When the pandemic started last year, churches were forced to close and pastors had to get creative in spreading the word of God. A year later, congregations are welcoming each other, face-to-face, with open arms.
When COVID-19 hit last spring, churches across the country were forced to close their doors. They had to pivot, and pivot fast. Most turned to livestreaming their services online, while others simply stayed open or closed up altogether. By the summertime, many congregations were gathering outdoors on lawns and terraces.
As the pandemic wears on one year later, you’ll find many area churches are open once again and welcoming people back to their pews. Things may look a little different these days, but for those who are ready to return, the experience has been a refreshing reminder of the role church plays in our lives.
“The church is the body of Christ, and it’s always meant to be experienced best in person,” says the Rev. Mark Buetow, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, 4206 W. Elm St., in McHenry.
Zion Lutheran Church
This year marks Zion Lutheran’s 145th anniversary in McHenry, and that’s a testament to the church’s ability to withstand challenging times. Its members have stayed faithful through depressions, recessions, wars and pandemics.
Last spring, when the church wasn’t physically together, members sent in offerings and continued to stay prayerful. The church upgraded its video equipment and livestreamed services every weekend. During those first recordings, held during Holy Week in April, only a few elders and the pastor’s wife were in the building.
“It was good. It gave me someone to preach to in person, besides the camera,” Buetow says. “We streamed services for several months, until June. Then, we started to have people back a little bit.”
At first, just 10 people would gather on Sundays for communion. “We started to have services capped at 50 people that July,” Buetow says.
With a sanctuary that can hold 200 people or more at full capacity, Zion Lutheran now holds two services with about 50 people at a time.
The service itself hasn’t changed much, although worshippers are more spaced out than usual. Traditionally, they came forward and kneeled at a rail during communion, but now they just stand near the altar.
Since bringing back in-person services, Buetow and his congregation have taken extra precautions to keep things clean and help worshippers feel comfortable inside. Not one church member has contracted COVID from being at church, Buetow says.
“I encourage people to come and remember that the body of Christ is best in person when we’re here with one another,” he says. “But I don’t try to be super hard-nosed about it.”
As it always has, the church remains committed to supporting members in their times of need.
“We’ve always had a ministry where, if someone is sick or in the hospital, and if they can’t make it to church, I’ll go and visit them, bring them communion and pray with them,” Buetow says.
For those who are still exercising caution, Buetow is grateful to continue streaming his services and sermons online, because every bit helps to spread God’s word. To view Zion Lutheran’s weekly services, visit zionmchenry.org.
Barrington United Methodist Church
Last spring’s COVID-related shutdown hit this Barrington congregation hard and fast.
“For everyone, it was just so sudden,” says Chris Winkler, senior pastor of Barrington United Methodist Church, 98 Algonquin Road, in Barrington. “We went from in-person worship to nothing at all in such a short time. Because we’re part of a denomination, we had denominational leadership that was helping us with making decisions. It wasn’t just a local decision.”
Once the staff started recording services to share with the community, they received some pushback from people who said they had too many people in the same room. The staff tried again and recorded their portions of the service in separate rooms.
“That came down on a Friday,” Winkler says. “We thought we’ll just go one more week. It was just a short time to adjust. By the third week, we were fully online and have been ever since.”
Last summer, the church held in-person services outdoors, but once the weather turned, things went back to remote worship.
In March, the church finally brought worshippers back indoors, and there are plans to resume outdoor worship soon. The traditional, in-person service begins at 10 a.m., with children’s Sunday School held at the same time. Reservations are required for both and can be made at barringtonumc.com/in-person.
Once the weather is nice enough, services will continue taking place in the parking lot, just like last year.
“I think people are finding that it’s good to be back together,” Winkler says. “The service is significantly different. There’s no real singing. We invite people to sing quietly with their mask on or to hum along.”
Currently, the church does not do any response-type prayers, as it used to do. There is no choir, though there is a small ensemble behind plexiglass. The pastor is also behind plexiglass and he stands farther away from the crowd during service. In-person services are currently limited to 35 minutes. In the past, they lasted nearly an hour.
“I would say it’s been interesting,” Winkler says. “We haven’t reached capacity. Even with the doors open to allow 80 or 90 people, we’re having more like 50 or 60. That’s consistent with the experience in other large areas.”
For those who are still cautious about returning, Winkler understands. Members can still hear services in the parking lot, using the radio. Weekly services are livestreamed and recorded, available on the church’s website and Facebook page.
