Monday, January 17, 2022

Omicron Causes Churches to Reconsider Online-Only Worship

By Cassy Benefield | SpokaneFā

Reprinted with permission

When Pastor Cody Natland’s Moran United Methodist Church community restarted indoor worship in their sanctuary in Nov. 2021, he didn’t even make it all the way to the pulpit at the beginning of the service before he started crying.

Pastor Cody Natland and his family/Contributed

So, when Natland sent out an email on Jan. 8 announcing the church will pause in-person worship services for four weeks, the message was bittersweet.

“That first praying the Lord’s Prayer and hearing the voices was deeply emotional and really meaningful,” said Natland about their first indoor gathering since COVID restrictions began. “My spirit rejoiced in not praying that prayer alone because it’s always been a prayer that is prayed primarily in my experience in a communal setting.”

Prior to the announcement, Natland watched the case numbers go up from 200 around Christmas to the highest case rates since the pandemic began—to more than 800 cases on Jan. 6 and 7. On Spokane Regional Health District’s website, that count, including probable cases, was 1,239 on Jan. 12.

To help make his decision, Natland leaned heavily on John Wesley’s first rule for the Methodist movement he founded years ago: do no harm.

“I think we need to be mindful of not just the harm that could come to our folks in our church, but also if we get people outside of the church sick or how we’re interacting with the community as a whole and what each of us does as an individual impacts the number of folks in the hospital,” said Natland, showing how all these things are connected.

SRHD Public Information and Government Affairs Manager Kelli Hawkins said churches making extra safety efforts such as MUMC pausing indoor services are wise at this time because of the Omicron variant and its ease of transmissibility.

On Jan. 11, the SRHD put out a press release recommending all large school gatherings be canceled and other mitigation suggestions until case numbers stabilize.

“So, a church is similar. You know their congregation is probably from the surrounding neighborhoods and that’s going to affect one segment of the community more so than anyone else,” said Hawkins.

She said pastors and leaders of any spiritual assembly can make their in-person meetings and their community safer if they at least promote online gatherings to those who don’t mind staying home to watch services, even if they still continue indoor worship.

“Our hospitals are at high capacity already,” said Hawkins. “Even just a small spike in COVID cases needing hospitalization is going to put them over the edge. It’s really important to protect our healthcare system right now.”

However, some congregations are opting to continue in-person worship, with safety precautions in place.

In another Spokane County neighborhood, The Rock Church will keep doing what they have been doing since December 2021, when they began in-person worship.

Lead pastor Zac Minton and his staff will keep their two six-foot signs displayed that say masks are required indoors and people should continue to be six feet apart, which is easy for his church to do because, according to Minton, their space is large and can accommodate 100 people with 10 feet between them.

Pastor Zac Minton and his family/Contributed

They will also continue live-streaming their worship, which they have done since the church began in 2018, and they will continue to add to their online services more ways to engage with one another in real time.

For Christians struggling with how to navigate COVID in church settings, he would say to them, “Don’t be afraid of online stuff. Paul did ministry from afar. We can do the same thing.”

In addition to leading his church, Minton works with Church Marketing University, a Christian marketing firm whose “goal is to help [churches] see more visitors each week and more lives changed than ever before,” according to their website. As part of that team, he teaches churches that social media is the new town square.

“Listen, if the majority of Americans are more on Facebook than at the mall, if we’re followers of Jesus, that’s a mission field,” said Minton. “So, I would point people, no matter who they are, do ministry online through the week. What I mean by that is don’t post stuff ‘what your church is doing’. Ask people, ‘how can I pray for you?’ or ask people what are needs that are out there.”

When he is preaching, he asks people to ask him questions online, and he’ll answer those questions in real-time. According to Minton, this helps the roughly 45% of his congregation—who haven’t been back to in-person worship but who attend faithfully online—feel like it’s a real service.

Minton grew up in the south where there were church activities all around him, but he doesn’t remember anyone coming to his house to tell him about Jesus.

“I was homeless as a kid. My mom was a prostitute and a drug addict. People would not come to our house because of who my mom was,” said Minton. “I don’t want people to feel that.”

So his philosophy of church is to do “whatever it takes so that other people can meet Jesus.”

He also uses humor when controversies get heated.

For example, the majority of people who meet in-person for worship do not wear masks, even though he still does and encourages others to do the same.

“Some people are freaked out about masks—that we shouldn’t be wearing masks—and I’ve said several times, I don’t know why people get freaked out. Church people have been wearing masks for a long time,” said Minton.

Still, he won’t make people wear masks indoors or kick them out of the service if they don’t because that might be a barrier that keeps them from knowing Jesus.

“I don’t think we have it figured out, but I think God is doing something really cool with people,” said Minton. “He’s bringing people together with all kinds of different beliefs, and we can lay that aside to worship the Lord.”

This news story was made possible by contributions to FāVS from readers and members like you. Thank you.