Churches: Staying connected and keeping the faith during COVID-19

Kayla Anderson
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Sierra Community Church in the Tahoe Sierra neighborhood.
Bill Rozak / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Places of worship are known to help people get through times of struggle. They rely on a higher power to guide them through uncertain times.

However, churches are also known to be gathering places that welcome people from all stages in life.

Over the last two and a half months, the coronavirus has upended believers’ abilities to go to Sunday services, see their friends, and get a sense of comfort from their pastors, but that doesn’t mean that services aren’t happening.

Here are how two Lake Tahoe churches helped their congregation through the pandemic and what they are doing to conform to new public health standards.

The Village Church, Incline Village

In-person worship at the Village Church is starting back up on Sunday, June 7 following Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s Phase 2 portion of his Roadmap to Recovery Plan. Fortunately, the Village Church has an outdoor chapel space that it normally utilizes in the summer months from the Fourth of July through Labor Day. However, to comply with new social distancing rules, the church is launching its outdoor in-person service a little earlier. Since in-person gatherings are limited to 50 people per Nevada guidance, the Village Church will continue to offer its virtual services as well.

“Our 10 a.m. worship is the larger service, there are up to 200 people who attend,” said Village Church Pastor Jeff Ogden. “We usually host our 8 a.m. service inside and only about a dozen people come.”

In preparation for physically opening its doors again, staff is being trained about how to best seat people to conform with the 6-feet social distancing requirements and everyone is required to wear masks. Hand sanitizer stations are also set up and there will be no communion for the first month — the church is looking into procuring prepackaged servings of juice and wafers to give to visitors.

Virtual services will continue indefinitely since quite a few people in its congregation are older and may be concerned about their health. Ogden says that at the onset of the pandemic, bible study and youth groups adapted quickly to Zoom and will likely continue using the platform.

“Initially we had a lot of people coming online but then our numbers started to drop because I think Zoom fatigue started to set in. However, our youth group summertime participation levels have stayed up,” Ogden said.

Moving its Sunday services online has allowed Village Church to expand its reach, allowing people from all over the country to tune in.

“We’re able to stay connected in a way that we haven’t been able to in the past,” he said. “Tahoe is a unique church environment because it’s a two-season community, so it’s fun to see and talk with people we don’t normally see in the off-months.”

Regarding the church’s connection with people’s mental health, Ogden says that he changed his sermon in March and April to working out of the Book of Psalms and use passages that bring comfort in times of stress, sorrow, and anxiety. Along with adjusting his sermons to match the times, Village Church has been calling and checking in on people as well as ramping up its food distribution service.

“We’ve been having a lot of conversations within the church about checking in on those who love it here and may be struggling with not being able to come in person,” Ogden said.

He also attributes the recent boost in people’s mental health to the change in weather.

“I think people reached the point where they couldn’t be inside anymore. We’re an active community, people like to hike, bike, kayak,” he said.

When asked if there is anything he has learned throughout the pandemic, Ogden replies, “That the word of God will not be stopped. Even though we can’t see each other face to face, the scripture, the worship, and prayer is still there. The power of God is present, powerful, alive, and active, even when this is going on.”

Ogden admits he was impressed with how his congregation quickly reacted to the pandemic and stepped up, understanding that the world is entering into a new reality and embracing it.

“I’m grateful and thankful for that,” he says.

Ogden says Village Church will continue live streaming its sermons so that it can stay connected with people all around the world, whether they are traveling or with those who have “flown south for the winter.”

“I’ve also learned that it’s really important to see each other in person. I can’t wait to be together again,” Ogden added.

Sierra Community Church, South Lake Tahoe

Over in South Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Community Church recently resumed its services after California’s governor deemed places of worship safe to open again under the new health guidelines.

“Financially, God’s been gracious to us,” said Pastor Noah Largent about how Sierra Community Church is surviving throughout the pandemic. “We’ve been able to keep everyone on staff. And like most other churches we immediately went to Zoom, but now everyone’s Zoomed out.”

Although, Largent says that the children’s and student ministry section of the church has done an incredible job of keeping kids engaged. About 80-90% of the congregation’s youth still goes to virtual bible study each week. The Children’s Ministry also stayed busy creating and distributing boxes filled with food and after school/holiday activities for families.

“The things that kids put together for their parents were outstanding, I’m so impressed with their ingenuity,” Largent said.

On Mother’s Day for example, kids gave their moms coupon books with thoughtful, practical tokens, some that included massages and promises that could be redeemed like “a day of not arguing or talking back” or “an hour of uninterrupted time.”

At the start of the pandemic, the college ministry also went online in a fairly seamless transition.

“We’ve been putting our services online for about two and a half years now so that made it easier for us (to deal with the pandemic),” he said. “We improved the quality of our videos, but we are already a tech-savvy church. We all pretty much figured out right away how to continue our services virtually, but like everyone else we’re sick of Zoom and looking forward to meeting in person again.”

Therefore, the Sierra Community Church held its first in-person service last Sunday, May 31. They usually accommodate around 400-500 people but because of the new guidance and social distancing laws, they only put out 60 chairs or so.

“We told people who are susceptible to this to take their time in coming back and we are encouraging people to wear masks,” he said. “We just don’t want to rush into this. We’re also in a neighborhood so we want to be conscientious of our neighbors and how people interact.”

The Church is hosting two services on Sundays and experienced a low in-person turnout on May 31.

“I’m actually very thankful for that,” he said. “We were sure to let people know about the things that have changed to keep everyone safe. We want to take our time in reopening and do it well.”

Regarding the mental health of its congregation, Noah says that the church has done its best to make themselves available to individuals and the community who are dealing with relational, mental, or financial challenges.

“We’ve relied on our staff to communicate what they know about people in our community and then we talk about practical ways we can help,” Largent said. “As a pastor, I talk to a lot of people and during this pandemic I realized that I needed to make a concerted effort to reach out. Whatever challenges people were having before, there’s no question that this pandemic absolutely magnified the situation. We tried to fill in that gap.”

As far as the things they will continue with after things get back to normal, Noah says, “Our video that we put out on Sunday mornings is something that we normally do but we will retain that quality, he adds.

However, Largent admits that he doesn’t feel like delivering online sermons is the ideal way to stay in touch.

“Zoom, phone calls or texting is not the same as meeting people in person,” he said. “This (virus) has turned our lives upside down; hopefully it gives people the opportunity to reprioritize and reevaluate where they’re spending their time and energy.”

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