BILLINGS — Churches across Montana are busy preparing for holiday services and as the COVID-19 omicron variant rapidly spreads across the country — offering options to worried parishioners.
Worshipping amidst a pandemic has been a challenge, and COVID-19 has taken its toll on church attendance. Prior to the pandemic, Harvest Church in Billings Heights had about 1,700 members attending services on an average Sunday.
“Since COVID, we’ve had about 1,100 attending,” said Harvest Church Elementary Director Darian Armer.
Those numbers will likely spike this week for Christmas services as Harvest is expecting anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people to attend their services over the next few days.
“There’s always the concern that large gatherings could potentially spread illnesses but we have masks available, we have hand sanitizer and people are free to wear masks if they want to,” Armer said.
COVID-19 cases are currently spiking nationally due to the omicron variant. However, most churches have actually loosened restrictions from last Christmas. Last year, many were using reservation systems and capping the number of attendees to align with local health guidelines.
However, some changes have stuck. Many churches will continue to stream Christmas services for those who don’t feel comfortable attending in person. St. Pius Catholic Church has been streaming its services for about a decade, but they’ve seen virtual numbers spike over the past year.
“Our statistics show us it’s typical in the month to see about 35 states to tune in to watch our liturgies, our celebrations, and a few different countries, people in different places across the world now,” said St. Pius Director of Liturgy Nick Coffman.
For those who plan on attending St. Pius’s Christmas Mass in person, Coffman says they’ve taken precautions. Their worship space includes an effective HVAC filtration system.
“We also do regular sanitizing and cleaning for the worship space as well as provide masks for those who forgot theirs or want them,” Coffman said.
Other aspects of the pandemic have also been on the minds of pastors. Harvest Church has introduced a new Christmas series focused on children during the pandemic.
“Just really teaching them how to communicate what they're feeling appropriately and how to deal with emotions that they're feeling,” said Harvest Church Preschool Director Claire Herbert.
A pandemic that’s persisting into yet another holiday season, affecting so many aspects of our lives. Many here, and elsewhere will be praying for an eventual end to the illness that’s taken so much from so many.