When Sonlife Community Church regathered in person on May 31, pastor Paul Devall arranged for social distancing, recommended his congregation wear masks, and opened all the doors and windows.
He’s pretty typical. Across the country, churches have been taking advantage of the outdoors, capitalizing on the ability to spread out and the larger volume of air. Some pastors have preached from a stage to a congregation in cars. Some have set up chairs for services in parking garages or lawns or parking lots. Some have encouraged all after-service fellowship to convene outside.
But Sonlife, which is in Minnesota, has already hit the snag that’s coming to everyone.
“Up here in the northland, it’s gotten kind of chilly to leave the windows open,” Devall said.
As the temperatures drop, spending time together outdoors swings from lovely to miserable. For Sonlife, which is relatively protected by its small size (about 40 weekly attendees) and location (a rural town of 400 with no known COVID cases), that just means they shut the windows. But for larger congregations, it isn’t so simple.
TGC asked five pastors how they’ve been using the relative safety of outdoors, how the weather is a challenge, and how they’re thinking creatively about the changing seasons.
Pastor: K. Edward Copeland
Church: New Zion Baptist Church
Location: Rockford, Illinois
Size: 140 households
New Zion Baptist Church is predominately African American. Since COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rates have all been higher among African Americans, their churches have been more careful.
“We aren’t going back into the building until it’s completely safe,” pastor and TGC Council member Edward Copeland said. “In my estimation, there’s no way we’re going back in before the end of the year.”
So in June, when Illinois was lifting some restrictions, the church bought an FM transmitter. And Copeland began standing outside on the platform of a stage truck, preaching to a gathering of parked cars with radios tuned to his station.
“I didn’t think people would come out and sit in their car,” Copeland said. “But they do it so they can see other people. They really appreciate it.” They liked it so much that when Copeland was recording his sermon inside one rainy Sunday, they came anyway just to be at church and see each other.
But as the temperature drops, he’s worried about them sitting in parked cars in the cold. The average daily high for a Rockford winter is around 30 degrees.
“We’re not going to do that,” Copeland said. “We already prepared people that when the weather turns cold, they should take full advantage of what we’re doing online.”
He knows that’s not a perfect solution: around one-fourth to one-third of his congregation isn’t proficient on the internet. And many others are feeling Zoom fatigue.
New Zion leaders have tried going to the homes of seniors to show them how to log in, but it hasn’t caught on. They’ve enjoyed better results giving seniors a phone number they can dial to connect by phone. Many of them feel more comfortable with that process, even though they can’t see what’s happening, Copeland said.
He knows the mental and emotional costs of not meeting in person. “We talk about it all the time,” he told TGC. One of his church members is a psychology professor, and together they did a mini-series on family dynamics. They’ve planned another on boundaries.
New Zion also keeps reaching out to its members. “We have various Zoom Bible studies literally every day,” Copeland said. At the beginning of each, the leaders ask how everyone is feeling. The participants split into the breakout rooms to talk about things they’re grateful for and things they’re struggling with. Three times a week, the church sends an encouraging voicemail to everyone.
“When you keep it in the forefront, people know mental and emotional health is part of being spiritually healthy,” Copeland said. He’s been able to catch some situations early that way. “We talk about it so that people can feel free to say when they aren’t feeling their best.”
Even through the challenges, Copeland can see God at work. His Zoom Sunday school class has more than doubled, from an average attendance of around 30 to nearly 70.
And “by God’s grace, we have not had a Sunday that people didn’t join” the in-person worship service, he said. “It’s someone’s neighbors, or a guy from their job, or a lady whose kids go to their school. Every time we’ve met in the parking lot, and I extend the invitation to discipleship, someone has come forward. That was not the case before the pandemic.”
At least three people are waiting to be baptized. “God has been doing what he does,” Copeland said. “It’s nothing we’ve done. He’s decided to ‘add to the church daily.’’”
Pastor: Dale Shaw, pastor of urban outreach
Church: College Park Church
Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
Size: 2,400 members
When College Park Church stopped meeting in the spring, the executive team bought every staff member a camp chair.
“It set a tone as we began to go outside,” Shaw said. The staff used their chairs in outdoor meetings, where they planned a drive-in prayer service and book giveaway, a women’s gathering, an outdoor gathering to listen to furloughed symphony musicians, and encouragement for the members who felt comfortable gathering in homes to watch livestream worship services together.
