"O come all ye faithful," but bring lawn chairs and face masks, could be the invitation to the Christmas Eve service at one Roseville church adapting to COVID-19 restrictions.
The faithful will follow glowing luminarias to socially distanced lights on the lawn of St. Michael's Lutheran Church, set down their chairs and enjoy a brisk evening service culminating with "Silent Night" hummed, not sung, to prevent the spread of contagions.
Its children's pageant went online this weekend, featuring Mary, Joseph and others performing in front of their home computers. Their youth minister mixed the scenes and added a Bethlehem backdrop to give the illusion of togetherness.
Minnesota churches, many closed since March because of the coronavirus, are scrambling to offer creative alternatives for celebrating this unusual holiday season. Christmas religious services are typically the year's most well attended. How to maintain treasured family traditions within the confines of a pandemic has been a challenge and a chance to grow, faith leaders said.
"This shakes you out of your old patterns and lets new things emerge," said the Rev. Brad Froslee, pastor at St. Michael's. "There's an energy that comes from that, but also an exhaustion."
Many churches launched online services last spring, never imagining they would have to concoct a new universe of virtual holiday choirs, children's pageants, Advent wreath-lightings and more.
While Catholic churches and nondenominational churches have reopened their doors with limited seating, most mainline Protestant churches are still closed. That includes one of the nation's largest Lutheran churches, Mount Olivet Lutheran in Minneapolis, where pastors and congregants have seen one another in person only a few times since the pandemic began.
Typically during this week before Christmas, Mount Olivet is preparing for 17 services, 14,000 visitors and dozens of traffic directors getting folks in and out of the Minneapolis and Victoria locations.
This year, the beautiful 1,000-seat Minneapolis church will be empty, the halls silent. Instead, members can watch a recorded Christmas service available any time and a livestreamed 11 p.m. shorter service on Christmas Eve ending in the singing of "Silent Night."
Recognizing the need for real-life connections, Mount Olivet has hosted outdoor Sunday night meet-and-greets this month. Staff hung twinkling lights in the parking lot, set up a towering Christmas tree in the center and added some golden angels. Last week, cars lined up to the street waiting to head in.
One by one they made their way to the church doors where they were greeted by masked pastors and staff. They dropped off food for Mount Olivet's free meals program and picked up candles and communion elements to take home.
The highlight: poking their heads out of car windows to exchange greetings with church leaders.
"Hello, Glad to see you!" said senior pastor David Lose, bending toward the windows to chat.
For Bob Rustvold, who arrived with his daughter Lori, the event was bittersweet. The 97-year-old from Edina has been a member of Mount Olivet for nearly 70 years. This will be his first Christmas Eve away from his much-loved church.
But the Rustvolds — like hundreds of others stopping by — were in good spirits. Said Lori Rustvold, who drove from Savage: "This was a great idea."
Church leaders clearly enjoyed seeing familiar faces, too. But earlier in the week, Lose acknowledged this socially distanced holiday season has been hard on both staff and church members.
"You are balancing an absolute need for safety at a time when people have never needed their faith more," said Lose. "It's been a year of loss and broken dreams. … This has pushed us beyond what we ever imagined."
Children's pageants that portray Mary and Joseph's arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus are a highlight and often a hoot for faith communities. Churches this year have found ways to uphold the tradition, albeit with twists.
Most pageants have gone virtual, and many scripts have been reworked for the times. At Lutheran Church of Peace in Maplewood, Mary and Joseph — just out of quarantine — are searching for a place to stay, checking out hotels, Airbnbs and Bethlehem.com. Mary remarks about a lousy Airbnb a friend stayed in, to which Joseph replies, "At least it's not a stable."
The Basilica of St. Mary reworked its annual "Light of the World Children's Christmas Musical" with COVID-19 precautions by having individual families perform the musical pieces — in masks — inside the enormous basilica. A few small pods of friends who already spent time together also performed in the virtual concert, which staff edited.
St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi wound up not having a pageant but included a live Nativity, complete with donkey, on a Dec. 6 "Drive Through Christmas" event that also featured carols, poetry and art.
Fifth-grader Jonny LeRoux played the Virgin Mary in the St. Michael's virtual pageant. Last weekend, her parents taped green paper for a screen on a wall behind their kitchen island, and Jonny sat in front of her computer, acting out her part without ever laying eyes on Joseph. They would be edited together later.
Having participated in other children's pageants, Jonny agreed in-person is better. But she liked being able to redo scenes if she made a mistake. Plus, this year, "I had more lines," she said. "It was good."
Minnesotans whose churches are holding live Christmas services are in for changes too. Many, including large evangelical churches such as River Valley Church based in Apple Valley, ask for preregistration. Some, such as the basilica, have assigned seating. All require masks. All require distancing.
All are trying to accommodate as many as safely possible.
St. Andrew's is starting services a day early, on Dec. 23. At its main 1,000-seat church building, it's capping attendance at 200. Services will alternate between the church and social hall to allow for cleaning, said the Rev. Mike Carlson, lead pastor.
"People miss their community," said Carlson, who along with staff is checking in with every church member this season. "Any way we can create that, we will."
Drive-up prayer chapel
Keeping congregants connected to their church is a top priority this season. Some churches closed for the past 10 months opened their doors a few hours a day last week for quiet contemplation.
Lutheran Church of Peace was among them. But recognizing that many people would fear a health risk, it also created an alternative chapel next to its parking lot. In front of a lighted Nativity scene, a sandwich board announces "Drive up prayer chapel. Open 24/7."
"It's an opportunity to have the church open 24/7, " said the Rev. Liz Eide, "to have a place for people to pause and know they are not alone."
Eide had in mind a woman who has been in only two places since the pandemic struck: her house and her car. The modest chapel "is a destination," she said, "knowing that someone is out there for them."
On Christmas Eve, Eide and many in her congregation will gather under the trees outside the church for its most unusual Christmas ever. Wearing masks, they will hold glow sticks and gently sing "Silent Night" in lieu of a live service. Folks can watch online and worship at home.
Such improvised Christmas traditions will be unfolding across the nation this week, celebrating a story of hope — which faith leaders say is so needed today.
"The Nativity story is about people coming from all directions, during a strange time, and ending in a miracle," said Froslee. "It seems to be much the same now, in the midst of this pandemic."