UMC in Fargo, North Dakota, through several years of no in-person worship on Easter Sunday due to the Red River flooding. And on April 15, Rev. Carol Zaagsma, who serves Portland Avenue UMC and is a member of the delegation to General Conference, will share her ideas on “What now?” with General Conference postponed until 2021.
“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.”
What creative virtual experience could you offer to help your congregation stay connected?
Three other creative ideas we want to lift up this week:
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.”
How can you create community online through a participatory event for your congregation and community?
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. “While the world slows down and pays attention to dealing with the virus and very real issues of life and death, we are all discovering more about what, and who, is important in our lives. Strangers are working together, neighbors are getting to know each other as we talk on the phone, leave notes for each other, and check to see if people are okay…My reminder to everyone who calls Faith their church: Love God. Love your neighbors—all of them. Do the best you can, for as many as you can, in all the ways you can, for as long as you can.”
How can your church adapt its ministries in our new environment and continue meeting vital needs in your community?
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 email@example.com).
How can you or your church use your skills to meet a vital need right now?
As we all adapt to new ways of being the church and connecting with people in our congregations and communities, what are your creative approaches to ministry amid this health crisis? Email us so we can lift up your idea and inspire others!
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.