The COVID-19 pandemic rendered typical church services into virtual gatherings. And at least one local pastor has discovered that coronavirus has, in a way, enlarged his congregation.
Havre Assembly of God Pastor Edroy “Curt” Curtis met with his board Thursday night to discuss the best approach to maintaining the church’s recently bolstered digital presence and the many new virtual congregants it has garnered.
Havre Assembly of God was one of few churches that had in-person meetings last Sunday, the first day of Phase 1 of Gov. Steve Bullock’s plan for reopening Montana.
But during the previous weeks of Montana’s stay-at-home mandate, Curtis’ church, like many others, took to congregating over the internet. Curtis made videos of sermons and preached over the web.
“As a church, we had to find a way to get into their home,” he said Thursday of his congregation’s members.
And as he worked with his team to get the word out, a surprising thing happened. Curtis learned that more people were tuning in virtually than the approximately 150 who attend in person on a regular Sunday. So now the question, the reason he met with his board, is, “How do we sustain this going forward?”
If they want to retain their digital audience, Curtis said, chances are some money will have to be spent on equipment.
Meanwhile, the solid doors of the church will be opening Sunday for the second week in a row. However, Curtis points out in a video posted on the church’s Facebook page, “Not all of you can come, and not all of you should.”
Per preventive guidelines, at-risk people — age 65 or older and those with underlying conditions — should not attend in person, he said.
The church will continue its digital presence for those who’d like to continue worshipping from home, Curtis said.
Other churches to open this Sunday are Van Orsdel United Methodist and Fifth Avenue Christian Church.
Fifth Avenue Pastor Rick Hodshire posted a video Wednesday on the church’s Facebook page, taking viewers on a walk-through of what they can expect when going to church Sunday.
First things first: Churchgoers are told not to touch anyone — no handshakes, no hugs.
Once inside the building, a station will be set up where people can grab a face mask and gloves. It’s not mandatory, Hodshire points out, but everyone is welcome to one.
The coffee and donuts in the fellowship hall, a pre-service staple at Fifth Avenue, will be absent for the foreseeable future.
Fifth Avenue’s robust children’s ministry also will not be in session, perhaps “until after school starts,” Hodshire said.
The children, upon entering the sanctuary with their parents, will receive a busy bag that will include coloring materials.
At the entrance of the sanctuary, ushers will seat parishioners, although the setup will look a little different. People will be sitting in table groupings to help with physical distancing. Church staff has moved tables into the sanctuary and put chairs around them. Households will sit together, while separated from others.
Communion will be served, but people won’t be allowed to grab their own cup and bread. A server wearing gloves will hand them out.
When it comes time for the offering, attendees will be asked to drop in their donations without touching anything.
Staff will dismiss people by table and ask everyone to disperse quickly so disinfecting and cleaning of the sanctuary can begin.
There’s a good chance this is what church will look like during all three phases of Montana’s reopening, Hodshire said, adding an upbeat twist to it:
“We need to be able to keep some distance between us, but that’s OK because it’s allowing us to worship,” he said. “We’re under some constraints now, but it’s OK, it’s a blessing. … This is allowing us to be in the same room again.”
Write to Paul Dragu at firstname.lastname@example.org