As the congregation resumed in-person meeting in August, College Park has used the outdoors a lot: after services, people are directed to talk to each other outside. Leaders hold staff meetings under the building’s awnings (and sometimes in lead pastor Mark Vroegop’s garage with the door open). Occasionally, the congregation is invited to hang out around fire pits, music, and coffee trucks in the church parking lot.
As the weather cools, College Park has already invested in outdoor space heaters, and is thinking about lighting up fire pits in the parking lot after worship services.
“We will try to be as creative as we can to encourage people not to just sprint for their cars,” Shaw said. He’s added a space heater to his own front porch so he can continue to minister outdoors in his neighborhood for as long as possible.
“We’re taking it one month at a time,” he said.
College Park’s counseling groups have seen more struggling marriages, along with more opiate and alcohol addiction. But another 300 people joined in-person services in August, and giving has been steady. College Park tightened its budget in some areas in order to free funds for global and local benevolence. They sent $50,000 to China, helped a hospital in Nepal keep its doors open, and bought 45,000 family food boxes to give out in Indianapolis.
“God has been so good and faithful in this crazy season,” Shaw told TGC. “His lovingkindness is better than life.”
Pastor: Sam Ferguson
Church: The Falls Church Anglican
Location: Falls Church, Virginia
Size: 2,000 members
The new sanctuary of The Falls Church Anglican seats about 1,000 people. When the church regathered in August, leaders offered one indoor worship service, with attendance limited to 200.
“We have an outdoor service at 11 a.m. on the fifth floor of the parking garage,” pastor Sam Ferguson said. The Falls Church Anglican sets up about 250 socially distanced chair groupings. “We’ve got a covering if it rains, and there are no cars on that level at that time on Sunday.”
Some have suggested space heaters for winter, but warming an entire open parking garage that way doesn’t seem feasible.
“After a really cold Sunday last week––you could see your breath!––we have decided to move the service inside starting November 1,” Ferguson said. “We now have two indoors services, 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. The first is social distancing, masks, and no congregational singing. The second is identical, except we allow singing.”
Perhaps you’ve already noticed that those numbers won’t add up. Two 200-person services won’t fit the 2,000-member congregation, or even the pre-COVID average weekly attendance of about 1,300 a weekend.
So far, church staff have been asking congregants to alternate between coming in person and watching the livestream at home, in order to give everyone a chance to attend. The crush hasn’t been too bad––an internal survey about four months ago showed that 50 percent of parishioners would rather wait for a vaccine before returning in person, anyway.
Others, especially some of the older members, attend every week. “They’re like, ‘This is more important to me than anything,’” Ferguson said. If the choices were contracting and dying from COVID, or staying away from people for a year, “they’d totally pick this.”
“We have plenty of stories of people who were in tears their first time back,” he said. They were mostly happy tears, but not all: “One of the worst things you have to do as a pastor is to tell people they can’t sing. One woman started to cry when we said that. You learn how much things mean to people.”
As the temperature dips, some of the Bible studies and book clubs happening outside will move indoors. “We created two spots—one in the morning and one in the early evening—and a couple of spaces,” Ferguson said. The limits are to help the church staff, who spend time cleaning after every event.
The youth group, which is a couple hundred kids, is more difficult. Right now they gather in small groups outside, watch a talk together on their phones, and then discuss. In the late fall and winter, those small groups will likely have to meet in separate homes, Ferguson said.
The in-person gatherings for teens have been important, because most of them do school online, he said. “One ninth grader told me she’s thrilled to come to youth group. It’s the highlight of her week, because she’s seeing people and making friends. A lot of kids really prize that chance to come on a Sunday evening.”
Another joy has been his new members class, which has stayed nearly at pre-COVID levels. The Washington, D.C., area has always been transitory, and that turnover hasn’t stopped.
“People move to a new area and look for a church, and now they’re looking online,” Ferguson said. He has new members from Williamsburg, from San Diego, from Canada. “They want to get plugged in. They want to join.”
At the last meeting in September, “20 of the 25 people had never been inside our church building before. That blows me away.”
Pastor: Vermon Pierre
Church: Roosevelt Community Church
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Size: Current attendance is about 100
When Roosevelt Community Church opened up in July, the weather was already uncooperative—the average summer temperature in Phoenix is around 105 degrees. So from the beginning, pastor Vermon Pierre has been handling all interactions indoors.
“Most of July, a very small number of people came,” Pierre said. “There was no pressure for people to come back. In our communication, we told people the only way to have zero percent risk is to stay home. However, we think we can make the risk to come as low as possible.”
