COVID-19 innovations will make lasting impact on America’s churches
As the country and churches return to normal, many congregations are keeping programs they developed during the pandemic — and some are even coming up with new ones
The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede still remembers the moment when the idea for her pianoside service came to her.
It was February 2020. She was standing in the hallway of St. Paul Benson United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is lead pastor, and the band that usually played at one of the church’s five Sunday services called to say it wouldn’t be coming that week because the group didn’t think it was safe.
“Well, wait a minute,” the Rev. Ahlschwede recalls thinking. “If it’s not safe (to be at) one, then it’s not safe for the four other services.”
Almost every American had a moment like that near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — a moment when the creeping sense that something big was happening somewhere else was replaced by a sudden realization that their own life was about to be turned upside down, too.
As the Rev. Ahlschwede stood there in the hallway reeling, she had a vision: She saw herself sitting at one of her church’s three grand pianos alongside the minister of music, providing spiritual comfort that even people stuck at home could enjoy.
On that day, what the Rev. Ahlschwede calls “Pianoside Chat”— a nod to the Fireside Chats President Franklin Roosevelt gave in the midst of the Great Depression — was born. Each recorded “chat” opens and closes with live music and features a sermon in between.
The church has offered over 60 pianoside chats in the past 15 months. And even though life in Omaha is getting back to normal, the Rev. Ahlschwede says the unique approach to worship is here to stay.
As churches across the country reopen for in-person services, many other faith leaders are making plans for the future that include innovations sparked by COVID-19. The pandemic will have a lasting impact on how we worship, as well as who we worship with, pastors said.
Here’s a look at the other pandemic-inspired programs that churches plan to keep in place:
Courtyard worship and kayak devotions in Florida
When the Rev. Tim Rogers-Martin, who leads Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Indialantic, Florida, decided to start holding services outdoors last year, he wasn’t thinking about adding new congregants. But once the church began meeting in its courtyard for what the Rev. Rogers-Martin called “waterfront worship,” new faces began to appear.
“It’s a cool service,” he said. “We’re getting more new members for that service.”
Despite the Florida heat and the fact that the state is now open, the Rev. Rogers-Martin isn’t ready to go back inside. He intends to continue outdoor services in part because he thinks courtyard worship is more welcoming to newcomers than services indoors.
“Opening the church door for the first time is heavy duty,’’ he said. “It’s easier for people to come and take a seat out in the courtyard.”
In addition to continuing waterfront worship, Eastminster Presbyterian Church will also keep up with online services. For them and many other congregations, online worship is here to stay, the Rev. Rogers-Martin said.
“We’ll be livestreaming two services a week, a contemporary and traditional service. Instead of saying, ‘No, COVID is over,’ we’re investing more” in online services, he said.
Eastminster Presbyterian will also continue offering its adult education class online, the Rev. Rogers-Martin added, noting that online options are important for church members who are vaccinated but have loved ones at home who aren’t yet vaccinated or will never be.
Post-pandemic, the Rev. Rogers-Martin also plans to keep recording “kayak devotions” and sharing them with his congregation. The simple videos he records as he paddles through the water enables him to discuss God in new ways, using themes like abundance, trust and strength.
His first kayak devotion was spontaneous, he said, and was recorded on his iPhone as he paddled on the Indian River Lagoon last year. “I was surrounded by beauty and I wanted to share it and I did a devotion and posted it and people liked it,” he said.
He’s since gotten positive feedback from as far afield as Canada and Australia and Nepal. The Rev. Rogers-Martins says he plans to record more kayak devotions as he paddles in France and Croatia this summer.
“Beauty ... brings us closer to God,” he said.
Outdoor worship in South Dakota
In Hartford, South Dakota, innovations necessitated by the pandemic are helping bring separate congregations together and new people to church.
A group of pastors in Hartford saw outdoor gatherings as an opportunity to break down the barriers that traditionally separate churches from different denominations, said the Rev. Seth LaBounty, who leads Hartford United Methodist Church. They agreed to hold a group worship service in one of the city’s parks to remind everyone that their congregations’ commonalities are greater than their differences.
Moving forward, the Rev. LaBounty’s congregation plans to continue worshipping outside sometimes as they try to find the balance between being innovative and returning to familiar, pre-pandemic practices.
“For us, something that was innovative was doing worship online and we’re going to continue and refine it,” he said. “We’re also trying to do worship more outside in certain capacities.”
In nearby Sioux Falls, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church will keep offering the drive-up radio service it started last summer, even though some congregants are now meeting indoors again. The radio services have brought in some new worshippers, said the Rev. Lori Hope, who leads the congregation.
St. Mark’s will also keep initiatives in place that knit church members more closely together.
During the pandemic, congregants have conducted deep, autobiographical interviews with other church members, sending the videos of the conversations out to the entire church. The project, which is known as “Living Legacies” and which was started by an intern, will continue until every church member who wants to participate has been interviewed, the Rev. Hope said.
Family Sundays in Kentucky
Pathway Baptist Church in Calvert City, Kentucky, will use a program called “Family Fifth Sundays” to incorporate pandemic-related innovations into their post-pandemic routine, said the Rev. Nathan Mee, the church’s student and family pastor.
The Rev. Mee explained that when the church initially reopened, its nursery and other child care services remained closed. “What we found was we enjoyed having our kids in the service with us and having families worshipping together,” he said.
After the nursery and children’s church reopened, the congregation started holding occasional family Sundays to replicate the weeks during the pandemic when kids had to attend services with mom and dad.
On those “Family Fifth Sundays,” as they’re called, the church creates worksheets that dovetail with the planned sermon. The congregation also sings more kid-friendly songs, said the Rev. Mee.
Pianoside chats in Nebraska
The Rev. Ahlschwede’s “Pianoside Chats” have also brought families closer together.
Recently, a congregant who needed some help pulling up the service on her device called her adult daughter, who wasn’t a churchgoer. After sorting out the technological issue, she settled in for an episode of “Pianoside Chat.”
Now the daughter goes to the house every week to watch the service with her mom.