Stay-at-home order forces services online

ROCKFORD —  SecondFirst Church on Easter will be adorned much the way it is every year. But that's where the traditional Easter celebration ends.

This year, the sanctuary will be mostly empty. No six-piece orchestra and no overflowing pews. Only Pastor Rebecca White Newgren, an associate pastor, a sound and video specialist, and few musicians will be present in the downtown church on Easter morning. 

"Everything is back to the basics right now," White Newgren said. "We're really forced to think through what is Easter and what are the elements that we truly need to deal with to celebrate Jesus risen."

Christian faithful here and around the world will celebrate Easter from their homes this year because of state orders to stay at home and avoid large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. Churches are adapting by offering their services online through Facebook Live, Zoom, YouTube and other streaming applications.

Community and fellowship are part of what creates the church experience, and it will be hard to replicate those aspects virtually.

“The biggest things are the simple things that people are missing the most,” said White Newgren, who will stream the Easter service on Facebook live. “Not having community these days, it’s just getting hugs and big smiles and being able to physically be in one another's  presence.”

Hope Fellowship Church, just east of downtown on East State Street, has a predominantly millennial congregation and tailors services to them. As happens every Sunday, the Easter service will be streamed live on the congregation's Facebook page and YouTube channel. A normal Sunday would include dancing and other interactive activities to get people physically involved. 

The lack of a physically present congregation has provided the opportunity for Hope Fellowship Church to get creative in interacting with young people. One example: a virtual play that will be included in Sunday's livestreamed worship.

“So people will do it from their homes, their different parts in the play, and our technical team will kind of splice it all together,” Pastor Ronald Alexander said.

Alexander initially was concerned about the potential impact of the statewide stay-at-home order on church involvement, but participation actually has been higher than ever.

“I see now what God was really allowing us to do. By pushing us out of buildings we are reaching more people than we’ve ever reached,” Alexander said. “We were seeing maybe 500-600 people seeing the stream a week. And the first week we were out because of the situation, the same streams saw like 4,000 a week.”

The Easter message preached by some pastors will reflect the circumstances, too.

White Newgren normally would have written her Easter sermon nearly a week in advance but is waiting until the day before Easter this year so that it can be as timely as possible.

Pastor Frank Langholf of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in the Haight Village neighborhood will livestream his Easter sermon through the church's Facebook page.

He's been a pastor for more than 30 years and is accustomed to a full house on Easter. This year, his sermon will reflect the emptiness of the pews and express the hope of celebrating the festival in the church once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

"We're going to be talking about how Jesus goes forward with us in the future and that there will be a time when we will celebrate that in a more open way," Langholf said. 

Shaquil Manigault; smanigault@rrstar.com; @RrstarShaquil