Minnesota churches are bracing this Easter for their biggest crowds in months with many opening their doors to worshipers for the first time since COVID-19 broke out a year ago.

Staffers at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church decked the altar with dozens of fresh flowers for the first time in two years, an Easter tradition revived as the St. Paul congregation prepared for in-person worship.

Alleluia Lutheran Church in St. Michael both resumed in-person services and finished construction of its new church building in time for Easter Sunday.

Wooddale Church is doubling the number of weekend services, offering 17 in all at its four west-metro campuses, and expects about 3,000 faithful — triple its COVID-era attendance.

"It's been a long haul for everyone," said the Rev. Tim Westermeyer of St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church in Plymouth, which launched the return of in-person services last week.

This year's Easter season marks a crossroads for many houses of worship, especially those locked down since the pandemic began. Buoyed by the state's newly relaxed attendance rules and the significance of the holy day, they reflect the slow but steady resurgence of church attendance in Minnesota and nationally.

Nearly 40% of Christians will celebrate Easter inside a church this year, a new survey by the Pew Research Center found. Though fewer than the 62% in typical years, it's still a dramatic increase from last Easter, when drive-by blessings and parking lot services often were the closest the faithful got to their ministers.

"We've had to navigate everything from infection rates to vaccines to figuring out how to do church business," Westermeyer said. "Now we're moving into what we hope will be continued activities. We're looking forward to seeing people again."

Evangelical Christians are leading the back-to-church trend, with 53% reporting that they've returned, according to the Pew survey of 12,055 U.S. adults last month. The survey found the same for 38% of Catholics, 34% of mainline Protestants and 21% of historically Black Protestants.

Leaders at St. Bonaventure Catholic Community in Bloomington couldn't help but notice the changes in the air. Like most Catholic churches, St. Bonaventure has held in-person masses with limited and socially distanced attendance since last summer. But the 200 to 300 worshipers who were typically showing up got a burst of company during Holy Week.

"We had 570 people at three masses on Palm Sunday, more people than we had on Christmas," said Mickey Redfearn, a deacon at St. Bonaventure. "The weekend before, it was 383."

Religious leaders hope that people who venture into the pews for the first time this weekend — many of them newly vaccinated — will feel comfortable returning again and again.

"I think we're all looking forward to Easter as being that breakout day," said the Rev. Billy Russell, board member of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

First-time openings

While Catholic and evangelical churches reopened last year under safety and capacity restrictions, many Protestant churches have been waiting for the right time to try to reopen. For them, that time is Easter.

The trend is doubly reflected at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Not only will the congregation meet for the first time in person this weekend, so will Savior Alliance Church, which also worships there, said the Rev. Karsten Nelsen, pastor at Our Redeemer.

"With Easter we are celebrating [Jesus'] resurrection, but also the resurrection of the church," said Nelsen.

Nelsen last week joined a group of volunteers at the church as they prepared for the reopening. They draped the altar with Easter linens, arranged colorful lilies and mums at its base and hung banners announcing "Christ Has Risen." The church custodian pushed a cart between the aisles, dropping off red hymnals.

While the congregation will be able to follow the music in their hymnals, they still won't be singing — a quartet will perform instead. Worshipers will wear masks and households will sit apart from one another. The church accommodates 341 people but will be cordoned off for a maximum of 65 at each service.

Similar precautions were taken at St. Philip the Deacon when it launched in-person worship on the evening of Maundy Thursday. Just 100 people were allowed to attend in assigned seats. Entrances were newly painted with the words "Welcome Home. We've been expecting you."

Kathy Aasen teared up as she walked in.

"It's like going home for the first time in a year," said Aasen. "This church has been our family. You know just about everyone. It's very emotional."

Said Beth Jacobs, another member: "It's more than being inside the church, it's everything — hearing the music in person, seeing the beautiful sanctuary, seeing the people. It feels like we are emerging into a new normal, whatever that may be."

It was an emotional night for Westemeyer as well.

"All year we've welcomed people on the other side of a camera," he said. "To be able to do this in person is very powerful and something we all missed."

Church members said they felt safe being with others. The Pew Research Center found that 76% of adults surveyed who normally attend religious services now say they are "somewhat" or "very" confident they can do so safely. That's up from 64% last July.

Black Protestant churches are taking it slow, given that communities of color have been hit disproportionately by COVID-19. Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, which has been open for services for a few months, saw about 35 people during the pandemic's early weeks, said Russell, the church's pastor. That number has crept up to 60, he said. Before COVID, the weekly average was 240.

"People are still very cautious," said Russell. "This weekend we're inviting everyone back. It's one of the greatest days of the year. We want to give people some hope in the midst of the pandemic."

The Rev. Stacey Smith, presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Minnesota, said she hopes those churches will begin to open by this summer "if not before."

The churches, like nearly all others, will continue to hold virtual Easter services for members not ready to venture out.

Changes in rituals

Those who worship in person will see some rituals reworked. They won't be singing the Easter standard "Jesus Christ Has Risen Today" but can follow along with selected vocalists. Hugs and signs of peace, part of many services, will remain off limits.

"Normally we'd wash feet on Holy Thursday," said Redfearn. "Normally on Good Friday, people come and venerate the cross. Some people touch it, some kiss it. That won't be an option."

That evangelicals are returning to their churches in the biggest numbers doesn't surprise Pastor Rob Ketterling of Apple Valley-based River Valley Church, which is expecting about 10,000 visitors this weekend at its eight campuses.

Ketterling said that evangelicals tend to be younger than worshipers in many denominations and more goal-oriented "to spread the good news of Jesus." Overall, he said, "people are emerging back into life."

Although Easter is expected to be a turning point for many churches, Alleluia Lutheran in St. Michael may have undergone the most significant transformation. It finished construction of its first church building just in time for Easter.

Last week, after the building got the final OK from building inspectors, the congregation held a procession to its new home in a particularly poignant ceremony of rebirth.

"I always had in my head that we would make the move during Holy Week," said the Rev. Jacqui Thone, Alleluia's pastor. "To be open on Easter Sunday is meaningful to so many people."

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