The Advent and Christmas season is here. How are local churches adjusting amid COVID-19?

Charles Dunlap
Boonville Daily News

Boonville churches changed their service operations in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the Advent and Christmas season has started, are there any differences to procedures for this major part of the Christian calendar? 

Many churches, like First Baptist Church, has held multiple Sunday services since reopening its doors earlier this year. This hasn't changed for the Advent season. The church also plans multiple Christmas Eve services, like other area churches. 

First Baptist holds its services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sundays to lessen the number of people in the sanctuary at one time. Two Christmas Eve candlelight services are planned to allow for social distancing. Service times are not yet determined.

"We are taking as many of the precautions as we possibly can," First Baptist senior pastor the Rev. Chris Greenhagen said. "We are taking precautions, but at the same time, we want to ... trust Christ, trust in the Lord. We don't want to let fear rule. We are using common sense."

So, he has consulted with other ministers on how they are adjusting their services and what policies they are using to keep congregants safe. 

He came to serve the church in March, right as stay-at-home orders were starting to be instituted and had to quickly adjust to the new format for conducting services. 

"It was different. My first Sunday was March 1," Greenhagen said. "I was here for three weeks and then we felt led to close the doors because of the pandemic."

So, the church adjusted to online services for about three months before reopening its doors. 

"It was definitely different. You don't anticipate stepping into a new position at a new church and having to close the doors," Greenhagen, adding that associate minister for youth and music David Evans has been a big help. 

The church still broadcasts services online for those who cannot attend in-person or are part of high-risk categories for COVID-19 and should not attend in-person. 

Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church also has made adjustments for the Advent and Christmas season, the Rev. Chris Snyder said. 

"We had some major changes. Our bishop has set some new policies," he said. "We have actually added a service to our Sunday morning schedule because we have committed to keeping our capacity in our (sanctuary) below 25%, so that's about 50 people per service."

So, Sunday morning services are now at 8 a.m., 9:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.. This is to ensure social distancing and allow for time to disinfect and sanitize surfaces between services. 

Masks also are required while people are in the building.

"Our two biggest challenges are keeping things safe for those that do come to worship and keeping connected with those who do not — at this time — feel comfortable coming to worship," Snyder said. "We have just been trying to be diligent on both of those areas there."

Advent services will follow the regular Sunday schedule. As for Christmas Eve, there are multiple plans in case adjustments are needed. Right now, services are planned for 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. 

"At this point, we are considering holding our Christmas Eve services outside in conjunction with our living Nativity," Snyder said. "We are trying to lean into the fact that this year is different, but still is a service that is holy, special and sacred."

All services from Nelson Memorial are recorded and posted online afterward for anyone who cannot attend in person.

Snyder also had to contend with moving to a new church during the pandemic. He started at Nelson Memorial in July. 

"(The church) restarted in-person worship about three or four weeks before we arrived," he said. "So, they were back into the rhythm of worship. It was different, of course, with the social distancing. We faced the same challenges anyone new to a community would face. Our transition to Boonville has been fantastic, but it's just been from mostly behind a mask. That's 2020."

Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church has made its own adjustments. Penance services are canceled during this time. The regular mass has its own precautions, said the Rev. Bill Peckman, who also serves St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fayette. That church also has similar safety precautions. 

Peckman will oversee Christmas Eve services at 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. in Boonville and at 7:30 p.m. in Fayette. Christmas Day services are planned at 8 a.m. in Fayette and 10 a.m. in Boonville. 

Safety precautions include include roping off pews for social distancing and requiring mask usage when coming into or moving about the building and as parishioners come forward for communion. A live feed of the service is broadcast online and to the parish halls of both churches for added social distancing. 

One area church doing things a little differently for Advent and Christmas is Immanuel Lutheran Church.  

Advent services are being held 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays for the three weeks prior to Christmas Eve.  Masks are required for the Advent services.

"We wanted to have an opportunity for people who have health concerns who haven't been to church in quite awhile to have an opportunity to come to a service where they knew everybody would be masked," the Rev. Joshua Ketelsen said. 

Advent services typically have lower numbers as well, which allows for distancing, he said. 

There will be two Christmas Eve services at 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to aid social distancing. There typically are more congregants at Christmas and so the hope is, by having two services, it will halve the number of people in the sanctuary for either service. There is a Christmas Day service at 9 a.m. 

"We are continuing to encourage people to use caution and common sense," he said. "When everything shut down, we switched to an online service and I streamed through Facebook Live."

Regular Sunday services, where mask use is encouraged, are at 8:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. The second service was added in response to COVID-19 and to encourage social distancing. 

"We have, in recent weeks, seen an uptick in people wearing masks to church," Ketelsen said.

Congregation numbers are back to where they once were, just spread out among the two services. Streaming of services has continued and there is an audio-only option for those who do not have Facebook.

"We have a number of older members who are not on Facebook, so they can call in through Zoom and listen to the service on their phone," Ketelsen said. "They are comfortable with that. That (also) allows people who don't want to come in at all to continue to receive the word and participate at home with services."