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Local pastors reflect upon the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and share plans for Phase 2 reopening

 - Even with Phase 2 reopening in place, Prineville Presbyterian Church Pastor Mike Wilson continues to record worship services on his electronic tablet and email a link to members of his congregation each Sunday morning.

Imagine, for a moment, preaching the Word of God to your electronic tablet, and instead of looking into the eager faces of your congregation, you preach to empty pews.

For the last couple of months, this has been the reality for many Prineville pastors.

Local church leaders have had to get creative during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as Crook County concludes Phase 1 of the reopening process, pastors reflect upon the valuable lessons they have learned and share plans for Phase 2.

"In disruption, there is always opportunity, and in that opportunity, there are new ways to exercise our Christian faith," says Mike Wilson, pastor of Prineville Presbyterian Church. "It's reinforced the idea that regardless of wherever we worship, we are still bound by God's spirit as one, outside of space and outside of time."

Since mid-March, he has used email, phone and YouTube to stay in touch with his congregation. Wilson records a service and emails a link to his members each Sunday morning.

Although Phase 1 allowed faith gatherings of up to 25 people with physical distancing in place, his congregation continued to meet virtually.

"Early on, we decided that we would open a month late before we opened a week early," Wilson said.

They do not have a date for returning to in-person worship, and even when they do, they'll probably change a few things. They usually seat around 75 on Sundays, so they will need to think about newer ways to do church during Phase 2, which began in Crook County on June 6, allowing faith-based gatherings of 250 people with physical distancing in place.

The recorded service has worked well for the homebound and for those who want to watch it at different times. Wilson says that once they meet in person, they will record the weekly service and share the link with those who are unable to attend.

"It's refreshed us in looking at how we DO church versus how we BE church," he says of the pandemic. "While we are doing worship differently, we're still called to be church as ambassadors of Jesus Christ's compassion and witness."

Wilson said they have added about a dozen new email addresses to their email community, and he's pleased to have new "attendees."

He says that while everybody is eager to return to in-person worship, they also recognize the prudence of following the advice from health officials.

"There is an organic sense of God's spirit when God's people do come together for in-person worship that you simply cannot duplicate in preaching to a tablet," Wilson says.

Prineville First Assembly of God Senior Pastor Larry McGarry says about 28 members of his congregation are now back to meeting in their church sanctuary for Sunday morning services, Wednesday evening Bible studies, and Tuesday morning prayer meetings.

They have arranged their sanctuary seating, which can hold 325 people, to allow for physical distancing. They have also installed hands-free soap dispensers and paper towel dispensers throughout the building.

McGarry says they continue to email their congregation and make phone calls to maintain contact with those who are not able to attend in-person services. They also accept prayer requests on the church website and during Sunday services. They are continuing this plan in Phase 2 of reopening.

About 25 members of Prineville Community Church also began meeting in-person during Phase 1 with physical distancing in place.

Pastor Chris Cookston said during the closure, they livestreamed church services from the chapel each Sunday, and they continue to post the video and audio versions online.

"Even though it isn't real church, everyone is encouraged by it," he said.

For Phase 2 reopening, they gather on Sundays with physical distancing in place and continue to post content online.

Cookston and his congregation have learned that gathering with God's people to worship Him is vital.

"We need one another. We need to hear each other's voices praising God in song, we need to pray together, and together we need to hear the word of God read and proclaimed" Cookston says. "These are the ways our gatherings strengthen us to keep following Jesus. And, He is glorified most when believers are gathered in person to worship Him."

The members of First Baptist Church did not resume Sunday services during Phase 1 but continued to watch prerecorded services on the church website and YouTube. They also stay connected through small Zoom meetings and phone calls. A few small groups meet during the week with physical distancing in place.

"I've seen a very discernible — and encouraging — increase in our church caring for and reaching out to each other during this time," said Lead Pastor Mike Phay.

For Phase 2 reopening, they are looking at COVID-19 data and the guidance of God's Spirit. Phay said that whenever they do resume meeting, they plan to begin with multiple one-hour family services, limited participants at each service, and no children's classes.

"We are calling people to live in faith by doing the hardest thing: laying down their rights in order to love those who are more vulnerable than they are," Phay says. "This is what Jesus did, and it's what he calls his followers to do as well."

He said that these last few months have proven that the church can continue to be the church, even when they're not doing the things they're used to.

"Constraints cannot stop Christ's church," Phay says. "And it doesn't take a building or a service on Sunday for us to fulfill our mission of embodying and proclaiming the life-giving fullness of the Gospel in our community."

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