For about two months, the coronavirus pandemic forced Wisconsinites to stay home, closing shops, restaurants, playgrounds and churches while people quarantined. How people interacted changed, in some cases, permanently.
Churches in particular turned to online services and drew greater participation. Although the state of Wisconsin allowed churches to reopen again in May for in-person services, online offerings through Zoom and other platforms will likely remain.
“The tone nationally is that churches feel like some aspect of this will not go away,” said Pastor Leonard Allen of Christian Life Assembly of God Church in Waunakee.
The small church has approximately 75 members, Allen said, and on average, about 35 people attend weekend services.
When the pandemic arrived and Wisconsin’s Safer-at-Home orders went into effect, the church began Bible study via Zoom, along with children’s programs. Kits with craft lessons were dropped off to all children earlier in the week and on Sundays, the church held a Zoom session with music, lyrics and a sermon.
Allen said he saw an uptick in attendance both for children’s programs and services.
“If you were to look at the number of people in the building, we had more people on Zoom,” Allen said.
Christian Life Assembly took several precautionary measures before reopening. The building is now sanitized regularly, and churchgoers are met with signage asking them to go home if they have experienced COVID-19 symptoms. The door is opened and closed by only one person, so no one else touches the handle. Touchless hand sanitizers and masks, both disposable and reusable, are available.
To maintain distance between the worshippers, every other row of seats is blocked off with tongue-in-cheek signs bearing messages such as, “This row is saved. Find one that is not and share the service with it,” or “Jesus sat the 5,000 down in rows. But not the rows with the blue tape.”
Sadly, the church members no longer sing together during services. Allen said a member with the health department advised that singing doubles the projectile of drops in the air that contain the virus.
His church, like many others, no longer takes offerings.
In the church tradition, members in need of prayer can come up and have hands laid on them, but that practice has discontinued for now.
Allen said he was concerned about a church member contracting coronavirus while attending a service and he took several steps to show how seriously the church had prepared.
“At the same time, I was very sensitive to the fact that our people felt they were being deprived of something that was very essential in their life,” he said.
Still, virtual services can’t provide all of the essential elements churchgoers receive.
“In our tradition, we believe in divine healing. We’re commanded to lay hands on people. We believe in immersion baptism, which obviously you can’t do on Zoom,” Allen said.
Members in church also have the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts, to prophesize if they feel God is saying something to them.
“All of these things are not very functional on Zoom,” Allen said. “Those require human touching or at least the presence of other human beings.”
At one of Waunakee’s largest churches, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and St. Mary of the Lake, in-person services began again June 1 after church leaders had properly prepared.
Monsigner James Gunn said the church began livestreaming services soon after churches were forced to close.
On a normal weekend, approximately 1,500 to 1,600 attend services at St. John’s, with about 300 at St. Mary’s, Gunn said. The largest attendance since reopening has been about 120 people.
Gunn said the livestreamed Masses have been popular, with viewers in India and Africa, where priests at St. John’s have come from.
The church livestreams two Masses in English and one in Spanish on the weekend, and the technology has been set up to be permanent.
“It’s a great service to those who can’t get to Mass. The elderly, they really appreciate it,” Gunn said, adding that snowbirds who winter in Florida or Arizona can now also watch online.
At St. John’s, a team sanitizes pews, door handles, and other surfaces after each Mass. One of the priests has a saying: “Gel in, gel out,” Monsignor Gunn said.
Hymnals, prayer cards and flyers have been removed, and people are encouraged to receive communion only by hand with lots of sanitizing. Social distancing has been easy in the spacious church.
Gunn said he approached opening cautiously and spoke to the entire staff about the precautions.
“People realize, it’s kind of a risk when you come here. If you go to the grocery store or to the drug store, there’s still a lot of people there, too,” Gunn said.
Parishioners have said they had missed communion and commented on how glad they are to be back at church, he said,
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, Gunn said the church parking lot has been used quite a bit.
“Several times during the week, I looked out in the parking lot and there’d be a circle of wagons,” he said, describing SUVs and minivans. “They’d be parked with the tailgates open. When Gunn approached the circle, he was told they were “just a bunch of moms” who get together and talk.
In lieu of the collection basket, Gunn said parishioners have given generously online, and a group of businesses opens for pop-up market in the parking lot Wednesdays where they collect donations, as well.
“That’s been a real blessing for us,” Gunn said.
North Ridge Church in Waunakee has always had a website and began posting sermons online about a year before the coronavirus pandemic caused services to discontinue. At that point, everything went online, including videoed sermons.
Pastor Brent Bickel said the more robust online services should have been produced prior to COVID-19.
The church averages about 200 to 300 in attendance on weekends but has several hundred members. The church conducts services at the Waunakee Village Center but has not begun to do so in person yet.
Since COVID prompted more online offerings, Bickel said he’s seen several trends emerge.
“We’ve seen a much wider audience as far as people engaging with the church and what the church is doing,” Bickel said. That includes many who have never come to the services.
“We’re very excited about that… We believe we have a message of great value that God loves us and cares about us and wants a relationship with us,” Bickel said.
Also, people are engaging with the church at all hours. Bickel said when he began the videos, he was testing the technology a little after midnight, and about 10 to 15 people began chatting online with him.
The church leaders expect in-person services to begin in the next few weeks, and currently are talking to health officials, school officials and those at the Village Center.
“We need to be in coordination and in tandem,” Bickel said.
Bickel also wants to be sure when church services do resume, they can accommodate all who wish to come. Two Sunday services may not be enough.
“If we were to open and we have to turn people away because we’re at capacity, that just doesn’t really jive. It doesn’t fit with our church,” he said.
At FPC, the First Presbyterian’s Church board voted to bring people back into the building in July, said Pastor Kirk Morledge.
Like the other churches, online attendance has been far higher than in-person, in some cases, more than double, Morledge said.
“It could be a greater hunger. It could be a copmbination of a greater hunger and a greater ease of access,” he added.
Some have expressed a desire to return to the church to worship, as well. But Morledge said he foresees some form of virtual services remaining, noting other institutions likely have discovered an alternate method for delivering services, as well.
“In some ways, churches are like schools, and students and teachers are realizing they can connect in with each other in ways they didn’t realize before,” Moreldge said.