People wash their hands when they enter the lobby, and they wear masks until they’re seated, socially distanced, in the sanctuary. They also mostly wear masks afterward, when visiting in the sanctuary.
“From what I’ve been seeing, it’s ideal to wear masks and space out,” Pierre said. “But if you aren’t able to space out, at least wear masks.”
He encourages members to stay six feet apart when chatting. Sometimes, if a few people are still in conversation more than an hour after the service, the masks slip down, he said. His rule of thumb has been communication—if you aren’t sure, ask your conversation partner what they’d prefer.
Roosevelt Community Church is multiracial, but that hasn’t affected the mask conversation in any discernable way, he said. Both white and African American members fall on both sides—more relaxed and more strict—of the mask spectrum.
The church dug into racial issues back in 2016, when Donald Trump was first elected president. About a quarter of the congregation left, and the budget—including Pierre’s salary—had to be cut for a while.
But “a church that wants to reach minorities has to have these conversations,” Pierre said. And it’s borne fruit. The congregation was able to maintain unity throughout the racial unrest of the summer, and that’s holding even through the presidential campaign.
“We just had a panel, with a guy representing Christians voting for Biden and a guy representing Christians voting for Trump,” Pierre said. The two shared common convictions, and were honest about the compromises in their decision, he said.
“For a lot of churches, that’s the deep end of the pool,” he said. But so far, none of his congregants has even complained to him about it. In fact, “people have been supportive and excited about us continuing to have these conversations.”
As Roosevelt Community Church continues to meet in person and add back in children’s programming (they now have a nursery for those 5 and younger), more and more people are showing up. Many are brand-new, having found the church online.
“Our regulars are slowly coming back, it seems, but our current attendance, I would venture to say, is largely new people,” Pierre said. “People are still looking for church and community in this season. In many ways, it’s reinforced my commitment to have something in person, as much as we can, so that option is available for people.”
Pastor: Mark Hallock
Church: Calvary Church
Location: Englewood, Colorado
Size: 600 to 700 weekly attendance
Calvary Church offered two outdoor worship services—one at 9 a.m. and one at 10:45 a.m.—nearly all summer. The longer it went on, the more they liked it.
“It was awesome,” pastor Mark Hallock said. “More and more people were coming, and more nonbelievers were coming.” The church is set in the middle of a residential area, and Calvary started in June by delivering to the neighbors Starbucks gift cards, an apology for any noise they might make, and an invitation to the services. People started coming with lawn chairs.
Outside, there’s enough room for everyone’s preference—those who don’t want to wear a mask don’t have to, while those who want to space out a little and wear a mask can, Hallock said. It was going so well that a couple in his church told him they hoped it would continue all winter.
“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Hallock said. But they told him they’d feel safer outside, and they didn’t mind bundling up. So when the leaders gathered to discuss how to handle the winter months, he threw it out there: “Guys, let’s just do it all winter.”
“Our worship pastor looks at me and said, ‘I’m in,’” Hallock said. “The other elders were like, ‘This is crazy, but let’s do it.’ We were really unified in it.”
Calvary did move one service—the 9 a.m.—indoors. But then, at 10:45 a.m., the preacher and worship band move outside. They use a little stage with a roof, and tarps to protect the sound equipment. There’s a space heater for Hallock and small, scattered fire pits for the congregation.
Since it’s Colorado, the chance of rain is slim. “Most days in Colorado are chilly but sunny,” Hallock said. “People are already used to skiing in the mountains, so being in the cold isn’t a huge deal.”
“If you can stand for three hours at a Denver Broncos game in the snow,” he told his people, “you can worship the Lord for an hour and a half.”
They agreed. Last Sunday, snow was falling and the temperature dropped to 17 degrees (with a wind chill of 0 degrees). But nearly 80 people gathered in the Calvary parking lot around little fires to listen to Hallock in his parka and hat.
“It’s crazy, but it’s also a great time to help our people take a step of faith and be uncomfortable,” he said. “As leaders, we have to be looking for opportunities to stretch our people, and this is one for our church right now.”
They know it isn’t as difficult as gathering to worship in countries where Christians are persecuted. But “in some ways, it’s a teaching opportunity for our church to be really honest that we’re pretty comfortable as Christians. Let’s do something that isn’t that radical, but for us is radical.”
It’s also fun.
“Our guitarist’s fingers are really stinking cold,” Hallock told TGC. “But there is joy in it, too. We’re out in the community worshiping, and the neighbors can hear us praising. People are inviting neighbors because it’s this weird thing in the snow. . . . Our hope and plan is to do this all winter.”