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Easter service options grow as churches grapple with awkward pandemic phase

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Passion Art Walk in downtown tells story of Christ (copy)

Father Marneni Bala Showraiah, former pastor at St. Philip Catholic Church, kneels before a cross during a church event in 2016.

Churches have been operating differently throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some have been holding in-person services for as long as they’ve been able, others have been fully remote for most of the year and still others have worked out a hybrid model.  

Navigating this stage of the pandemic, where active cases still exist and vaccination numbers are on the rise, seems to be a bit awkward. But it appears that most agree that Easter warrants in-person celebrations. 

Several churches throughout Williamson County will be hosting various Easter services and festivities this weekend. Some, such as Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood and Franklin, will have multiple in-person services on Sunday with required registration to limit capacity. Fellowship Bible Church will also have an online option and even an outdoor sunrise service at 6 a.m. with no tickets required. 

Similarly, St. Philip Catholic Church will celebrate sunrise Mass at Markovich Farm, capping the event at 400 preregistered people. 

The struggle to find the best way to hold church services has garnered different results depending on the church, but many congregations, particularly larger ones, have opted for holding in-person services with online streaming as well for the foreseeable future. One such church is Fourth Avenue Church of Christ. 

“We’re always going to have a virtual presence, which, I think, is good because if you are sick or you’re out of town, you still can join,” said Gary Shrader, executive minister at the church. 

He said that his church has been holding in-person services with streaming options since late June, after an online-only period. He said that inside the church, they require masks and continue to socially distance and, at first, only about 25% to 30% of the congregation returned to the building. However, in recent weeks, more and more people have transitioned from their couches back to worshipping from a pew. 

This weekend, the church will hold an Easter egg hunt for the kids. It will be at Gentry Farm on Saturday, and Fourth Avenue invites everyone to join its 9:30 a.m. outdoor service on Sunday. Shrader said that the church also puts up a cross every year on which people can place flowers. That cross is sitting outside the church, so anyone can participate in its decoration. 

Bethlehem United Methodist Church will also hold several in-person services on Easter Sunday, including a sunrise service at 7 a.m., with plans to be outside, weather permitting. The church will also stream its service. But the celebration won’t end there, as the church will hold a day of service on April 11 for its annual post-Easter Church Beyond the Building event. 

“We’re pretty much a community- (and) social-minded congregation,” said Ron Whitler, the business manager at the church, noting that a few nonprofit organizations have started out of his church. “That’s kind of in our DNA as a congregation.” 

Whitler said that Bethlehem United Methodist did not have any kind of virtual service before the COVID-19 pandemic. It quickly pivoted to online-only for a time and has gone back and forth between offering in-person and online and closing its doors when cases spike. 

He said that the church will continue its virtual services for now but has no idea what the future will hold. 

On the other hand, some churches, such as Fairview Community Church, have opted to do away with their streamed services altogether. 

“We just don’t have the resources to kind of be bilateral, moving in both directions at the same time,” said Josh Mangrum, senior pastor at Fairview Community Church. 

He said that his church live-streamed services for a time and then returned to in-person services as it was able. Now, as people are getting more comfortable being around others, he said he plans to resume small-group gatherings and other activities the church paused. 

He said that roughly 75% to 80% of the congregation has returned to church in person, and he expects that those who still haven’t come back won’t come back. But for those who have and anyone else who is ready, his church will hold a Sunday service in person with donuts and coffee. 

At Fourth Avenue, Shrader said that while virtual church options have their value, there is no substitute for gathering together in person. 

“I think people still desire community and relationship, so I still think there will be a desire for people to be together in person, to worship together, to have relationship, to connect with other people,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do those things virtually, but it’s just not the same. So, I think people will come back when they can but still take advantage of the virtual option when they can’t be here.”

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