Sacraments sanitized: how churches are celebrating religious milestones safely

The majority of church congregants have not stepped foot into a church building since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As services adapted, rites of passage did the same.

Encounter Church, Living Water CRC, and Woodlawn CRC—three churches in the Grand Rapids area—were forced to move to live online services. The typical churchgoing social hour with hugging, shaking hands and speaking with others in-person was gone, but innovating ideas sprung up within the churches. Lead Pastor Dirk vanEyk of Encounter said, “We are going to do our best not to cancel anything, but to reimagine everything.” 

vanEk is taking infant baptisms outdoors, baptizing infants in their backyards with socially distanced family members present. vanEyk described adults as nervous to be baptized due to the health concerns, but he is optimistic about the future.

Baptisms at Woodlawn CRC are now held in separate intimate services with only the immediate family present, Pastor Mike Abma told Chimes, and the services are recorded for extended family to watch.

David Sung, pastor at Living Waters CRC, plans to resume baptisms but is concentrating on offering pre-baptism classes over Zoom for the time being.

Communion is being carried out in a variety of ways. Abma has livestreamed the sacrament once a month and stated that his congregation, “[prepares] their own elements” at home. On Easter weekend, the church distributed Holy Weekend Care Packages containing crackers and grape juice as an outreach for both churchgoers and neighbors who may not have visited before. 

While standard processes might work well for other rites, weddings seem to vary by couple. Sung has officiated one wedding since March, and it only held the couple, production staff, and a few family members. Ten people maximum was the rule, so guests invited to the wedding had the opportunity to attend virtually. Sung also had one couple cancel their wedding and another postpone. A hybrid wedding is in the works.

Abma encountered legal difficulties due to the pandemic. Couples at Woodlawn CRC and in the Grand Rapids area struggled to legally get married because the Grand Rapids City Clerk was often closed. “There were some real logistical things that made it almost impossible to get married,” Abma said. The weddings Abma has officiated have been held in backyards or outside areas.

Weddings at Encounter have not slowed down thanks to their population being largely young adults. vanEyk has officiated 15 weddings this year alone. His experience with engaged couples planning weddings has been different than years past. He described couples feeling relief about not having to plan an extravagant wedding and instead having the ability to focus on being married. After all, he stated, the “wedding is a day and marriage is a lifetime.” These smaller, more intimate weddings have included outdoor venues, bride and groom wedding masks, and music with Spotify or a jambox.

Pastors reported that funerals have been rushed and small.

Sung had an immediate family member pass away in March, when strict regulations were just beginning. The ceremony was quickly held, and fewer than ten attendees were allowed due to COVID-19 regulations in Washington state.  It was “quite lonely to be honest [and] quite sad,” said Sung.

The one funeral Abma held in March was developed in a matter of hours since COVID-19 regulations would begin the following day. Abma said that some are still waiting to have a memorial service.

vanEyk has not held any funeral services since March.

As regulations begin to loosen, some churches are welcoming congregants back into the physical church. Encounter has allowed 25% capacity to return and is planning to incrementally increase that percentage as long as it continues to be safe.

Woodlawn CRC is still doing live online church and is waiting for Calvin to allow use of the chapel before they return to in-person services. They are planning an outdoor event for Sept. 27.

Living Waters CRC is waiting for Michigan to be in Phase Five of the MI Safe Start Plan before returning to indoor, in-person services. For now, they are meeting for outdoor community gatherings and following CDC guidelines with masks, social distancing and temperature checks.