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From livestreaming to phone trees, churches in Moab are adapting services to comply with coronavirus restrictions, even as Easter approaches this weekend.
Church leaders are maintaining digital communities and encouraging members to stay connected through the pandemic.
Pastor Cole Howe of the Moab Baptist church said they have been live-streaming all services at their regular times, as well as a weekly religious class for adults. The church was already live-streaming the Sunday morning services before the coronavirus hit. It also kept up a Twitter account and Facebook page.
“A lot of our folks didn’t pay much attention to that, because they came to church,” said Howe of the church’s online presence. “It’s been a learning curve for a lot of our folks because it was something that they didn’t need” before social distancing measures.
Still, having the live-stream practice in place made for a smoother transition.
“It’s not to say we haven’t scrambled,” Howe added.
He has a three-ring binder where he keeps track of orders and recommendations from public health officials and government authorities.
“It’s proven to be a major challenge to be able to keep up with,” he said, because policies are evolving so quickly.
Also, not all church members have access to computers or the internet.
“When the library closed down it kind of threw a couple of them for a loop,” Howe said, because for some that was their only internet access.
Typically, only five people are physically involved in conducting a live-streamed service for the Moab Baptist Church, Howe said.
For this week’s Wednesday night service, for example, Howe gave the sermon and his wife played the piano. The church music leader sang, and his wife played the viola. Howe’s son operated the sound booth. The pews, of course, were empty.
On a normal Wednesday night, there would be 30 to 40 people in attendance; 70 to 80 people attend on a normal Sunday morning. Howe said it felt a little strange preaching to empty pews.
“You kind of get used to it,” said Howe. “It’s just a different mindset. It’s interesting.”
Moab churches adapt
Pastor Keith Van Arsdol of the Community Church of Moab said they are not live-streaming any services, but they do record sermons and post the recordings on Facebook on Saturday night so church members can listen on Sunday mornings. They have also subscribed to a service that produces a weekly children’s Sunday School lesson. Lately, he says, the lessons have been addressing how children can cope with anxiety and frustration surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moab’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church Pastor Nathan James said they have been conducting their services on the Zoom digital conferencing platform. One advantage of this method of broadcasting is that members who aren’t comfortable with computers or don’t have internet access can call in with a regular telephone.
But not all churches are going the digital route.
Craig Shumway is the Public Affairs Officer for the Moab Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He explained that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Moab is following directives from church leadership at higher levels. Under that direction, families are holding Sunday services within their own homes, conducted by heads of households.
“There’s no online church services that we’re having right now,” Shumway said.
In the Christian faith, Easter is the one of the prime religious celebrations, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In many denominations, Easter is a time for gatherings of family and friends, picnics, outdoor games, and special church services. Easter is such an important holiday, said Howe, that some people don’t attend church all year except on Easter Sunday.
This year will be a change for many church communities.
“Our church always does a sunrise service,” said Van Arsdol, describing an outdoor gathering in a beautiful setting.
“We usually have lots of visitors in town and we have a couple hundred people at the La Sal Mountain Overlook Arches National Park.” That 40-year tradition won’t happen this Easter.
“Typically here at our church we have an Easter breakfast and a children’s Easter egg hunt,” said Howe. This year, congregants from the Baptist Church will have to enjoy their Easter breakfasts at home with an online service.
“It’s really challenged us to get real creative, to figure out how we can make it special,” Howe said of the online Easter Service.
Some churches have devised another way to reach the faithful on Easter Sunday.
Van Arsdol is collaborating with Pastor Geoff Thomas of Moab’s Canyonlands Fellowship Church and Pastor Thomas Ross of Moab’s Assembly of God to broadcast a live radio service on Easter Sunday at 10:45 a.m. on local radio station KCYN, broadcast on 97.1 FM.
The service will include a communion, led on the air and conducted by listeners in their homes. Thomas will deliver the sermon.
“The message of the resurrection is the most important thing,” said Van Arsdol of the broadcast.
Fellowship without the physical
The cancellations and the switch to digital services mean social interactions among church members are distant or non-existent. Howe pointed out that while digital is better than nothing, it’s not ideal.
“It’s needed, it’s necessary, it’s proven to be exceedingly valuable,” Howe said of technology during these times. “But you still miss the old fashioned getting together face-to-face, looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand.”
Even as the Community Church advanced their digital capabilities pre-coronavirus, they relied on in-person gatherings.
“We took it for granted to be together,” said Howe. “Church folks like to get together, that’s what we do. We meet together and we visit with each other…. Our folks are missing seeing each other.”
Howe recounted how he and his wife recently delivered some items to a church member’s home. A young girl in the family recognized Howe’s wife as the Sunday school teacher she hadn’t seen for a couple of weeks.
“She immediately broke all barriers of social distancing and gave her a hug on the leg,” said Howe, illustrating how people crave in-person socializing and physical contact.
Other church leaders echoed this sentiment.
“People really miss being together,” VanArsdol said. “We have fellowship after our services where we serve coffee and tea and lemonade and donuts. And that’s a big loss for people, when they can’t come together that way.”
“Social interaction is a major part of our church family,” James agreed.
Seventh-day Adventist church leaders are opening their Zoom conferences before the scheduled service time, and leave it open afterward so people have a chance to visit on either end of the service, just as they would if they were attending church in person.
“In the church setting, we’re obviously concerned about the physical aspect of things,” said Howe. “We don’t want people to get sick. But there’s also a spiritual aspect and an emotional aspect that comes when you meet face to face with people.”
Waiting it out
Church leaders emphasized that these are unusual times and they hope to return to regular religious practices when it is safe to do so.
“People are doing fine, they just miss each other,” said VanArsdol. “ But they’re really stable as far as having hope. And this will pass.”
James wished to issue a “blanket invitation for folks who wish to join” the Seventh-day Adventist meetings. Services are held on Saturday mornings at 10:35 a.m.
Howe said the unprecedented public health crisis is affecting all of us.
“It’s throwing everyone for a loop,” he said. “It’s good, it’s odd, it’s weird, it’s bad: you name it. It’s all mixed into the same exact pot.”
He hopes it will also soon be over.
“We’re hoping and praying that this thing is not going to last too many more weeks,” he said.
VanArsdol emphasized the importance of religious communities in uncertain times, and referenced the importance of the Easter holiday.
“One of the things people need in times of crisis is hope,” he said. “And the church certainly brings that into our lives—the fact that regardless of what happens in our lives, God is with us, and even in death, there’s hope,” said VanArsdol. “The resurrection is all about that.”