How churches adapt services, meet new needs during pandemic

While churches might be closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in many ways they have never been more important.

From delivering food to those in need to reaching out to members otherwise socially isolated to new ways of worshipping, leaders are finding innovative ideas to meet their congregation and community needs.

At Chapelstreet Church which has three locations in Geneva, Sunday services are streamed live. Lead pastor Jeff Frazier gives his weekly sermon while a worship team sings in their otherwise empty building.

“We are literally building the plane as we fly it right now,” Frazier said. “We are reinventing ways of doing ministry.”

So far it's working well. Before churches were closed, Frazier said Chapelstreet's attendance averaged about 2,500 at its three locations for all their weekend services.

The number watching online has grown by 50 percent to 80 percent.

While it's been adjustment going from preaching in front of a crowded sanctuary to an empty room — “it's a complete 180, that was whiplash and very strange,” Frazier said — it's encouraging to know so many people are viewing.

“You are still preaching to real people who have real needs and the Gospel still has power even if they are not in the room,” Frazier said. “The message of God still needs to go out.”

Erik Holm, the pastor at Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Grayslake, also is giving his sermons online.

His church is doing their worship service a little differently, as various members of the choir and congregation send in videos of themselves singing hymns. Those are added with other members reading scripture to Holm's live message to create a service they broadcast on Facebook live and their YouTube channel.

“We put that all together to create a service, trying to be creative,” Holm said. “It feels a lot like our late night talk show hosts. They are live sort of, but now they record different clips. Feels a little like that.”

Holm also said the response to the online services has been good, up a little from the 200-225 attendees they were averaging in person.

“It's been so long since we've been together I think for many people it's a helpful connection that there's people I see I know,” Holm said of the online service. “The in-person experience that normally is worship in the Christian tradition has vastly changed now.”

At Willow Creek in South Barrington, communications director Liz Schauer said the approximately 18,000 viewing their service online is almost exactly the number who had been attending in person at their locations.

“It's been difficult not to have the community aspect of church,” Schauer said. “Our programming, production and worship teams have put in a significant amount of work to produce services for our online audience, recording from their homes. It's been a unique experience. We are a large church but we're trying to make things personal by calling our congregants, having digital small groups available. There are such unique needs during this time and obviously loneliness is a big factor.”

Chapelstreet also has staff calling to check in with members. A Wednesday Night Live program is reaching 1,000 viewers a week.

Church leaders are seeing good come from these trying times.

“We are learning some things that will serve us well not just in the present crisis but the future,” Frazier said. “I see so many people in our church family and community who are taking seriously the call to love their neighbor. I do get a sense there is good things happening.”

Holm agreed; his members are holding a food drive, making masks and checking in on neighbors. Schauer said Willow Creek's care center is delivering groceries to thousands of families in need — as is the Shepherd's Heart Ministry at Chapelstreet.

“People want to do something meaningful and helpful and that's encouraging to see,” Holm said.

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From left to right, Andrew Griffiths, Tom Ward, Becky Chennault and Jeff Frazier during a new Wednesday Night Live midweek family event Chapelstreet Church has started with games, music and devotion. Courtesy of Chapelstreet church
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