2020 has been a year of challenges. It has also been a year with its share of faith and grace amidst the pandemic, when many have needed them most.
This year’s Christmas season will look very different from past Christmases. Nevertheless, as Minnesota’s COVID numbers increase and restrictions are placed on indoor gatherings, area churches are learning how to adapt. In doing so, congregations have found inspiration in the season and within their church communities.
St. Joseph of the Lakes Catholic Church
In-person Mass Christmas Eve, Dec. 24: 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.
In-person Mass Christmas Day, Dec. 25: 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
(advance registration on website required for all in-person Masses)
“This Mass is Full” — It’s something people expect to see at restaurants or concerts, perhaps, but Mass? St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes, however, is doing its best to make in-person Mass still available to people. “It’s hard to not be able to welcome more people to more Masses, that’s what we do!” said Andi Million, lead administrative assistant. “Usually, our 4 o’clock Masses get between 1,200 to 1,500 people, so it’s difficult. Capacity now is only 250.”
The constraints due to the pandemic have forced Million and the staff at St. Joseph to think creatively, which isn’t a bad thing. She stressed that parishioners must go online on the church website to register to attend Mass. That is how they keep track of the numbers and stay at 250. For example, the Christmas Eve, 4 p.m. Mass is already full. “It filled (up) in six minutes,” said Million. There is still room at Christmas Eve 10 p.m. Mass, and Masses on Christmas Day at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., but they are filling up, she said. Million added that staff will record the 10 p.m. Mass and post it on the church website by 8:30 a.m. Christmas Day for people to watch at home. Million said those who plan to attend Mass in person must register beforehand and wear a mask. “The pews are all spaced out 6 feet apart for you. We’re being very careful as far as sanitizing,” she said.
For those parishioners who just show up, not knowing about advance registration? “We’re going to try and give them a blessing or communion. Again, it’s so hard to turn people away, but we have to. Be kind and understanding, and be like Christ to one another, which is what we’re called to do,” said Million.
St. Joseph has also been busy in the community leading up to Christmas. From 6-8 p.m. every night during the week through Dec. 26, St. Joseph has a drive-thru Nativity Christmas story. The drive-thru begins at one end of the building; and participants drive through the different scenes from Bethlehem. Million said community members have enjoyed the Nativity scenes.
“Our ‘Giving Tree’ is also in full force,” said Million. “We collect and give gifts to families in need. We also deliver goods and gifts to the White Earth Indian Reservation up north. Right now, it’s a little bit of chaos, but it’s good chaos. It all stops after everything is delivered, and we can enjoy our Masses. Enjoy the joy of Christmas.”
WillowBrook Community Church
Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) livestream: 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Re-airs Christmas Day (Dec. 25)
WillowBrook Community Church in Forest Lake has been able to paint its own silver lining during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brad Reis, lead pastor at the 700-member church, is an energetic breath of fresh air amidst all the negative pandemic news. When everything hit in March, Reis said they learned on the job how to livestream. “We ‘MacGyvered’ stuff, and that was about it,” he laughed, “but we needed to learn how to do it. What’s amazing, we actually increased our base of viewership and members.”
Reis said that the pandemic has allowed church leaders to see their community and its needs with new eyes. “Sometimes it’s so much ‘come to us, come to us on Sundays.’ During a pandemic, that doesn’t work. We have to go the other direction. It woke us up to the gospel, and we got eyes for the first time to see where the need was.”
The church did not have any COVID breakouts, and Reis explained that they were having a “great run” up until last week, when they had five reported cases. “We were practicing all the things the CDC recommends,” he said. “We’re not quite sure how it happened, but we’re shut down for a while longer, and will reopen on Dec. 20, Lord willing, just to be safe.”
The church is still able to roll out its “High 5 Club” contribution of meals to the community and will be offering outdoor drive-up meal delivery for families beginning Dec. 19. Families can pick up meal packages that feed a family of seven. There will also be outdoor carolers, candy canes for the kids, and more. Reis said this year and during this time of the season, everyone needs an extra high-five. Families must register ahead of time on the church website.
WillowBrook’s Christmas Eve production will livestream at 4 p.m. and be aired again on Christmas Day. “This is the first time in our 20-year history that we are not going to offer an in-person Christmas service,” he said, “but our livestream will be a 45-minute production for the entire family, and it’s going to be a very inspiring time to be at home. It’s not a competition; if you want to go to another church in person, we encourage that. At this point, with what’s happened with us the last 10 days, we shifted and decided to go with just livestream. We wanted to be cautious and so far it’s been very well supported. The church never really closes when it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, getting out in the community. We believe church is essential, but not just on Sundays. The community of the church is important.”
Eagle Brook Church
In-person services (limited capacity) and online-streaming services, all nine locations
All information on services, times and locations on the church’s main website.
This pandemic year hasn’t stifled inspiration during the holidays, especially for church communities working double-time to adopt to health rules and regulations. Eagle Brook Church is also doing its part. The church, which has eight locations throughout the Twin Cities and one in Rochester, stresses that its mission is to reach people for Christ. While the pandemic has not change its mission, Eagle Brook has had to change the way church leaders organize their services.
Eagle Brook Church is offering both in-person services (limited capacity) and online services. “We’ll have services beginning Dec. 19th through Dec. 24th and they are all identical services,” explained Karianne Langfield, the church’s communications director. “We will have 71 opportunities for people to take in a service in one of our nine locations or watch online.” Some of Eagle Brook’s local campuses are located in Anoka, Blaine, Lino Lakes, Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake.
Production quality, festive music and good old-fashioned holiday spirit are just some of the details that on which Eagle Brook focuses. “Eagle Brook has an ability to lighten the mood a little bit,” said Langfield. “Even though 2020 has been quite a year, Christmas isn’t cancelled, and our services are designed to bring hope and peace and joy into people’s lives so they can discover a relationship with Jesus.”
Langfield said services will be 60 minutes in length, and it doesn’t take a lot of time out of the day to digest and experience. She did stress that no advance registration is required; however, masks are. They also have a cap of 250 for in-person services.
Eagle Brook’s online experience will be identical to the in-person service, Langfield said. If some folks are more comfortable taking in the experience from home, they aren’t missing a thing.