covid_churches

The Virginia Department of Health released guidance for religious communities, encouraging a hybrid approach. Asbury United Methodist Church, pictured above, also has online services. 

This season, Sunday morning looks a bit different. Instead of pews and a pulpit, it’s Facebook Live and lawn chairs.

As COVID-19 swept the globe, religious organizations were caught in the wave of closures that struck schools, businesses and other enterprises. In Harrisonburg, the trend rang true as houses of worship faced the challenge of adapting to the requirements of a pandemic-ridden world, bringing large-scale changes mirrored in the larger religious community.

“Several of the so-called experts, church gurus, visionaries … they’ve really felt that this has been a kind of hinge in history here,” David Burch, lead pastor of Vision of Hope United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, said. “We’ve entered into a whole new chapter of church life.”

For Jon Heeringa and his leadership team at First Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, adapting meant identifying the “essentials” and then working to give their congregation those essentials. Chief among those: worship.

At First Presbyterian, continuity of worship meant pre-recorded services released on Facebook. Now, several months into the pandemic, that approach has shifted to a return to in-person services that have been “streamlined” and pared down for safety. Among the changes to in-person services: No offering plate is passed around, and Communion is taken with “pre-packaged elements.” 

However, even with the return to an in-person model, First Presbyterian continues to offer a livestream to its congregants — a new hallmark of religious gatherings that Heeringa said isn’t going away

“There’s no way my church is ever going back to not offering a livestream option,” Heeringa said.

For many religious organizations, streaming has been a saving grace, as Facebook Live and YouTube have become hubs for electronic delivery of services and other forms of worship amid widespread restrictions on physical gatherings.

At Vision of Hope, Burch said he and his leadership team quickly pivoted to an online model in March. Burch said that though in the beginning, “everybody was scrambling,” Vision of Hope “has some really good people” that were able to make the transition to a digital model — which includes a stream of every service on the church’s Facebook page — run smoothly. And, he said, the digital platform has actually allowed for a positive effect as people connect in new ways that stand in for the interaction on a pre-pandemic Sunday morning.

“The neat thing about doing the service live … is that people are able to be engaged with folks who are actually here, you know, texting back and forth or making comments on the Facebook feed and actually participating,” Burch said. “It’s kind of created a virtual church family in a way where people are connected and are praying for each other and encouraging each other during the week.”

Now into the fall season, like First Presbyterian Church, Vision of Hope has also shifted to what Burch referred to as a “hybrid model.” While Vision of Hope still offers a livestream of its services, it also now hosts outdoor services where congregants can sit in their cars and listen through radios or sit in socially distanced lawn chairs for a closer resemblance to a pre-pandemic Sunday. As Burch said, “We’ve tried to offer the opportunity for people to participate in worship at their own comfort level.”

The Virginia Department of Health has also released guidance for religious communities, and the strategy it advocates largely lines up with what Burch and Heeringa described — a hybrid approach.

The guidance letter states:

“As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, most places of worship lost the ability to gather in-person, but many gained a stronger online presence. Consider nurturing both aspects for at-risk individuals, as well as for the increased capacity to reach and serve those outside of the walls of the faith organization.”

From the City perspective, Michael Parks, director of communications for Harrisonburg City, explained that houses of worship and other such entities fall under state regulations and aren’t monitored by city police departments such as the Harrisonburg Police Department (HPD). As such, the Harrisonburg City ordinance in effect that restricts social gatherings to 50 people or less doesn’t apply to “gatherings for religious exercise.” However, Parks said, if a religious organization chose to host an event outside of a regular worship gathering with over 50 people, the City may “look into [it].” 

Largely, though, decisions about in-person vs. digital models and reopening strategies largely fall on the shoulders of each religious community’s leaders. Burch and Heeringa expressed similar sentiments about the balancing act of providing religious services to a highly diverse group of people with differing opinions and experiences with the pandemic. 

“There’s just all kinds of angles that feed into people’s perceptions and experiences of all this pandemic [sic],” Burch said. “We have both young and old ... and they’re scared very much … and then at the other end, we have folks who have worked this entire time … they haven’t missed a beat, and they don’t feel the least bit of fear about any of it.”

For Heeringa, he said First Presbyterian has seen outliers, with some calling for a complete transition to a digital-only model, and others saying that churches should resume operations as before the pandemic — a theme also observed by Burch — the majority of people have dealt with the changes well.

Burch said he believes some of the response is based on the church’s location. As Harrisonburg has become  a hot spot for COVID-19 cases — three members at Vision of Hope died in the outbreak at the Accordius Health nursing home — many of the local churches have been cautious with their reopenings, Burch said. But, he said, in other, more rural parts of the state, reopenings have advanced at a much quicker pace.

“It’s funny — people from roughly Rockingham County northward, and into Northern Virginia and Richmond are more tense about this than folks south,” Burch said. “Take central Virginia and southwest [Virginia]: There’s been relatively few cases, and the churches down there … they’re pretty much wide open and a lot more relaxed. But here, locally … some congregations have not met in person at all.”

Looking at the long-term impact COVID-19 may have on religious communities, Burch said he believes that at least the Christian church as a whole may see a large shift toward a digitized model to match changes in cultural norms happening nationally and globally.

“People have found that they are not stuck to the Sunday morning, 11 o’clock time slot, and, you know, it’s possible to do your worship anytime, more individualized, and remain connected through smaller groups … and that’s not a bad thing,” Burch said. “It is interesting to see how this has all evolved, and I would say right now, at least at Vision of Hope, we are reaching more people now than we ever did before when we were just inside a building.”

As fall will turn into winter and COVID-19 continues to run its course, both Burch and Heeringa emphasized the need for continued innovation in the religious community. While a digital model may excel right now, they both said that long-term questions of engagement will require continued creativity to answer questions that may impact what organized religion looks like.

“I don’t think Christianity is a spectator sport — it’s something that people need to participate in,” Heeringa said. “The question I keep thinking about is, ‘How do I help people who are connecting with us online actually engage and participate and not just be voyeurs?’ I think that’s the kind of next-level question I keep thinking about — how do we do that?”

Contact Jake Conley, investigations editor, at breezeinvestigations@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.