ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — On a Sunday morning, though Alexandria appeared quiet, worshipers were gathering together — online.
“Good morning,” members of Lake Community Church greeted each other when they arrived on Facebook Live.
Keeping watch was Pastor Jon Ewton, sitting by the fireplace in the church’s entry hall with a cup of coffee, his smile appearing on close to 200 smartphones, computers and TV screens around the area. Normally he would be standing outside the church, shaking hands, but this morning he said hello as he watched names pop up on Facebook.
“It’s encouraging to me to see the Body of Christ coming together,” he said.
In Douglas County, as in the rest of Minnesota and many states, in-person church gatherings have ceased in an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They are voluntarily adhering to Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, in effect until April 10. Their leaders have found themselves getting creative — and helping each other — to reach their members in new ways.
At the Church in the Pines, from 3-4 p.m. each weekday, members can drive through the parking lot and remain in their cars while Pastor Jay Jenson and his wife Rochelle pray for them.
At the Church of St. Mary, staff members filmed three Holy Week services over the course of several hours, placing and removing plants and decorations to fit the tone of each service — somber for Good Friday, joyous for Easter. They will post each service online on the appropriate day.
New Life Christian Church celebrated communion remotely, and members used what they had at home to represent the bread and the wine — with results that were, at times, unexpected.
New Life custodian Tom Bock searched his cupboards for something suitable for the bread; the closest thing he could find was a Cheez-It. For the wine (or grape juice, which some churches prefer), he found a bottle of V-8 juice.
“Then I was having a hard time getting it out of the packaging. You had to laugh about it,” he said, noting he wasn’t dealing with the usual elements. “Someone sent Pastor a picture, they just had a Ritz cracker and some water. (But) God knows what’s in your heart. God is going to honor that, where your heart is.”
Last week, local pastors met on Zoom to share ideas and technology. One church needed a certain adapter, which another church was able to furnish. Another needed 100 likes on their new YouTube channel, which the community was able to help with.
“It’s a steep learning curve for us,” said Pastor Darryl Knappen of Cornerstone Church. “It’s a challenge for all churches. How do we stay in touch with people? Not everyone has Facebook Live. Not everyone has an internet connection.”
His church baptized someone last Sunday, but their entire family couldn’t be there, “which was unfortunate, but that’s the way things have to be now,” he said.
To reach those without internet connections, churches are calling or texting their members and asking about their needs. For some, it might be prayer. For others, diapers or help paying rent. Home visits are off the table for now, some said, because staff members don’t want to spread the virus to their church members.
Worshipping together, yet apart, will take some getting used to. Pastors no longer get the immediate feedback of laughter when they tell a joke or see the heightened interest when they tell a story. Donations required to keep the church going are also an issue; many churches are educating their members about online giving.
North of town, Kristal and Ben Bomstad and their teenagers Parker and Tia would have normally been driving to church on a Sunday. Instead, they were home with the cats, Pepper and Rose, watching Pastor Ewton on their television screen while meat cooked on the grill on their back deck.
They each missed their Sunday routine in their own way. Parker missed his friends and Tia missed seeing all the little kids running around. Ben missed the small group teachings and Kristal missed the live band and seeing people face to face.
On the screen, Ewton called attention to all the changes.
“We’re kind of learning as we go,” he said. “This is our first pandemic.” He grins. Ben chuckles. Everybody hopes, of course, it’ll be the last.
New Testament Church Pastor Peter Reishus called the situation “surreal.” Yet he, and many of the pastors, said they hope their message will continue to resonate.
“We don’t need to be afraid,” Reishus said. “The Lord is going to take care of us.”