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Dr. April Herron is associate pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

What is the church when the building is empty?

In this past year, we have had the opportunity to find out. It has been about a year now since my church, and many others, ceased having in-person gatherings for worship or any other purpose. 

We understood that the coronavirus was and is highly contagious, and the illness it causes is extremely serious for a certain percentage of people. Painful as it has been to not be able to worship as a community physically gathered, we remain committed to supporting the health of our members and neighbors. 

Thus we have learned the church can still be a worshipping, learning, serving community even when the building is empty.

My church, like most others, has discovered an alternate strategy for worship. We assessed our resources and decided our most viable approach would be to gather a small team of five leaders and two technicians each week, suitably distanced and masked, to record a worship service which would subsequently be permanently posted on the internet. 

We quickly discovered this approach expanded our number of worship participants considerably, since ability to physically get to our campus was no longer a requirement.

Now people who find it difficult to leave home under any circumstances (not just during COVID-19 times) are able to worship with their church, as are friends and family who live at considerable geographic distance from the Palos Verdes Peninsula. 

Yes, it can be challenging or sad to preach in a sanctuary full of empty pews, but it is a joy to be connecting with a wide array of people who are seeking ways to be faithful.

My particular role at the church includes a focus on teaching classes and leading groups for adults who want to deepen their knowledge of scripture and Christian practices of spiritual growth. Therefore, just like everyone else, I had to learn to use the available tools. 

At first, the task seemed daunting. Fortunately, I was encouraged by the enthusiastic response of someone older and wiser than me.  “I love learning new things,” she exclaimed when she received the first invitation to come to a meeting facilitated on the internet. 

Together, we and others have found some things are sacrificed and other things are gained when using online platforms. Perhaps due to the fact that many of us are living within the constraints of more restricted options for how to spend time, participation in learning groups remains at or above pre-pandemic levels. Our youth and children’s religious education and experience of community also continues, with modifications, to be available in encouraging ways.

Even the church’s mission has remained intact, though we eagerly await the renewed ability to host meetings of scout troops, live concerts, and volunteer organizations that do good work in our neighborhood. 

Our preschool, our homework support program and recreational activities have made the necessary modifications to remain open.  Our commitment to supporting meals and transitional housing and family assistance for people in hard circumstances endures. 

With some creative leadership, we have taken part in book drives, bell ringing, fundraising walks, gift delivery, and other forms of service. 

I am not sure I would have expected all these endeavors to remain so vital, but they have. The buildings and grounds of our campus remain a resource as a drop-off point or staging area, but it is the spirit of the people that really shines.

Rolling Hills United Methodist Church has no plans to give up our buildings. 

In fact we have invested in many enhancements to our property and facilities in the past year. We look forward to the day when the whole campus is alive with activity. 

Yet we are also glad to have learned, perhaps not for the first time, that the church’s greatest gift is its people.

April Herron is associate pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

 

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