Trinity offers first outdoor worship

Gathering outside the first step for some churches as they plan slow return to normal

Since the COVID-19 shutdown began in March, church service has looked different, yet quite familiar, to Dina Zeilstra and her family.

Members of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hinsdale, the Zeilstra family gathers in their home every Sunday to watch the live stream of their church's weekend service. It's a new weekend ritual practiced by church-going families of every denomination.

With buildings shuttered to protect against the spread of coronavirus, churches everywhere turned to the internet to keep their members connected to their faith and to one another.

"It was a quick learning curve for me," said Pastor Geoff Ziegler. He began broadcasting weekend services from his home on March 16.

To keep people connected, he asked church members to record themselves reading the week's Bible passages. The recordings were made part of the weekend service, along with past recordings of the members singing hymns and photos.

Soon, members began sharing video "postcards" - quick updates of life in quarantine. Ziegler even hosted a trivia game night via Zoom to keep his church members connected.

Like many families, the Zeilstras made the best of their at-home worship opportunities, but when word came that Ziegler would offer a pair of live outdoor services on Sunday Zeilstra wasted no time reserving her spot on the church lawn.

"That's something I've never had to do before - sign up for church," she said.

Held outside the building that Trinity shares with the Seventh-day Adventist church at 201 N. Oak St., about 50 members gathered for the first in-person service in nearly three months. Families were separated using traffic cones to mark their spots and although people were welcome to use masks, Zeilstra said most chose to forego them in lieu of the morning's fresh spring air.

The outdoor services, held at 9 and 11 a.m., also offered the first opportunity in months for members to receive communion. Wearing face shields and gloves, church elders distributed individually packaged wafers and juice to those in attendance.

Just a few blocks away, members of The Chapel at 620 N. Oak St. were invited to receive communion and prayer from the safety of their cars. Pastor Rick Callahan said people came in 15 cars and on three bicycles to partake of the drive-through prayer opportunity.

Members of The Chapel will have to wait a bit longer for that congregation's first in-person service. Callahan said he will offer the church's first outdoor, socially distanced worship opportunity on July 12.

The church was already streaming its services prior to COVID-19, so attention turned quickly in March to finding new ways to engage people. The church's 200 members were encouraged to participate in small online groups to share Bible study, prayer and to socialize with one another.

Callahan said he saw new relationships form not only between members of his church, but with people outside the church, too.

"There are people who have connected with us online who would never have walked into our building," he said. While The Chapel's eight Chicago area campuses typically attract about 6,000 people to their weekend services, Callahan said about 10,000 tuned in to the church's live streams during the quarantine.

But the time is right, he said, for a return to a more traditional worship experience.

"For us, and for most churches, those numbers are beginning to fade because people are getting tired of looking at screens," he said. Members of the church's youth ministry have already begun meeting for weekly outdoor activities.

"More than anything, it's just connecting with each other. They need authentic connection," he said.

In addition to weekly services, Callahan said he's looking for other opportunities, such as a movie on the church lawn, to bring people together. But he's also keenly aware of the fact that comfort levels vary greatly when it comes to a return to a pre-COVID normal.

"We're trying to be careful and cautious," he said, balancing some peoples' eagerness to end quarantine with others' needs and desires to remain in isolation.

"We just want to meet them where they are," he said.

A self-described extrovert, Zeilstra said she will choose to gather in person whenever it's possible. But she's also grateful that online services will remain an option, not only for herself and her family, but for those who cannot come to church for any reason. Friends who have moved away can revisit their church without leaving home. Members can attend service even while traveling, she said.

"It's a nice option," she said. "It's a good thing that's come out of this."

Author Bio

Sandy Illian Bosch is a contributing writer to The Hinsdalean