As the world has grappled with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the ELCA has sought new ways to meet this unique cultural moment, engaging members in worship and faith formation through innovative means.
For a number of ELCA congregations, that’s meant launching or reviving drive-in services. Zion Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., began such services at a drive-in movie theater in the 1970s. Now the congregation holds them on its premises each summer, broadcasting its early Sunday service through a low-power FM transmitter.
But in March, the congregation began presenting both Saturday evening and Sunday broadcasts—as well as two livestreamed services—“as a way of meeting, but respecting the bonds of social distancing,” said Jim Debner, a pastor of Zion.
“It’s very important to some of our senior members who have mobility problems. I have a new appreciation for the service for that reason; it allows people to build community when they might’ve been isolated in their home before.”
Shortly after Zion had switched to the drive-in format, a shelter-in-place order was issued for Michigan, and the congregation had to shift formats again. “We will have to figure out how to do that from within our homes,” Debner said. “We have to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t.
“There are so many ways in which, with social media, you can be connected. We need to lead the way as churches and congregations in this process.”
He believes the ELCA is distinctively able to serve people at this uncertain time. “It’s an exciting time to be the church,” he said. “People, more than ever, need to hear that perfect love, which is God, casts out fear. There’s a lot of fear now. Resurrection is the one thing that brings hope. … We have a great message, and people are eager to hear it.”
Other ELCA communities have established new means of offering regular activities. In March, on the first Sunday when Good Shepherd Lutheran in Monroeville, Pa., wasn’t able to worship in person, the congregation’s pastor, Bob Schaefer, launched a daily devotional series on YouTube.
“As I thought about doing worship online, my sense was that just broadcasting what we would’ve done if people were there wasn’t the right fit,” he said. “What was called for was something that was more of a daily check-in.”
Schaefer set up a camera, lights, a microphone and a TV as a teleprompter in Good Shepherd’s sanctuary and began sharing devotionals each day.
The congregation started using Zoom for hybrid worship services on Sundays, allowing members to watch via video or, for those without easy access to a computer, call in by phone to listen. Once Pennsylvania enacted its stay-at-home order, Good Shepherd staff taped together card stock to create a makeshift green screen for Schaefer to use in his home, where he continued producing the videos.
“It’s important for me to say, ‘I’ll be here every day,’ and end by saying, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ A little ritual for people really makes a difference. I light a candle and invite people to do that in their own homes,” he said.
Kerri Clark, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Connellsville, Pa., agreed. In March she began offering weekly Bible-story sessions for families through Facebook Live on the congregation’s page.
“People, more than ever, need to hear that perfect love, which is God, casts out fear.”
“I’d thought previously about doing something online; I just didn’t have the time or motivation to figure it out and do it,” she said. “Now we have both of those things, and lots of opportunities to try and do things in a different way. I encourage families to set up a worship or altar space at home. I pulled out a couple things: a cross, a candle, a little bowl of water and something that could work as paraments—I used a purple T-shirt.”
After the first session, Clark heard from viewers who said their children wanted to set up altar spaces in their living rooms.
That connection has been a key component of other new family-aimed video series. Kate Roettger, director of children and family ministry for Our Saviour Lutheran Church in East Bethel, Minn., hosts its kids’ activity sessions on Facebook Live, and Jesse Canniff-Kuhn and his brother Matt Canniff-Kesecker, pastors in the North Carolina Synod, present Morning Watch KIDS!, a daily devotional series on Facebook featuring songs, stories and puppets.
Clark appreciates “having that reminder that there’s an opportunity to provide teaching, care and something fun and familiar at a time when a lot of things are up in the air.”
A similar spirit motivated Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, Hillside, Colo., and Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, Fort Collins, to collaborate on a daily devotional activity series for the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Facebook page.
“Camp is a place to get away,” said Daniel Kirschbaum, director of retreat ministries at Rainbow Trail. “[Both camps were imagining] how we might show up as [a] resource to fulfill faith-formation pieces that folks will be missing as they’re not physically attending, but also trying to figure out how we can provide some respite as a place away, from within their homes.”
Despite the anxiety COVID-19 has brought, Kirschbaum has found that people connect deeply to a format and concept that may not have been attempted otherwise. “This time of disorientation has spurred some creativity and new life in our church that’s actually really needed.”
The ELCA’s response to COVID-19 will be updated as needed at elca.org/publichealth.