Salvaging Christmas amid coronavirus concerns


United Methodists aren’t thrilled about observing Advent and Christmas seasons amid COVID-19, but many are looking at ways to safely add personal interaction to virtual worship. 

“It’s very challenging,” said the Rev. Sheron C. Patterson, senior pastor at Hamilton Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, informally known as The Park. “People are fatigued with Zoom and webinars. Getting people in the Christmas spirit with the COVID is challenging.”

Fatigue or not, Zoom, Facebook and other internet portals will be the pipeline through which many experience church during Advent and Christmas this year. But there are efforts afoot to find creative ways to augment and enhance the experience.

At Benton First United Methodist Church in Benton, Kentucky, the Rev. Leah Howe and Worship Director Scott Gibbs are doing what they call a “yard worship tour” to bring some much-needed personal interaction to the congregation. 

“Scott and I go to houses, mostly of those who are not comfortable in large group gatherings, and we have a worship service in the yard, on the patio and some in sun rooms,” Howe said. 

Mask-wearing and social distancing are expected at these events, she said. The church has had seven yard worship services so far, and there will be more if the weather is warm enough, Howe said.
Volunteers from the food pantry at Benton First United Methodist Church in Benton, Ky., gather around the fire pit on the church property for “yard worship.” The Rev. Leah Howe and Worship Director Scott Gibbs are providing outdoor services at the homes of people who do not feel comfortable gathering in large groups. Photo courtesy of Benton First United Methodist Church.
Volunteers from the food pantry at Benton First United Methodist Church in Benton, Ky., gather around the fire pit on the church property for “yard worship.” The Rev. Leah Howe and Worship Director Scott Gibbs are providing outdoor services at the homes of people who do not feel comfortable gathering in large groups. Photo courtesy of Benton First United Methodist Church.
At The Park, where it was announced early during the COVID-19 crisis that there would be no in-person services until 2021 at the earliest, Patterson has made mental health assistance a priority, as well as getting technical training for her predominately elderly congregation.

“We have a program called ‘Leave No Senior Behind,’” Patterson said. “Because so many don’t have technology, we have sermons by phone, so they can dial a certain number and hear the sermon for the week. We email out the newsletter, but we also print one out and send them to their homes.”

Art Mosley, the audio-visual expert at The Park, is available to go to church members' homes and help them get up to speed technologically.

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“If you want to stay connected, this is a must,” Patterson said. 

Once online, church members can access two Zoom seminars called “Beating the Holiday Blues,” featuring mental health experts teaching about grieving. 

“Grieving being in a prison of our homes, grieving isolation, grieving that COVID has taken away from us the basics of community and fellowship and being in church together,” Patterson said. “That’s really my gift to the church, continued mental health (help) during this stressful time.”

Although some churches are meeting in person again, most church officials advise against it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 266,000 people in the U.S. have died because of the coronavirus, and more than 1 million new cases and more than 10,000 deaths in the past week were reported.

“I am asking you in the strongest way possible to refrain from in-person indoor worship for the Advent and Christmas seasons,” wrote Bishop David Alan Bard of the Michigan area in a Nov. 16 message to United Methodists there.

“I am deeply grateful for all the ways you have encouraged the wearing of masks, social distancing and handwashing. It has helped. Yet, community spread has become so prolific that we need to do more to protect public health, promote the common good and care for the well-being of others in the name and spirit of Jesus.”

Some churches are distributing Advent-in-a-box kits, with crafts and worship instructions that can be done at home.
An Advent activity box created by Centennial United Methodist Church in Minnesota features goodies such as a Christmas CD and a Spark Family magazine for children, and activities including ornaments, prayers and an Advent wreath. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jennifer Anderson, Centennial United Methodist Church.
An Advent activity box created by Centennial United Methodist Church in Minnesota features goodies such as a Christmas CD and a Spark Family magazine for children, and activities including ornaments, prayers and an Advent wreath. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jennifer Anderson, Centennial United Methodist Church.
“We’ve got four activities (in the box),” said the Rev. Jennifer Anderson, pastor of discipleship at Centennial United Methodist Church, which has campuses in Roseville and St. Paul, Minnesota. The box includes supplies and instructions to make an Advent wreath and a Christmas ornament, prayers to say each Advent Sunday and packets of hot chocolate and marshmallows for families to share.  