“I would tell them to come back at the pace and level they’re comfortable with,” Winkler says. “We’ll be together in the end and we’ll have the opportunity to worship in a manner similar to what we had before. We just need to be patient and faithful, and those things will happen.”
Over the past year, members of Barrington United Methodist have invested more heavily in several of their community missions. At multiple locations in the suburbs, they’ve been sharing community meals. The project began well before COVID as a way of bringing seniors and isolated people together for a meal and fellowship. However, the impact of COVID has brought an important change.
“When the pandemic hit, and jobs were lost, particularly marginalized folks, we pivoted and made that a feeding program,” Winkler says. “It went from serving about 80 people to serving around 350 people a month. It’s all carry-out meals. That’s been very important.”
Church members continue to raise vegetables in a garden plot at the church. Last summer, diligent gardeners grew almost 30 tons of vegetables to distribute through area food pantries.
“In many ways, we’ve continued to be the church that serves our neighbors, our community and our constituents,” Winkler says. “We have been very effective doing that.”
River City Church
Eight years ago, Damian McCrink and his wife started this church from their living room.
“We moved to an art studio in downtown Batavia and then into Batavia High School in 2013,” says McCrink, pastor of River City Church, now located at 3450 Swenson Ave., in St. Charles. “In 2015, we moved into a building in St. Charles, our current location.”
With the constant moving, McCrink has been used to change, but preaching to empty seats was a change he wasn’t prepared for. The experience has actually helped him to move the congregation in new directions.
“It has actually caused us to lean more into the community,” he says. “I partnered with others who were buying meals from local restaurants and sending them to first responders. We also created a fund and helped families that were financially challenged at that time.”
Like other churches, River City’s services were online-only for several months. When McCrink re-opened the sanctuary in July, people slowly began returning.
“There have been new people who have come to our church since opening, because of when we opened and how we opened,” he says.
About half of the seats in the auditorium have been removed and coffee and breakfast items are no longer set up before service. Worship services were shorter at first and they set up an outdoor lobby for people to mingle and have conversations. Masks are recommended and provided at each service, especially when social distancing is not possible. Stations for hand sanitizing are available in the lobby and auditorium.
Currently, about 65 people show up to River City’s weekly 10 a.m. Sunday worship. More info can be found at therivercitychurch.org.
“We went with a ‘mask recommended but not required’ policy and got some kickback for it,” McCrink says. “We felt like it was right for our community. Every pastor and church have to make decisions based on their community.”
Find a Place of Worship
Many area churches have re-opened their doors. Below is just a small sample of area churches that are worshipping in person. Please review their websites before attending, as some require reservations or other special procedures.
Immanuel Lutheran of Crystal Lake
300 Pathway Ct., Crystal Lake, (815) 459-1441
Services: Sundays at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., in person and online
Fellowship of Faith, McHenry (Nondenominational)
6120 Mason Hill Road, McHenry, (815) 759-0739
Services: Sundays at 10 a.m., both in-person and livestreamed on Facebook
Christ Life Church, Woodstock (Nondenominational)
13614 W. Jackson St., Woodstock, (815) 338-4934
Services: Sundays at 10:30 a.m.
United Methodist of Geneva
211 Hamilton St., Geneva, (630) 232-7120
Services: Sundays at 10:30 at Fabyan Forest Preserve
Reservations required; See genevaumc.org
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian, Elburn
200 N. Main St., Elburn, (630) 934-5003
Services: Sundays at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Reservations recommended; See graceelburn.org
First Congregational of Dundee
900 S. Eighth St., Dundee, (847) 426-2161
Services: Sundays at 10 a.m., in person and online
Reservations required; See fccdundee.com
St. Mary Catholic of Elgin
400 Fulton St., Elgin, (847) 888-2828
Services: Sunday Mass at 7:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.
(Spanish Mass also available)
Reservations required; See stmaryelgin.org
New Life Community Church, Elgin (Nondenominational)
1580 Chicago St., Elgin, (847) 888-1978
Services: Sundays at 10 a.m., in person and online
Springbrook Community Church, Huntley (Nondenominational)
10115 W. Algonquin Road, Huntley, (224) 569-3300
Services: Sundays at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., in person and online
St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, Elgin
525 Church Road, Elgin, (847) 888-2822
Services: Sundays at 8 a.m.
Reservations required; See st-sophia.com