Solidarity and spirituality can be found in virtual settings, area church leaders are discovering.
That is not altogether surprising, or a bad thing, Albie Powers, a young local pastor said, even if worship’s history is built on the intimacy of community, parishioners meeting shoulder to shoulder to pray and stand with neighbors.
Now, webcasts and streaming sermons are the order of so many Sundays, with engagement and interest levels in many cases on the rise.
Elm City Church on Railroad Street in Keene is pastored by Powers and Justin Barney. In addition to regular weekly service, the church features 10 home groups that meet weekly, Powers, 35, said.
“I think my hope is that church never goes back to what normal was,” Powers said. “Here is what I mean by that: Church has become so dependent on Sunday service to do everything. When that wasn’t available, a lot of people didn’t have any idea what to do; some churches closed.
“I don’t want to say our model has it all figured out. We really miss gatherings in large groups because there’s value in that, but we have all these other avenues, main components of what church has always done. When it can come back, it can come back a lot stronger, and better, because it will be forced to lean in to all these other ways that we’ve learned can work.”
Elm City Church suspended in-person gatherings nine weeks ago amid the novel coronavirus outbreak and began meeting online.
The region is home to dozens of traditional and contemporary churches of all sizes and denominations that minister to and comfort and support its residents in good times and bad. This story talks about adaptation during a time of unusual crisis through the lens of just a few.
Next Level Church, off Route 12 in Keene, acted similarly to Elm City Church and for most of the same reasons. Its location pastor, Michael Grayston, agrees with Powers; neither sees Zoom church as an ideal long-term substitute for traditional worship gatherings. Both say, too, that there is much to be learned from the restyling of church service at a time when health officials do not consider it safe enough to meet as a group, at least in large numbers.
Next Level Church also serves Marlborough, Roxbury and other surrounding communities. It is in nine locations: six others in New Hampshire, one in Massachusetts and one in Florida.
Next Level will celebrate three years in October, Grayston, 38, said. Like other contemporary models, the Christian church offers a live worship band, uplifting messages streamed from a lead pastor and “an engaging and age-appropriate environment for children,” Grayston said.
He said this time has been less than ideal but notes “wonderful growth across all our locations” in large part because of the reach digital platforms offer and the ability to meet people where they are most these days: at home.
He described Next Level Church’s opening of an online-only location just prior to the outbreak in the U.S. as something more than serendipitous.
“I call it divine,” he said. “I think that is God’s hand in this. A lot of [churches] had to scramble to make things happen. We didn’t; we were able to roll with it.”
The church’s direction was also advantageous, he said, because they are always looking for the next thing.
“We feel like church should be the most creative place on earth. So, we are always pushing that creative limit; it’s something very natural for us.”
The red-brick Center Church in Winchester offers worship online, too, but just began hosting small house-church sessions of nine people or fewer, in accordance with N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive order, the church’s preaching pastor, Jeremy Miller, said.
Since movement restrictions have begun to loosen, Miller said he and the church’s Elder Board have paid close attention to the guidance from the executive order and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We all agreed we can work within [the order and the guidelines],” Miller said. “There is nothing there overruling what we’re doing. We’re using wisdom and good sense; we’re not trying to be rebellious. And so right now, we are meeting in groups of nine people or less in homes. People are loving it, and then we’re able to Zoom others in.”
Moreover, he said, it was needed.
“There has been a lot of panic and fear in our communities. Our folks that we contacted weren’t afraid. What they were saying is hey, you know what, we don’t want to cause alarm or rifts in being able to support and serve our community, but there’s nothing here keeping us from living out the gospel.”
Sununu has yet to announce an official reopening timetable for the state’s churches and synagogues; his appointed reopening task force welcomed discussion from church leaders.
Massachusetts announced its reopening guidelines for places of worship Monday, including capping capacity at 40 percent, social distancing for those not of the same household and compulsory mask-wearing for everyone. Powers could imagine a similar set of restrictions for New Hampshire, saying the logistics of it all need to be carefully managed, even on a phased basis.
The deaths of 204 Granite Staters have now been attributed to COVID-19, state health officials report. As for Cheshire County, 51 residents are among the 4,014 statewide known to have tested positive for the viral disease.
At least 2,082 of those people have recovered from COVID-19, according to the state health department.
Disrupted by forced separation, life has been anything but business as usual, though every state is now in some stage of reopening. During stay-at-home orders, many places of worship adapted — some more quickly than others — and found creative responses, not only to minister but to stay connected.
The town of Walpole recently welcomed its new minister, Rev. Richard Malmberg, and his wife, Jane, with a drive-by salute that included fire trucks, police cruisers, bells and balloons, the manner in which so many birthdays are being marked.
Congregation Ahavas Achim closed its West Keene building to the public, and according to Rabbi Amy Loewenthal’s note to members in the synagogue’s May-June newsletter, reinvented prayer services, discussion groups, Religious School and B’nai Mitzvah preparation.
“One fun adaptation was a ‘Twenty Questions’ approach to finding the Virtual Afikhomen, which I had ‘hidden’ in the gazebo in Central Square,” Loewenthal wrote of the piece of matzah that is traditionally hidden during the Passover seder.