Advent-in-a-box kits also are available for people with intellectual disabilities, for a group called the Flames that meets once a month at Centennial. 

In western Pennsylvania, three Christmas-themed skits by United Methodist writer Dawn Conroy have been made available along with scenic backdrops that can be used for internet broadcasting. Each skit includes instructions and advice to guide churches through the process. Conroy has given permission for churches to use the material for free as long as the author is credited.

The Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, Idaho, is distributing an Advent kit to its members with some devotionals, hot cocoa mix and the materials to make a Nativity scene, said the Rev. Duane A. Anders, senior pastor.
The Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, Idaho, distributes bags with hot cocoa mix and the materials to make a Nativity scene to enhance watching services online (photo on left). The church, which is planning three outdoor services on Christmas Eve, has a sign out front encouraging people to love their neighbors and wear a mask. Photos courtesy of Cathedral of the Rockies.
The Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, Idaho, distributes bags with hot cocoa mix and the materials to make a Nativity scene to enhance watching services online (photo on left). The church, which is planning three outdoor services on Christmas Eve, has a sign out front encouraging people to love their neighbors and wear a mask. Photos courtesy of Cathedral of the Rockies.
“We normally don’t decorate outside for Christmas other than stuff in our windows,” Anders said. “This year we felt like we needed to bring some light to the community. We have a large pine tree here that they’ll bring a bucket truck in to put lights on, and we’re going to decorate five other trees out front.”

Three outdoor services on Christmas Eve are tentatively planned at Cathedral of the Rockies, with carols, candles and Scripture readings.

The Rev. Angela Bulhof, pastor of University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, is facing a double whammy this Advent season. Not only is COVID-19 an obstacle, but also her church was severely damaged by Hurricanes Laura and Delta this year.

“The first one did a lot of damage with wind,” Bulhof said. “We had two walls and a huge chunk of the roof just got torn off our church building. … We had flooding with Delta, so some of the rooms that didn’t get touched before had water seep in.”
Bishop Cynthia Harvey surveys the rubble in front of University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Laura destroyed the nursery and an office wall. The church, which was hard hit by Hurricanes Laura and Delta, has been meeting at First United Methodist Church and will hold a service there on Dec. 23. Photo by Todd Rossnagel, Louisiana Conference.
Bishop Cynthia Harvey surveys the rubble in front of University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Laura destroyed the nursery and an office wall. The church, which was hard hit by Hurricanes Laura and Delta, has been meeting at First United Methodist Church and will hold a service there on Dec. 23. Photo by Todd Rossnagel, Louisiana Conference.
The church has been meeting at First United Methodist Church in downtown Lake Charles, but that sanctuary is not available for Christmas Eve.

“So, we’ve arranged with our good sister church there to have a Christmas Eve ‘Eve’ service (on Dec. 23),” Bulhof said. “We’ll have maybe 30 in attendance and about 60 online.”

University United Methodist Church has a new motto, Bulhof said: “The Church Is More Than a Building.”

“We learned that we didn’t have to have access to our church to be the church, to be the body of Christ,” she said. “It was more important to love our neighbors enough, to get a handle on what this virus was and how we needed to keep each other safe.” 

The Christmas sermon at The Cathedral of the Rockies will be COVID-19 related, Anders said.

“I think you always speak to the issues of the day, but they don’t necessarily overwhelm the good news of the Gospel message,” he said. “We’ve lived through this really awkward time, but people have lived through really awkward times before. 

“That’s the Gospel story, right? They were carrying a lot of stress, too, and yet God showed up with good news to all people.”
Although in past years Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, Idaho, has not added decorations outside, this year the church wanted to bring “light to the community” with a festive display and a large Christmas tree. Photo courtesy of Cathedral of the Rockies.
Although in past years Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, Idaho, has not added decorations outside, this year the church wanted to bring “light to the community” with a festive display and a large Christmas tree. Photo courtesy of Cathedral of the Rockies.
Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him 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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