For many, worship in the Whidbey community continues online

— Created June 3, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kacie Jo Voeller

From drive-through food drives to online worship services, churches around Whidbey Island have adapted to continue their respective missions and bring services to the surrounding community.

Although Phase II of Washington state’s Safe Start program allows for the return of in-person worship services at a 25 percent or 50 person capacity, provided certain safety guidelines are followed, a number of Whidbey Island’s congregations will continue to keep services online for the foreseeable future.

Stacy Larsen, executive pastor of Living Word church in Oak Harbor, said the church will continue to hold services in an online format. She said when the church met in person, there were typically about 620 people in attendance each Sunday.

“We are really taking our time to make sure, one, that we can meet all the guidelines as things open up, but two, is it going to be an experience that is worth coming together for?” she said. “And we are just weighing all those options to see what that looks like.”

Jim Lindus, senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland, said the church, like many others, has a large percentage of senior attendees who are more at risk. He said the church, which hosts about 450 people when meeting on a Sunday, hopes to begin meeting in person later in the year with safety measures in place.

“It is just not worth it for us to take the risk for people (right now),” he said.

Reverend Richard Fuss of Langley United Methodist Church (Langley UMC), said the church will not be resuming in-person services during Phase II, but will continue online streaming.

“We are intentionally being very cautious in our reopening,” he said. “Churches have been shown to be ‘super-spreaders,’ so we want to be as responsible and as thoughtful as we possibly can both for our members and for the wider community. When we do open, it will be in stages and only when we can be assured that we are keeping people safe and healthy.” 

Reverend Paul Pluth said St. Augustine Catholic Church, which has campuses in Coupeville and Oak Harbor, will not hold Sunday services in person. However, the church is open for prayer two times each week with safety and sanitation measures in place. Confession and Holy Communion are also still available. Pluth said the online services have allowed the church to reach more people than would be possible through normal Sunday gatherings.

“It has taught us to try to do things a new way,” Pluth said. “We would never have thought of broadcasting our services and now we are going to make a bigger investment into that because we know that is meaningful to a lot of people. So that is something that will remain even after we are open again.”

            Lindus said although services have transitioned to an online format, the experience is still engaging for Trinity Lutheran’s attendees.

“Our worship experience has been very rich,” he said. “We have got a really good team doing the online stuff. We have certainly had more people tuning in to watch online than we would have on a Sunday morning, and we have gotten very good feedback on that.” 

Fuss said holding services online has increased the reach of Langley UMC.

“It is also interesting to note that while our pre-COVID-19 in-person worship averaged a little over 100, our online worship services average around 300 in viewership, with folks connecting from California, Oregon, Texas, Michigan, Georgia and even Wales,” he said. “This experience is helping us look anew at what it means to be a modern faith community, which is exciting.” 

While in-person services are still suspended for some churches on the island, other ways to connect and small group sessions are either already in action or being planned. Lindus said throughout the stay-at-home order, Trinity Lutheran Church connected less vulnerable members with senior churchgoers. Those who were able to leave their homes checked in on the more vulnerable members multiple times a week and helped with everything from getting groceries to picking up mail, he said.

“It has worked really well and what we have found is that the blessing there is that people found new friends,” he said.

            Larsen said Living Word hopes to take some smaller steps toward coming together again, with plans for church members to host small groups at their homes and to also bring people together to watch online services while following Phase II protocols. Larsen said the church will also be reopening its offices for staff to start to return to the church campus.

“One step that we are hoping to take a little sooner is and that kind of falls in line with Phase II is to have watch parties,” she said. “So rather than everyone at their home by themselves watching the service, maybe host some watch parties in homes once a week where people can come together, still distancing but be in a room together watching the service, just to have it a little closer to human contact.” 

             Community outreach and service also remains important for local churches, Fuss shared. Langley UMC has been supporting local nonprofits and partnering with local restaurants to support people who are food insecure.

“Basically, we have kept on being and doing church even though the church building is closed,” he said. “If anything, our service to the community has increased during this important time.” 

            Pluth said the church and its members continue to connect and serve each other and the community.

“It is also a great opportunity for people to practice charity,” he said. “People are doing that, they are working with each other, helping out.”

            Lindus said continued community outreach has been key for Trinity Lutheran Church, and the team has implemented creative ways of serving while also donating money to Good Cheer Food Bank, Helping Hand of South Whidbey, Gifts from the Heart Food Bank and Friends of Friends Medical Support Fund.

“We also did a drive-through food drive one day and everyone came out to give food for Good Cheer and I think as much as that, they also came to see our staff and smile as they drove by in their car when we took the food,” he said. 

Larsen said Living Word will continue its annual tradition of providing vacation Bible school activities for children. However, this year’s format will look different, with families picking up supplies from the church and then completing activities at home. Larsen said there will be a live online event where children can follow along with the singing, dancing, and craft-making activities that would normally be available to them.

“We are really looking forward to that actually, because the fact that they will be able to drive in every day and pick up their supplies and wave to their teachers and say hi is just one step closer to being able to be in-person again someday,” she said.

            In many cases, the reopening of typical Sunday services will be gradual, Fuss said. For Langley UMC, comprehensive safety policies ranging from masks to social distancing and beyond will be in place, Fuss shared. “There are ways we can connect with God and connect with each other while still keeping one another safe,” he said. “We are currently exploring creative options to do this. I do think it will be strange at first to worship with these safety measures in place, but I trust that folks will be adaptable and supportive. Our first call is to love one another, and sometimes that means that we change how we do things. Of course, it will be wonderful to gather in person again but we are determined to be patient to make sure that we do it at the right time and in the right way.”