Loewenthal leads a weekly online service from the synagogue, which includes songs and prayers.
Next Level reaches its congregants via software called Church Online. Grayston said the church offers “experiences, not services,” and before being catapulted online, offered three experiences a week. Now, he said, it offers five, all on Sundays. The lead pastor for all the church’s locations, Josh Gagnon, preaches from his kitchen table.
“I think there’s some grace in this time,” said Grayston, who pastors, counsels and leads groups and leadership development at the Keene site. “It seems as though people’s expectation of what church looks like now are a little lower. We don’t accept that; we want to be a life-giving church, and we want to remain relevant. So, our music is loud, and our lights are a little darker than a typical church.
“It means we have to mold the culture a little bit now in the way we worship. But we’re going to have music, curated elements like video, personal stories from people about God in their lives, messages, time of prayer and announcements. And we’re still going to push our members to do community outreach.”
Experts agree that the COVID-19 crisis will give rise to an almost-certain pandemic centered on related mental-health issues for people of all ages.
With a backdrop to this crisis that is jolting in so many ways, church can be a source of comfort and support, said Miller, who has worked in some form of youth ministry for more than 20 years and who worked in Cheshire County with ACCESS, an organization that provides positive out-of-school program options.
He said that role can and should be overt, not subtle.
“The role of church is to assemble,” he said. “It’s the gathering of individuals to live out Christ’s life in their own life. It’s in the gospel, that each one of us, as believers, have an opportunity and a responsibility toward loving and caring for our neighbors. When it comes to mental health, we know that relationships are a huge component to supporting each other through times of trauma and crisis.
“If you can be a friend, give wise counsel, be a good listener, you can help with the healing process. I believe wholeheartedly the church is naturally positioned to train people up, and as an outflow of the commission we’re called to perform, be able to help others this way.”
A positive that Powers, Miller and Grayston say they are sensing and in small ways seeing amid the crisis is a new regard for life’s frailty and an appreciation for family and home.
“I think,” Miller said, “COVID is a challenge and a blessing. We are going to see more people living out God’s word with stronger conviction. We will see changes in marriages for the positive, changes in parenting for the positive.
“People in our church, our gathering, our assembly are looking for dialogue and for community … and genuine love.”
Kristin Hicks, 55, and her husband, Jim, have attended Elm City Church since it opened. They were members of the Praxis Church before that. Kristin said she enjoys her new church’s strong sense of community.
“There are many ways to reach out to others during this time; relationships don’t cease,” she said. “The virtual platform may open doors to people to explore Elm City Church. I look forward to hearing the message each week, knowing others are receiving it as well.”
Hicks said it’s not premature to think that a new routine is probable.
“I do feel that we have to be prepared for a new idea of what is normal because I don’t think it will ever return to how it was before. There is a sense of loss in this realization. But I don’t think we will be thwarted by this. We can find ways to adapt to change and still meet people’s needs.”
Churches that are starting to meet in ostensibly safe ways are having to do things that, Powers said, “sound a little depressing,” citing temperature checks, lists of names for possible contact tracing, social distancing and no children’s programs. “Not to mention,” he said, “even knowing how well [the measures] might work.”
A church in Alberta, Calif., took all those preventative measures, and more, for a March gathering, and 42 of the 70 people that showed up contracted the virus, Powers said, and two older members died.
Elm City Church welcomes between 1,700 and 2,000 congregants weekly, according to Powers. The young church, which will have a new building soon, was in the process of adding a second weekly service when the virus struck. Its smaller home groups that Powers said give structure to the church’s community-focused model meet weekly throughout the region.
Powers said the groups allow for the church to spread out its leadership and pastoral care.
“A big part of what we want to do,” he said, “is to equip the everyday Christian to feel capable of leading and growing. It’s more people to teach and lead prayer, and to do the community outreach and service care that’s so important.”
More broadly, Powers said he believes that the church has a unique opportunity to pivot and reclaim a form that thrived in Christianity’s past and is doing so throughout the world today.
The early church grew from around 20,000 people at the end of the first century to almost 3 million by the end of the fourth century. In the past 80 years or so in China, the church grew from around 2 million to upward of 200 million. In both cases, Powers notes, there were very few large church gatherings, less structure and no seminaries for the training of clergy.
The church, he said, “Is not a building or a service, it is people.”
Powers adds: “Yes, the church needs to gather. It cannot exist solely online, but it can survive and thrive without the traditional large group gathering. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus essentially said, ‘Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.’
“There is nothing about our present circumstances that prevent us from either of those. Churches need to get creative. They need to adapt and learn how to raise up more leaders, simplify things in ways that the average Christian feels capable of leading, and do more backyard than pulpit ministry. Those churches that embrace this challenge, I believe, will not only survive, but thrive.”
Grayston said he is keeping a close eye on reopening protocols.
“Whatever we do, we will listen to state, local and federal officials and do it in a safe way,” he said. “We’re looking at options, talking with other churches across the nation, seeing how they are doing it, trying to find best practices. I think churches will go back to normal and fill again, but making it safe is the challenge.
“We feel blessed to have this online platform; there is no reason to rush to open our doors and put people in harm’s way.”