If Christian churches can be boiled down to one steadfast purpose, it’s keeping the faith and spreading the word of God. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted the world and life as we know it, keeping the faith became more difficult, as thousands died from the virus, and spreading the word simply became harder to do without face-to-face interaction.
But one pastor, in a small church, in a small town in Michigan, wouldn’t take no for an answer in either facet.
“This is something that most people of any age have not faced in their lifetime,” said Rev. Ryan Wieland of Grandville United Methodist Church. “People are stressed and overwhelmed. I’ve tried to retain as much normalcy and traditional worship as I can.”
Wieland began leading Grandville United Methodist in 2016 with a vision in mind to improve the church. He cited growing the youth program and “increasing engagement with the word” via Bible studies and small groups as two of his biggest goals.
A tight-knit atmosphere is something that the Grandville United Methodist congregation holds near and dear. The smaller number of members allows churchgoers to be more personable.
“This is really a great size church in that you can get to know everybody if you invest the time and energy in it,” said Wieland. “People who attend on Sundays don’t feel like strangers. They have a community and can support each other and know each other by name.”
The relationships and friendships, however, experienced a plot twist when COVID-19 and Michigan’s subsequent stay at home order forced churches across the state to put in-person Sunday worship services on hiatus. Wieland remained committed to spreading the word, even from a distance.
Grandville United Methodist shifted to pre-videotaped church services, streamed via the internet at their normal time of 10:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Wieland taped a couple of the services at the church itself, then shifted to taping them from home and using a virtual background to emulate the church feel.
“Talking to people that following week, they said ‘That was so meaningful to me.’ Half of them thought I was at the church,” Wieland said with a laugh.
The congregation seems to enjoy Wieland’s positive attitude and outreach during quarantine, as longtime member and former secretary Robin Ballou detailed.
“I am so impressed with Pastor Ryan and how he has gone above and beyond,” said Ballou. “I think he has done an excellent job at keeping us involved in worship and keeping us together as a church family.”
Beyond weekly sermons, Wieland organized a virtual Bible study program over email, focusing on the book of Psalms. Each day, a Psalm is sent out to 183 people, over 100 of which participate. When asked why he chose Psalms, Wieland cited the book’s human perspective and full range of human emotion as a good fit for these tough times.
“I wanted some way for us to stay connected and stay rooted in the word,” said Wieland. “In the Psalms, there’s grief, hurt, struggle, but also great joy and praise. It’s all there, it really captures the full range of human experience.”
As far as Ballou is concerned, the Psalm studies were a massive success in keeping the congregation in touch.
“I look forward to getting out of bed every day and reading it,” said Ballou. “Lots of people are participating in it, so I enjoy seeing what other people are talking about.”
Thankfully for Wieland and Grandville United Methodist, a true return to normalcy is on the horizon. On June 1, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted the stay at home order, allowing civilians to leave their homes with social distancing and mask-wearing still encouraged. This, in turn, means that in-person services will return soon.
That isn’t to say there won’t be more hurdles to jump over, however.
Some restrictions on services will include clustered seating in the sanctuary and social distancing before and after the service, but there are some more unique restrictions such as not allowing singing. Part-time pastor and member of the church, Andrew Jackson, did not mince words when it came to the importance of singing hymns in church.
“The hymns that we sing in the United Methodist Church that are in the hymnal, many of those songs are prayers,” said Jackson. “Without the music, I feel like something is missing. Now, when I sit at home and listen to the hymns on the computer, I sing with them often times. That’s how much it means to me.”
Jackson and many other members of the congregation are hopeful that they will be able to sing during outdoor services, a tradition at Grandville United Methodist called “Church in the Park.”
“If you’re going to put me in the park where they are going to allow us to sing, I would probably go there if we’re not allowed to sing in the sanctuary,” Jackson added.
Nevertheless, no restriction will keep Wieland from working hard at his job: keeping the faith and spreading the word. The Grandville United Methodist congregation will never forget his commitment and passion during a time where those things can be few and far between.
“The responsibility falls on me to make good and faithful decisions that adequately protect the congregation, but allow people to be together in worship as well,” said Wieland.