Candles will be lit during a rendition of Silent Night at Moody Methodist Church this Christmas Eve.
But after the song is over, churchgoers won’t be able to blow out the candles.
During this first COVID Christmas, Moody Methodist is switching from wax candles to battery-powered lights, the Rev. Alicia Besser said. That way there’s less chance of blowing germs around during the church service.
It’s one of the many changes area churches are making as they try to balance precautions against the spread of COVID-19 with people’s desire to go to services on one of the most attended church days of the year.
“I don’t know if I made the right decision to stay open,” Besser said. “I wrestled with whether to close and just do online services. I don’t know what the right decision is. This is a decision we made because we have such a large space and because we think we can keep people safe.”
At Moody Methodist, precautions are extensive. Attendees are required to wear masks at all times, and the capacity inside the 600-seat sanctuary is limited to 140 people. Overflow rooms are ready and waiting.
There will be no Holy Communion, and people are being encouraged to sing only if they’re comfortable doing so while wearing a mask. Pews are marked off where people won’t be allowed to sit.
The church expanded its schedule to seven services, including one on Wednesday evening, to help meet demand. The popular children- and family-oriented services required people to reserve a spot in advance, Besser said.
Church leaders consulted with members who are infectious disease specialists at the University of Texas Medical Branch, she said.
Other churches are less comfortable holding in-person events, and many will continue holding virtual services in lieu of opening their doors. But there are no restrictions in the county keeping churches from holding in-person gatherings; state-mandated COVID restrictions don’t apply to places of worship.
Galveston’s Coastal Community Church, a Southern Baptist church, was planning to hold an outdoor Christmas Eve-Eve service on Wednesday but changed plans because of forecasted rain. The church, which doesn’t have a permanent home right now, ended up holding its Christmas service in the chapel at a local funeral home.
For the most part, Coastal Community Church has been holding services virtually during the pandemic, encouraging people to stay safe in their own “germ circles” instead of gathering in groups.
The hope for Christmas was people could gather outdoors on their own lawn chairs and keep a good distance from each other during a short service, said Aaron Sanders, pastor of the congregation.
“People are really all over the place in terms of their comfort level of being around people,” Sanders said. “Some people are very comfortable being around other people, and others are very cautious and haven’t seen other people over the past 10 months. You try to develop a strategy that can accommodate wherever they are on that spectrum.”
In Texas City, Pastor Kevin Herrin, the leader of The Fellowship church, was putting the finishing touches on a video-aided Christmas message that featured clips from holiday movies, including “Elf” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The church is holding two Christmas Eve services this year, instead of just one, to help maintain social distancing. Church leaders and volunteers are required to wear masks, Herrin said, but attendees are not.
Instead, people entering the church will be asked to put on a colored bracelet, either green, yellow or red, to tell other people how comfortable they are with others being in close contact. Green means a person is comfortable with hugs and other close contacts, red means keep as much distance as possible.
Herrin knows that not everyone agrees with his decision to hold in-person services, he said. There’s a number of parishioners who have told him they’ll stay away until they believe it’s completely safe to gather in large numbers again, he said.
But he feared just as many people would stay away if he mandated masks or other precautions in the church, he said.
Normally, the church would have standing-room only for its Christmas Eve service, Herrin said. That was part of the reason for doubling up on services, he said. But no matter what kind of precautions the church does or doesn’t take, Herrin expected many people to stay away this year, he said.
“It’s affected us in a major way as far as involvement and morale,” Herrin said. “But for the most part, people have been in contact with us to say, ‘I’m here. I’m still a member. I’m just not going to come because you’re not mandating masks for everyone.’”