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Churches move outside to adapt to COVID-19

October 21, 2020

Covid-19 has changed the way many events take place, including church services. For two churches, the Urban Abbey and First United Methodist Church, this has meant moving worship services online. However, in the past two months, these churches have started to host outdoor services.

Since March, the two churches have been holding their separate services online with a small group of socially distanced people broadcasting services over Facebook Live. After a few months of doing services online, Urban Abbey Founding Pastor Debra McKnight found herself unsatisfied.

“I find it kind of hard to preach to a camera all the time,” McKnight said. “There’s no energy in the room or feedback. You can’t tell if people are falling asleep, or if they’re laughing out loud—there’s nothing.”

So, McKnight set out to find a remedy that could bring her church community together.

“I wanted to find a safe way for people to see each other, without it being too much risk to their health, and to help with how fatigued people are with social distancing and doing church online,” McKnight said.

The solution to this, she decided, would be to hold outdoor services. However, the Urban Abbey is ill-equipped because it’s a small downtown church with no meaningful outdoors space.

So, McKnight reached out to different pastors and asked them for help holding the services. One of the churches that agreed was FUMC which has a big front lawn with lots of green space for people to spread out.

The two churches worked together to hold their first joint outdoor service on Aug. 16. All those who attended were required to wear masks, socially distance, and to bring anything else they might want for the service, which, for most people, included chairs, communion bread, and fruit juice.

“It feels like not very nice hospitality,” said McKnight, “Church is supposed to be offering hospitality, but hospitality looks different in this time; it looks like hand sanitizer, and masks, and bringing your own chair.”

The service was received well by the church members, including long-time FUMC member Tim Fickenscher who felt the service provided him with a way to reconnect with his church community.

“The best part of it was seeing people I haven’t seen since February,” Fickenscher said. “The congregation is really our community, and now, the community happens—sort of—every Sunday morning on Facebook, except you don’t see anybody—you can read the comments on the side, but it’s not quite the same.”

Fickenscher has also enjoyed the services because of the opportunity to be outside.

“Part of my appreciation for being outdoors is appreciating the outdoors,” Fickenscher said. “There are a number of things out on that lawn that I’ve seen planted or helped plant. So, that is a connection to a bigger community; the grass, the trees, the garden, the shrubs.”

Including that first service, the Abbey has held four outdoor services, two of which were with FUMC. McKnight feels that they’ve all gone well, and she feels that they’ve given something back to her as well.

“I found the outdoor services to be really life-giving to me, as a church leader,” McKnight said. “I had forgotten how much I missed being with people. I’m not willing to bring people back into the Abbey and put people at risk, but it was so nice to be in a space with one another, and safely outside and safely at a distance.”

The Urban Abbey has at least one more outdoor service planned for the end of the month with another church they’ve worked with before, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Bellevue. McKnight also has another outdoor service planned for a couple months away.

“For Christmas Eve, we plan to, at the five o’clock service, just be outside, and sing ‘Silent Night,’ and if it’s not terrible, we’ll sing a few more songs—but if it’s terrible, it’ll probably just be ‘Silent Night,’” McKnight said.

Beyond that, she’s planning mostly online services once the weather gets too cold to be outside for too long, with, perhaps, the occasional indoor socially distanced service if they can find a space large enough to hold their congregation safely.

“There’s also a chance that we might try to do tiny church, where maybe twelve people are in the Abbey, and we record,” McKnight said. “And then, maybe other people can gather with their tiny church, and watch the service with five or six folks, in a place that’s safe and wearing masks, in a way that hopefully wouldn’t be a super-spreader event.”

For FUMC, Fickenscher thinks a few outdoor services might work, and he says he trusts the decisions the church has made so far regarding Covid-19.

“I think they’re being wise in following the health recommendations,” said Fickenscher. “I’m not against short, outdoor services, even in the snow. You just come appropriately dressed for cold—those of us who live in Nebraska know what that is, or should.”

He also thinks that in the future, indoor services might be possible once again.

“If the vaccines are available, people are taking the vaccines, and Covid-19 is under control, then going back to indoor would be fine, but I mean, that’s whole a lot of preconditions on what would make it okay,” he said. “My preference would be indoor services, but it’s got to be really safe.”

Overall, Fickenscher and McKnight seem to agree that the outdoor services have been good experiences, and McKnight feels that they have been a good opportunity to work with other churches.

“Whenever you create something together, you get to know people better, you get a sense of what different gifts people bring,” McKnight explained. “So, any time you can work together, I think you can build a deeper relationship.”

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