Churches face challenges as Christmas approaches

Tina Bridenstine
The Shawnee News-Star
Shawnee’s Redeemer Lutheran hosts a live nativity event every December, but this year it joins a list of other events that have been canceled because of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has impacted everyone in some way, but among those hit hard by the pandemic are churches all across the country.

Many shut down to prevent spreading illness and especially to protect more vulnerable members of the congregation. Once doors opened again, things still didn’t look the same. Church websites, such as those for Frontline Shawnee, Shawnee’s First Baptist Church and Immanuel Baptist Church, have sections devoted to COVID-19 that outline safety measures that have been implemented. Just some of the steps that have been taken include:

• Streaming services for those who can’t attend in person;

• Limited seating, with some churches blocking off every other pew;

• Extra cleaning and masks being worn;

• Additional services to help cut down the number of attendees at each service.

Even Christmas, which usually boasts a full schedule of events, has not gone untouched.

One well-known event, Redeemer Lutheran Church’s Living Nativity, has been canceled this year.

“We thought since we always get some pretty good sized crowds in the church during the activity that it would not be in the best interest of anyone that we go through with it,” James Yergan, who normally helps organize the nativity event, said. “It is sad, and hopefully next year it will be better for everyone. Pray for a better next year.”

Every year, there are live actors and animals to play the parts of the nativity scene, hot beverages and snacks inside, a craft fair, and more. The church typically delivers fliers to churches and schools in surrounding towns to let them know it’s coming up.

This year, though, it joined other annual events – including Trunk or Treat and Advent dinners – that the church had to put on hold.

In addition, Redeemer Lutheran recently put up a Facebook post stating it would be closed for two weeks starting Dec. 6 on account of COVID-19.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church near downtown Shawnee is another that has been hit hard by COVID-19.

“The initial impact was to our sack lunch program,” Tom Dahlman, with Emmanuel, said. “From the Porch House our parish offers 60 sack lunches a day to those who need it … but during the quarantine many of the other feeding opportunities in town had to shut down and we were overwhelmed for about two months. This was even more difficult than it would have normally been because we lost most of our volunteers. Most of them were older and it was risky.”

He said they were able to continue with help from the community, with Shawnee Mission providing food and serving one hot meal per week, and United Presbyterian providing one meal a week catered by a downtown restaurant to help both the hungry and Shawnee businesses.

The church has been doing in-person worship again since June 14, but even now, Dahlman said Sunday morning attendance is down about 50 percent compared to what it was before. And though the church had encouraged online giving and was live-streaming sermons on Facebook ahead of the pandemic, he said there were challenges with that as well.

“We were somewhat prepared for the immediate changes – but not knowing how long we would be closed we quickly fell behind and had to make many technology upgrades. The learning curve is steep,” Dahlman said.

He expects things to be different for Christmas services as well. The church has planned an additional Christmas Eve service (with services a noon, 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.) to allow those attending to spread out, with the wearing of masks required at all of them. But he is expecting a smaller crowd than would usually arrive.

“Some will not come because they don’t want to wear a mask. Some are not coming because they are worried about being in public. Some are not coming because with the closure they just got out of the habit of church,” he added.

Dahlman said another thing that has changed is the church’s Breakfast on Broadway, a monthly breakfast put on by the church for anyone who wished to attend. Breakfast became “to-go” once the pandemic started, though he said they now provide outside seating.

In December, the event became a large Christmas dinner, where the church provided free winter coats, hats, gloves, and toys for children.

“This year we are not able to eat inside, so we are borrowing heaters, having outside seating and allowing a few to come in at a time to get a coat, or if any kids come to pick out a present,” Dahlman said.

Does your church have an event or ministry you would like to see in the paper? Is a member of your congregation doing something of note? Contact Tina Bridenstine at tina.bridenstine@news-star.com to get it in the weekend church page.