COVID-19 has changed how the St. Joseph Church of Christ has done things this year.
This includes letting the YMCA offer childcare to the community, adapting to hold services outside and then socially distanced inside as well as changes to their Winter Wassail tonight from 5 to 8 p.m.
Originally, the event was going to include an opportunity for families to take photos with Santa, Christmas Carols, a reading of the Christmas Story, a Wassail tasting and a giving tree.
Now the event is a drive-through event with multiple Christmas decorations with candy canes for children, samples of Winter Wassail, and a Santa sighting.
“At this point in time, the many great festivities we had planned will have to wait until next year, but we are still going to light the street up, accept decorated Christmas trees from local businesses to display, and serve Wassail drive-thru style,” said Senior Pastor Kyle Arnold.
Arnold’s first year as senior pastor at the Church of Christ has been marked by adaptations.
“I sure didn’t anticipate my first year here at St. Joe being mostly as an online Pastor, and then an Outdoor Children’s Pastor, that’s for sure,” Arnold said. “What the Pandemic has done though, is that it has allowed me as a Pastor to respond to the needs of our congregation and our community as needed. Sometimes the role of “pastor” is so pre-defined in terms of expectations, that there is very little flexibility in how I get to relate to others. COVID-19 changed so many things, so quickly, that everybody is pretty good with just flying by the seat of our pants. With the craziness of the Pandemic, in so many ways we are just trying to hear God’s direction from our church and obey, and we are ultimately trusting Him with the results. And there is something really basic, and beautiful about that, and I honestly hope that we keep that going even after the world returns to a state of “normal.” For us, I’m really hoping all of this is our new normal because God seems to be showing up quite a bit and that’s something we all can really enjoy getting used to.”
This fall, Arnold offered up the church as a child care facility when it was announced the grade school would be using a hybrid schedule.
“Our church has quite a few young families that attend, so it became obvious pretty early on with the school scheduling that childcare needs were going to be a big problem,” Arnold said. “As a church, it is our goal to be for our community, and we can’t really say that we love our community if we aren’t seeking to provide for community needs. We want young families to be a part of the DNA of our church, so it was natural for us to try to find creative solutions to ease some of the pressure being felt by families in the community. “
The Children’s Committee sprang into action to see how the church could help and soon realized it would be a massive undertaking that would include building codes, fire and health inspections, and meeting all family service guidelines.
“Even though things felt hopeless more than a few times, I was so appreciative of how our church family responded to all of the setbacks,” Arnold said. “Some of the churches my wife and I have been involved with in the past would have been more than happy to pack things up at the first sign that things weren’t going to be easy. But no matter what issues came about, we had so many people that faithfully pushed forward, knowing that we could do all of this work and it could be totally in vain. I can even vividly remember one of our elders flat out stating in one of our meetings, that if God wanted to make it happen He would, so we should just keep pushing the envelope until we couldn’t anymore.”
The church passed the inspections but another hurdle arose. The program would not be up and running until a few weeks after school started and more pressing though, with the church’s licensure exemption, they would only be able to provide the day programming as long as the half-day scheduling was in place. In the event the school ever transitioned to remote learning, they would no longer be able to legally provide care. That’s where the Champaign County YMCA stepped in and asked if they could use the building to provide childcare—which was a great solution for the church.
Arnold and the church met with the YMCA and realized it was the perfect solution.
“We realized that they not only could utilize our space to have a program up and running by the time school started but that their organization was capable of continuing to provide childcare in the event that a remote learning schedule was ever put in place,” he said. “At that moment we were able to come to an agreement that would let them fully run the program, but utilize our facilities to do so. Between our facilities, the YMCA programming and staff, and the school system helping to work out transportation needs, it was really incredible to see the community come together so quickly to provide for such a specific need.”
Arnold said the community support for everything the church has attempted this year has been amazing. Businesses have held fundraisers, firefighters inspected the building and pointed out issues that needed to be addressed and families stepped in to deep clean the entire building and move furniture to make it easier for the YMCA to use.
“My wife and I are still newer to Saint Joe, but after seeing how much the community has responded through this venture, we really understand why this is such a desirable place to raise a family,” Arnold said.
Arnold also had to adapt to how he led the church during this trying time. When it became clear outdoor services were safer, the church
decided to move outside for the warmer months.
“I never thought we would be shutting down a street for half the year to have an outdoor church, but we’ve experienced quite a few things we didn’t expect that have been really good for us, so in some ways, we can thank COVID for providing us with a new lens for looking at things,” Arnold said.
Arnold said the church really tried to balance providing a safe environment for families to attend services while still providing a sense of faith-based continuity through a difficult time of so much uncertainty.
In Mid-March, like so many other churches around the country, they started doing online-only services.
“That was a first for our church, and it was a whole lot of trial and error, but we were at least able to provide weekly services still for anybody that wanted to tune in,” Arnold said.
After doing that for several months, it became clear that the church needed to meet in person ins one capacity.
“While our church has always taken COVID seriously, we also believe that it is important that we keep an eye on our mental, emotional, and spiritual health in addition to our physical health,” Arnold said. “After months of isolation, we were concerned that if we didn’t make an adjustment that we may have very well been doing more harm than good by keeping our services online only.”
The church considered a drive-in service but that didn’t seem like quite the right fit. Then they began to consider outdoor services.
“One of our elders mentioned that we had in years past received permission to shut down Sherman Street for church festivals,” Arnold said. “We were initially worried that it might be too hot, but we actually have full tree coverage all the way down Sherman Street, so it’s almost like we have our own, natural, built in tent of shade that we get to meet in every week.”
Arnold said the first week of outdoor services went well except he wanted to find some way to serve the children of the ministry.
The Children’s Ministry program had been put on hold due to COVID.
The Church decided from that point forward, that as long as they weren’t providing Children’s Ministry programming during service, that the service was going to be kids focused and the adults would be the ones that would set aside their expectations for the kids.
So the church had different themes for their outdoor services with special games and events.
Arnold said the response was 100 percent positive and church attendance actually increased by 30 percent because people were bringing friends to the service.
Arnold said his favorite thing about the outdoor service was people who wouldn’t ordinarily attend church stopping to check out the outdoor service.
“It can be intimidating to check out a church for the first time, and when we are inside a person doesn’t really have as much freedom to come and go as they please during a service,” he said.
Arnold said the themed Sundays proved very popular. The first theme was sports day and more than 100 people dressed up in their favorite sports team gear.
“If there is any proof that Jesus is real, it’s because we had Cubs, Reds, and Cardinals fans all in church together at the same time,” Arnold said.
The Church also had a Disney Day, Superhero Day and Beach Day.
Arnold said while the pandemic hasn’t changed the role of Church in the community the church’s response to its role in the community has changed.
“Churches generally only meet once a week, so it becomes really easy, if you aren’t careful, to become completely intrinsic,” he said. “Especially in American culture where we are used to everything being about us, and how we can be served. What the Pandemic has done for us, is it has forced us to get out of our normal rhythms, and once we were out of those rhythms, we were able to see outside ourselves and our own organization.”
Seeing outside of itself allowed the Church to see the needs of the community in a clearer way.
“At that point in time, we can either do what Jesus told us to do, which is to love our neighbors and our community and to serve others, or we have to look in the mirror and admit that we are selfish and only care about ourselves,” Arnold said. “While I am not grateful for the pandemic itself, I am grateful for how it, as a platform, has allowed us as a congregation, to re-prioritize our community. It has provided the framework that we needed to feel safe again as a church family so that we could start focusing on what’s most important, which is loving and serving our community as our primary motivation.”