Churches across Malheur County adapt, drawing growing attendance – online

Churches have shut their doors as part of the directive to stem the rate of COVID-19 infections. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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As Easter Sunday approaches, churches and church-goers alike are preparing for the holiday by charging their laptops and making sure their Wifi connections are secure.

As of mid-March, many churches in the Vale area suspended in-person services and switched to online gatherings to abide by Oregon’s social distancing mandates.

On Friday morning in Ontario, Pastor Tammy Vogt held a livestream on the Origins Faith Community Facebook page, inviting everyone to a virtual Good Friday service that evening.

“We’ve asked everyone to prepare communion elements at home like crackers, pieces of bread, wine, or Dr Pepper, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’ll be gathering online for the ultimate purpose of remembering what the elements signify.”

Vogt and her husband are co-pastors of Origins Faith Community. Every day, they take turns livestreaming on their community Facebook page.

“It feels vulnerable to go live. It feels vulnerable to put yourself out there in that way,” she explained. “But I think there is courage in vulnerability.”

Since its transition to virtual services, Origins Faith Community has seen an increase in attendees.

“I would say that the number of people who probably view a regular gathering online is maybe even three times more than what would be on a normal Sunday attendance,” Vogt said. “It’s definitely reaching out way beyond Ontario borders and even way beyond Treasure Valley borders.”

This seemed to be the case for other churches including St. Matthew’s Episcopal

Church, which also moved to livestreaming on Facebook and posting videos on YouTube.

“Our church has an average attendance of about 40 people on a normal Sunday but our Facebook Live had 70 people that morning,” said Sean Rogers, lay pastoral leader at St. Matthew’s. “We’re finding that there are a lot of people from out of town that are looking for some comfort.”

St. Matthew’s Episcopal initially faced criticism when it closed its doors to the public on Friday, March 13.

“I had a lot of people tell me that they thought I was crazy for closing the church and that I was being an alarmist,” Rogers said. “But I would prefer to be called crazy for shutting the church down early than be called crazy for not shutting the church down and actually having one of my parishioners die.”

The rise of online streaming seems to be attracting younger people. Rogers explained why he thinks more people are tuning in to online services in the midst of the pandemic.

“I think the new generation is wanting something that feels very real, and I think the gospel is very real, but the old form of church isn’t,” Rogers said. “If the younger generations want the gospel, they want it preached in a way that they can understand and relate to. Talking to a high school student as if I was talking to my grandmother in the 1950s just doesn’t work.”

Pastor Dale Larson from Nyssa Christian Fellowship shared a similar thought about the uptick of young attendees.

“I think a lot of times, young people are very involved in each other’s lives and they have their plans, their futures, and all these types of things, and these things were put to a pause unexpectedly,” Larson said. “Our young people are feeling the anxiety of that, wondering what life is going to hold for them and that’s why I think they are seeking God as the answer to this particular situation.”

For some churches, online content was standard prior to social distancing.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Vale has always encouraged its congregation to tune into Eternal Word Television Network, a cable network delivering Catholic-themed programming.

“Our bishop is livestreaming from Bend everyday but we have been encouraging people to watch EWTN for years,” said Father Cami Fernando. “When elderly people can’t come into church, they would watch EWTN, so now that applies to everybody.”

Online gatherings have the potential for success, according to Vogt. She has been meeting with some of her non-local parishioners via Zoom for years, before social distancing. Now, she reports receiving positive feedback for her livestreams.

“It is presenting greater opportunities for connection. Those who don’t live here, or travel often, or have a busy work schedule, have asked us to gather online post-pandemic,” She said. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Will you please keep this going even after we can gather in person?’”

While virtual services are popular among those who have access to the internet, some churches have made sure they are providing resources for those who may not have computers.

“We have about 30 men who are prisoners who belong to our Grace Chapel so we’ve also been giving our CDs out to them so they can worship that way,” Rogers said.

While many of its resources are accessible online, the Ontario stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posed a different way of participation for its congregation, through its Community Day of Prayer and Fasting.

“We normally do monthly churchwide fasts, but we thought we would have a communitywide opportunity to unite our prayers and our faith in regards to the coronavirus,” said Evelyn Dame, local director of communications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some churches are facing new economic challenges.

“We have a lot of people at Origins who are among the working class, so when a situation like this hits their family, it hits really hard,” Vogt explained. “We understand what’s happening financially, but it does present realities for us as an organization.”

Larson of the Nyssa church expressed a similar sentiment.

“We just don’t know as far as how many people are without work,” Larson said. “We’ve got a strong core group of people who believe in supporting the ministries as far as the church, but we certainly want to be very sensitive to those who aren’t working right now and not being able to make ends meet. We just ultimately trust God. He’ll provide for our needs.”  

 For St. Matthew’s in Ontario, finances may be affected soon.

 “Even though we’re not in church every Sunday, we still have to pay the bills,” Rogers said. “It has not affected us yet, but I know it will.”

 Although online services have provided an alternative, they may not provide the same sense of community that gathering in person does. With the cancellation of in-person programs for all ages, the congregation at the Ontario stake is uniting its members through other avenues.

 “During this time, people should reach out to one another much more often, making sure families have what they need and that they’re doing fine,” Dame said. “Do the social distancing, but still reach out to one another by phone call or text.”

 Larson explained how the community at Nyssa Christian Fellowship was handling these changes.

 “I think those who have attended church sporadically in the past have realized that with this particular isolation thing that we have taken our gathering together for granted,” Larson said. “I’ve heard both sides where some think this thing might cause people to get out of the habit of going to church, but I have the opposite opinion. Once we’re able to gather again, people will recognize the importance of coming together as a church.”

Despite the lack of physical connection, the church community remains hopeful.

“I’m thankful that a virus can’t stop us from being a good neighbor,” Vogt said. “A virus can’t stop us from having hope. A virus can’t steal our faith. And nothing can stop love.”

Churches in Malheur County are connecting with congregants online as the COVID stay-home advisories remain in effect. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Jennifer Adams is a student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and produced this story for the Enterprise as part of her coursework.

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