A typical Sunday service at Great Valley Presbyterian Church in Malvern, Pennsylvania, is held in-person from 10 to 11 a.m. and includes singing hymns, Scripture reading, and a sermon from the pastor.
But during the pandemic, changes have been made. Staff are finding new, socially distanced ways to reach out to the church’s community. The church has implemented new ways of using all of its spaces — fellowship hall, cemetery, chapel room, and parking lot — to bring people together.
The church began building a new sanctuary shortly before the pandemic. Construction has continued, though it is not clear when full services can be held in the new space.
“We expect that we will move back into a sanctuary that has changed physically while still having to make decisions related to social distancing,” Keith Fink, senior pastor, said.
While this new sanctuary is expected to open in late November or early December, regular services, without social distancing, might not meet in the new sanctuary until late 2021, according to Jim Shackleton, director of ministries.
For the near future, the church is planning on using a hybrid approach for worship. This means the church meets outside on Sunday mornings and livestreams those services on Facebook.
At some point, weather conditions will dictate when the congregation will be back inside, which will probably mean that masks will need to be worn and no singing, according to Chris Starr, worship and communications director.
“Since the sanctuary is under construction, it’s hard to predict what it will be like and that the church may have to go back and emphasize streaming services again,” Starr said.
The church has also planned to set up satellite locations within the building to gather in manageable groups and watch the church’s streaming service when the weather gets too cold to hold services outside. This means that there would be different rooms set up throughout the church for the congregants to meet in for worship, Fink said.
During the pandemic, the church’s various outreach programs have also not met in-person, including the church choir, youth group, and bible studies.
Shackleton’s community outreach during COVID-19 has included many phone calls to the congregation, particularly to the older members of the church. This is part of the church’s emphasis on discipleship and unity by reaching out during a time when people have growing division and polarization, Shackleton said.
Though most life groups and bible studies in the church meet online, some have started to meet in-person in an outdoor setting. The church has provided Zoom licenses for use by all and will continue to offer attendee lists, prayer lists, and curriculum lists for group leaders to use.
Before the pandemic, the church’s youth group met once a week on Sunday nights at the church. The church’s youth director, Brian Hilton, detailed his experience leading the church’s youth group during the pandemic.
“It’s been a smooth transition,” Hilton said. “Obviously, planning is a little more challenging this year because of the pandemic, but the church has great leadership and has been very helpful during the transition.”
During the outbreak, the youth group began meeting over Zoom and hasn’t met in-person at the church since March.
“Overall, I had a good experience with virtual youth group and I’m thankful the leaders were able to do it and make it work,” youth group member Jimmy Marturano said.
Youth group Zoom sessions consist of a variety of web-based games and large group teaching.
“I think Brian and Mr. Shack did a great job of setting up games and doing lessons and trying to make it feel like a normal youth group,” youth group member Josh White said.
In mid-August, Hilton and the rest of the youth group leaders had their annual planning meeting for the fall semester. However, COVID was the main discussion point, with a focus on how to best communicate safeguards that are being put into place for the kids’ and leaders’ safety.
“We wanted to make sure we were providing as much information as possible so that parents and kids could make informed decisions [about participating in youth group],” Hilton said.
The youth group schedule now is relatively similar to past years, with weekly outdoor gatherings on Sunday nights and several special events throughout the fall.
They are currently meeting in the church parking lot throughout September and October and hope to host socially distanced youth events in the church after daylight saving time in November, according to Hilton.
One of the special events for the youth group this fall is an “Amazing Race” style scavenger hunt at Valley Forge in early October.
Though the youth group has been able to hold some in-person meetings outdoors, the church’s choir has not met face to face. Many members of the choir are older, which puts them in a higher-risk health category, Starr said.
He feels that remaining connected to the church community has been crucial for many members of the choir.
“Fortunately, most of our choir members are plugged in with life groups, church committees and other ministries,” Starr said. “I don’t feel like anyone is being isolated from the wider community by not participating in choir at this time, so I’m personally comfortable taking a cautious approach to reassembling.”
Though the choir has been absent, the church has been working on a multitrack video with the worship music team — the musicians that play music during the service — with each member recording their part individually, then mixed into a complete song for services. Mixing the different musical parts is a time-intensive process, but it may also be an opportunity to put together a musical performance featuring the socially distanced choir, according to Starr.
Shackleton feels that though the nature of how the community operates has changed as church activities move mostly online, the spirit and values that bind the church are still in place.
“This has changed dramatically with no more folks walking in off the street and many of our service programs being virtually shut down,” Shackleton said. “There have been a few more benefits with more people from the community that can easily get on a Zoom worship service or Sunday school, and don’t feel the embarrassment of showing up alone.”
Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.
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