The senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church, located off Longenbaugh Drive and Queenston Boulevard, said that while the technology that allowed the church to stream services online since March 22 was great, there is nothing quite like gathering in person with his church.
“You can’t really look back at anything in history to see any precedent; I didn’t know what to expect,” he said of the May 24 service. “A lot of people came back in person, ... and there was a great energy. You could just tell people missed people.”
Churches across the Cy-Fair area closed their doors and moved services to alternative formats for several weeks in March, April and May due to the threat of community spread of COVID-19.
During that time, weekly services, student ministry programming and small group meetings at Christ Covenant Church went virtual. While the church had streamed their services online prior to the pandemic, they added new features to enhance the social media experience, including weekly prayer sessions and worship nights on Facebook Live.
Weems said the church decided to get creative to continue serve the community—from delivering toilet paper and Easter egg hunts to front yards to launching a prayer hotline, supporting those struggling financially and organizing a blood drive this Sunday, May 31, from 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
“Once all that happened, we were called not to shrink back as a church, but we actually want to move forward because people need help,” he said. “We didn’t want to change our heart or our mindset during this crisis because we want to help hurting people. Even though a lot of stuff has been canceled, we believe that hope can’t be canceled, and people need hope.”
The May 24 service acted as a “soft” reopening for Christ Covenant Church, with an official grand reopening planned for Sunday, June 7. A lot of work went into making the service as safe as possible for attendees, Weems said.
This included removing every other row of seating from the auditorium, disinfecting high-touch areas before every service, limiting refreshments served to coffee and water, checking the temperatures of volunteers, having volunteers open doors for people, providing free masks and encouraging social distancing.
Additionally, high-risk populations and those age 65 and older were encouraged to take part in the online service from home via YouTube, Facebook Live or the church’s website. In-person children’s activities are on hold for the time being, but children can sit with their parents during service and tune into online programming via a separate device, according to Weems.
Weems said he has seen the church’s reach grow during the time of online-only services. About 150 people, on average, attended in-person services before the pandemic, but combined in-person attendees and online viewers May 24 came out to about 180, he said.
During a period of crisis and uncertainty for so many in the community, Weems said he hopes people will not let fear take over.
“As people are starting to get out, ... it’s just weird. Going to grocery stores, you could almost feel in the air the anxiousness of people,” he said. “Of course, let’s take precautions. Let’s make sure that we’re following guidelines—of course, we need to do that. At the same time, we can’t be led by fear or feelings. We want to be led by faith.”
Just a few miles away at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church on Huffmeister Road, in-person services resumed the week of May 4 with daily Mass at 9 a.m. and three weekend services at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays.
The parish typically holds five services each weekend, seeing 3,500-5,000 attendees over the two-day period, but each service is now are capped at 25% capacity, or 300 congregants. The Rev. Sean Horrigan said about 50-60 people have been attending the weekday masses, and weekend services bring out 150-225 people.
In the Catholic faith, Sunday is considered a holy day in which parishioners are obligated to attend Mass, Horrigan said. But during the coronavirus outbreak, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, the metropolitan archbishop of the Galveston-Houston area, suspended public masses effective March 18, encouraging families to pray and read scripture together each Sunday until early May when parishes were permitted to gradually reopen in adherence with state guidelines.
“So no one is required to come as part of their faith, but for those who do wish to make it out, we are starting those services,” Horrigan said. “It’s been well-received. There’s been a core group that’s come. Others have said, 'We don’t feel comfortable yet,' and we said, 'That’s certainly fine. We’ll be here when you’re ready.'”
Those attending services are asked to wear a mask; ushers seat families in a staggered fashion throughout the church; hand sanitizing stations are available; and a labor-intensive process of sanitizing pews, bathrooms and high-touch points takes place before and after each service, Horrigan said.
Saturday evening services are primarily reserved for seniors age 60 and older, and services continue to stream on YouTube and Facebook every day.
For now, Horrigan said he estimates less than 10% of Christ the Redeemer’s congregation is attending in person, but he encouraged families to wait until they are comfortable to attend. In the meantime, church staff has worked to reach out to the nearly 7,000 families in their system to learn about their needs during this time.
“For the first six weeks or so when it was all online, just to look out at empty pews, ... that human element is missing, and you long for that physical connection with people—shaking hands or giving a hug or a high five after service,” Horrigan said. “The church is still present; the spirit is still present to us. We just have to discover and be open to new ways to do it during this time.”
Still, several other congregations in the area will continue worshiping from their homes for the foreseeable future, as churches such as Lakewood United Methodist Church on Louetta Road wait to open for in-person services.
Trish Woodruff, pastor of discipleship at Lakewood UMC, said the church’s leadership team is cautiously planning for a phased reopening but has not yet set a date as of a May 22 phone interview with Community Impact Newspaper. The congregation has been understanding and patient during this time when ministry offerings have moved online, she said.
“We feel like people know that we’re trying to be wise, and we’re paying close attention to the advice of medical personnel as well as the numbers that are posted for all the new cases,” she said. “They know that we want to ensure that there’s not another spike in new cases.”
Lakewood UMC will continue offering virtual programming for the foreseeable future. Woodruff said the transition to online services has led to an unexpected increase in worship attendance and engagement in Bible studies. About 1,000 people attended in-person services on the typical Sunday before the pandemic, she said.
The church has also added daily prayer led by different members of the congregation on Facebook and drive-thru communion, among other new initiatives designed to keep church members engaged and to be accessible to individuals who might not have attended church prior to the pandemic.
“We have learned through this whole process church is not necessarily a building. We are still completely open, and we’re engaging people and [have] been able to reach people through this that we’ve not been able to reach when the building was open,” Woodruff said. “I also think it’s a time where people are searching for meaning and purpose.”