I still remember worship in our sanctuary on March 15, 2020. The uncertainty in the air was palpable. Already, in response to a rapidly spreading virus, many things around us had been shutting down and there were rumors that even the schools in our state would soon be closed.
During our service of worship, we did the things we usually did: Read from scripture, shared communion together, listened to preaching, confessed our sins, and sang songs of faith. But there was this lingering anxiety. By the time our second service was over, we knew it was probably the last time we’d be doing that for a while.
Sure enough. Within 24 hours, life as we knew it was deeply changed – including our work as a congregation. We decided that we would not be meeting together in our sanctuary for the foreseeable future.
Lenten soup suppers and evening prayer suddenly came to a halt. There was no gathering a few weeks later on Palm Sunday to wave branches, shout “Hosanna!” and eat our traditional youth brunch. We couldn’t gather in our sanctuary for Easter and we didn’t gather in our building on Pentecost Sunday, either.
In fact, for 25 Sundays, our sanctuary was empty in the mornings.
But I want to make something abundantly clear: Immanuel Lutheran Church was never closed.
The church is God’s people, gathered around His Word. And while we chose not to gather in our sanctuary, we’ve never stopped gathering in other ways.
For over 50 years, Immanuel has had a weekly radio broadcast. It was never more important than in these last 25 weeks. At 9:30 a.m., on KWAD 920AM, we proudly broadcast a weekly radio show with locally recorded music, preaching and prayers. So many have volunteered their time as readers, prayers, musicians and more to make our broadcast truly the work of the people. In fact, we’ve gotten pretty good at it! And we’ll keep working hard to offer that “pretty good” radio hour week after week.
We’ve also been gathering using YouTube, Facebook and the good old telephone. We’ve used Zoom, Google Hangouts, and had small, faithful gatherings at local parks, on people’s patios, and in their garages, too. And we trust that when we’ve found ways to gather, we have deepened our relationship with God and with one another.
But there’s more. The church is also God’s people sent into the world to serve our neighbors. During this global pandemic, the people of Immanuel have been working in many aspects of community life: Law enforcement, medicine, education, city government, public health, food production, retail service, and many other forms of work. And those who were part of an industry that had to close or drastically scale back, did so for the good of everyone.
Also, though our volunteer work has changed dramatically, we have found ways to keep working on quilts and other social projects. We’ve done our best to support our local businesses and serve our community by wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, too. That aspect of church never closes, either.
For the sake of our community, we’ve put a lot of our usual practices on hold. We’ve modified our location and the way we’ve used technology. But one thing we haven’t done is close. And we never will.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re still looking forward to returning to a lot of our old customs. But for now, if serving our neighbors means wearing masks, watching our distance, and washing our hands, Immanuel is on board. If the wisdom of our health leaders is that robust, unison speaking and singing is best to put on hold for now, we’ll do that, too.
We’ve always told ourselves that church wasn’t a building. We’ve always said that church was the people. These last 25 weeks we’ve put those ideals to the test. Not everything has been perfect. We’ve gotten frustrated at times. But we’ve learned a lot about what it means to be the church during a global pandemic. We expect to learn a lot more, too. Even now, as we have cautiously resumed gathering in our sanctuary, we’re committed to finding new and innovative ways to be church.
It is both an exciting and frightening time. But we are convinced that the church’s best days are still ahead. It has been a privilege for our congregation to serve the greater good in our community these last six months. And we will continue to do our best to serve alongside our neighbors in doing whatever it takes to keep one another safe, for as long as it takes to get through this COVID-19 pandemic -- together.
Nate Loer is the pastor of Wadena Immanuel Lutheran Church.