Near a place associated with death, Concord United Methodist Church is sharing the story of Resurrection — while also keeping people safe from a deadly virus.
On the perimeter of its cemetery, the 239-year-old country church in Lewisville, North Carolina, has erected its first outdoor Stations of the Cross. Here, the congregation has invited its community to stop by and meditate on Christ’s love.
Most of the 14 worship stations have a wooden cross with a Bible passage, prayer and symbol attached, each marking a step in Christ’s path from the night of his arrest to his crucifixion. The walk concludes not with a cross but the empty tomb — a reminder that death is not the end of the story.
“There are no set hours. You walk through it on your own,” said the Rev. Eddie Evans, Concord’s pastor. “It’s just a beautiful experience to be alone in the power of the Resurrection in any way you choose to do it.”
Last year as Holy Week approached, the COVID-19 pandemic had just caused shutdowns worldwide. That left churches scrambling to introduce online worship and improvise very different services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
Now, scientists and church leaders know more about how to reduce the virus’ transmission, and vaccinations against the disease are on the rise. Still, that doesn’t mean large crowds can safely pack into pews quite yet. The U.S. continues to see about 1,000 deaths to COVID-19 a day. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that because of the pandemic, less than 40% of U.S. Christians plan to attend church services in person this Easter Sunday.
But as the disease’s threat persists, church creativity also thrives. This Holy Week finds United Methodist congregations, like Concord, offering new ways for people to connect with Christ’s passion and the hope of Easter.
“This entire year has been a Holy Week of waiting in faith,” said the Rev. Raquel Feagins, associate pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio.
For the past 12 months, the church — located in one of the ZIP codes hardest hit by the disease — has worshipped online exclusively. The church expects that will soon change.
La Trinidad hosted its first vaccination clinic in early March and plans to host another on Maundy Thursday. Alongside the inoculations, the church will offer Holy Communion and prayer. And with shots in most of their arms and the Resurrection to celebrate, congregants plan to meet in person for outdoor worship on Easter.
“The greatest lesson we have learned is the depth of spirituality, commitment and discipline that exists within this historic Mexican-American congregation, a church that also survived the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic,” Feagins said.
The Rev. Rachel Billups said, over the past year, she has adopted the mantra: “I have to let go of normal and embrace the new.”
The senior pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, a multi-campus United Methodist congregation in Tipp City and Dayton, Ohio, is applying that mantra to ministry. Before the pandemic, Ginghamsburg’s annual Easter egg hunt was a big community outreach event — typically drawing about 2,000 people. This year, the church brought back the outreach, but to allow social distancing, held four separate hunts, and families needed to RSVP.
The congregation also is adapting its Easter worship. The church plans five in-person services this year. However, worshippers will need to make reservations and wear masks, and there will be plenty of time for cleaning between services. Ginghamsburg worship also will continue online, and the church plans to air a half-hour Easter TV special. The church’s first such special at Christmas reached thousands of households.
“We’re entering into the season of resurrection, and resurrection is about a new way to be human,” Billups said. “It’s not just that Jesus has risen, but that actually Jesus is ushering in a kingdom reality and we are a new creation.”
But to help people become a new creation in Christ, churches first are trying to reach people where they are.
For Impact Church near Atlanta, that means also taking a hybrid approach to Easter worship. The United Methodist church is planning an outdoor sunrise service, an outdoor drive-in Easter concert as well as online worship where anyone can attend, even if they are still in their pajamas.
Dellrose United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, initially considered resuming in-person worship this Easter. However, in a congregation where the average age is 35, few members have gotten their COVID-19 shots yet.
“We realized everyone would come because it’s Easter, and we didn’t want to have any conflict of turning people away,” said the Rev. Kevass J. Harding, the church’s pastor. “We’re looking at Mother’s Day instead. … But we’re going to lift up Easter worship real hard, and it will be virtual.”
He said Dellrose already has seen its membership grow with new disciples joining through the church’s online Bible studies and worship services.
While many churches are relying on today’s technology to reach new people, the Concord congregation in North Carolina turned to a ritual that dates to the fifth century.
Church member Teresa Reece brought the idea of Stations of the Cross to the congregation after reading on the Discipleship Ministries website about another small church’s practice of the tradition. Over Zoom, Concord members decided how to design the stations to allow people to walk in Christ’s footsteps.
Reece opted to add a mirror to one cross. “You can see yourself when you read the prayer,” she said. “Jesus died on the cross for every one of us.”
Sylvia Russell, who at 77 is one of the church’s older members, said she thinks the outdoor walk is one of the most beautiful Easter services Concord has ever offered. “And in my lifetime, I’ve seen quite a few,” she added.
The church’s Stations of the Cross will be open to the public through April 8.
Leaders of Urban Village — a five-campus, multi-ethnic United Methodist congregation in Chicago and the suburb of River Forest — also looked for ways to make Holy Week traditions work outside.
For Good Friday, the church’s pastors each plan to visit a different location in the city to livestream a reflection on one of Jesus’ seven final statements on the cross. For Holy Saturday, Urban Village also plans to join with two other area United Methodist congregations for its first Easter Vigil walk.
“Online worship is great, and some people hunger for that,” said the Rev. Christian Coon, Urban Village’s pastor of emerging ministries. “But for others, online worship is just not for them, and they so hunger for any kind of in-person interaction.”
That’s true for both younger and older United Methodists, as 103-year-old Eleanor Ottoson can attest.
“I’ve attended church ever since I was a wee child, and I miss it so much,” said Ottoson, who has been sheltering in place for a year. “But on the other hand, I didn’t want to take any chances of getting ill or making anyone else ill.”
The Rev. Larry Stricklin, pastor of Morgan’s Chapel United Methodist Church on the southern Georgia coast, has struggled throughout the year to make sure Ottoson and other older parishioners stay connected.
However, he found delivering Holy Communion to people’s porches often didn’t work. Bugs bit, rain poured and the single-serving packages of communion elements frequently proved too difficult for older hands to open.
Stricklin came up with the idea of holding individual communion services for older members by appointment with plenty of time to clean in between. He plans to schedule such services throughout Holy Week.
Ottoson, who now has her first shot of COVID-19 vaccine, went to her first service last month and looks forward to doing so again.
“It was really a wonderful experience,” she said. “My daughter, my daughter’s mother-in-law and I were the only ones in the church with the pastor. It was so gracious of the pastor to do this for us.”
Ultimately, the main lesson many congregations have learned this past year has been that God can bring good into even the saddest situations — something not surprising in the week Christians remember how God used sacrifice to lead to salvation.
“This has forced us to get out of the 20th century,” Stricklin said. “It’s streamlined our food bank to the point we can serve 90 people in an hour. The same thing has happened with worship. It’s forced us to do things we wouldn’t have done without this situation. My feeling as a pastor is that God will use anything.”
Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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