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Moving from Isolation to Connection

Do you remember when you first realized that COVID-19 was going to change everyday life? Perhaps it was when the schools in your area closed. Or when your local government mandated a “shelter in place” or “stay at home” order, terms that were foreign to us a mere year ago. When essential businesses were defined as hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants. Go ahead, take a minute.

For Laura Behnke, Care and Connections Director at Mountain Life Church, that moment came when she and the rest of the staff got together and discussed what they were going to do as a church to keep people safe. “It didn’t feel real,” reflects Laura. “Like we were just going through the motions. It was baffling since we didn’t know what tomorrow would look like.”
Connecting from Afar

One of Mountain Life’s goals as a church is to meet people where they are. But if you don’t know, it’s hard to help them. So, when the church went exclusively online, “We took it as a crisis,” says Laura, “In crisis, the first thing is to make sure everyone is okay.” This was accomplished by making Care Calls. Using people already trained, and others with a gift of caring, phone calls were made to all 700 church members and regular attenders. The goal? To find out what needs existed and how best to meet them.

At the same time, each of Mountain Life’s ministries had to figure out to how reach people during a time of intense isolation. First, and most important, was to continue sharing God’s message. While Pastor Scott wrote daily devotionals for the church’s website, the worship team continued their live streaming services on Facebook and got creative on how to further enhance the online experience. According to Laura, “It was all new and had some glitches, but people were patient with us. Miraculously, God gave us somebody who was talented in that area. Working with our sound and production team they allowed us to really ramp up our online presence.”

While the English-speaking worship services had folks tuning in across the country, the Spanish-speaking services had hits from all over the world. Latino Ministry Pastor Ruben Navarrete reported the Latino ministry had higher online attendance than the Anglo services. And our Spanish and English Life Groups, led by Spiritual Growth Pastor Andrew Camp, went online via Zoom with some Life Groups meeting outside on the church’s patio last summer.

And then there were the kids. Jordan Price, Student Ministry Pastor, discovered the youth were longing for connection and created a plan to serve those needs by organizing outdoor activities throughout the week rather than just the Sunday experience. Cullen Wood, Kids Ministry Director, created “Go! Bags,” an innovative bag of goodies, containing devotional activities that utilized the same curriculum from Sunday mornings that kids could do with their parents at home. This supported the church’s vision of sticky faith.

Meanwhile, the Care and Connection ministry moved support groups and counseling sessions online. A year later, they have morphed into a hybrid of in-person and online, based on individual needs. And when the church resumed onsite services, a virtual lobby was created for people to meet on Zoom at the close of the 9am service on Sundays, if they weren’t comfortable attending in person. Perhaps most notable is the fact that 20 new Stephen Ministers will be trained by the end of April, ready to walk alongside anyone at Mountain Life needing extra support during this time of uncertainty.

It’s important to note that it wasn’t just the church staff doing great things. A lot of people within the congregation really stepped up to help support others in our community. A program was created to make and deliver “soup for singles,” while Harvest Boxes, filled with fresh groceries, were distributed to frontline workers. Mountain Life’s benevolence fund was used to help folks who were having a hard time paying their rent or bills. Gift bags, filled with masks, treats and snacks, were distributed to local nonprofits such as the Pregnancy Resource Center, People’s Health Clinic and Peace House. This outpouring of love demonstrated that it truly takes a village to support one another in the middle of a pandemic.
Onsite Again

All of this was going on behind the scenes as the staff prepared to offer onsite services again in person. Then, on June 14th, they were given the go-ahead from the state. “We didn’t even know how many people would come back,” says Laura. “The break we had was really helpful because we had so much to figure out. Everybody was trying to do the right thing, but we didn’t always know what it was. The main thing that made us feel confident in our decisions was that we were dependent on the Lord for direction.”

“When we opened the doors the first few weeks, it was a little sterile at first, but we leaned on the side of safety. We were constantly measuring what was working and what wasn’t. Our goal was to make people feel comfortable and safe about coming back.”

For those who weren’t comfortable attending church inside, Saturday night services were offered on the patio. My husband and I, who were extra cautious during COVID because our parents live only minutes away, cherished this chance to worship again in person. As summer waned into fall, we attended almost every week, relishing the views of the mountains, watching the sun set and soaking up every bit of praise music that Worship Pastor Robert Bartko offered.
Amid all this, another challenge presented itself. A need for volunteers and rebuilding teams. “The people who stepped up had big hearts to serve,” says Laura. “We have new people in every one of our ministries. Their actions are showing their hearts – they’re leaning in, and it is really cool to see people we haven’t seen in over a year come back and combine with the new faces.”

Many of these new volunteers moved to Park City over the summer. Looking for a respite from big cities that were still shut down and bringing a fresh energy to the church. “We have been delighted,” says Pastor Scott. “To welcome so many new families to Mountain Life who really want to experience a meaningful church connection, spiritual growth and a dynamic worship experience. God is clearly growing His church by helping us welcome an influx of new faces, even as we continue to minister to the larger Mountain Life community.”
Here to Stay

As we approach the year mark of when Mountain Life resumed in-person worship services, a lot of the changes are here to stay. Our online presence continues to be strong with Pastor Robert and his team continually improving the quality of our worship services streamed on both Facebook and YouTube. The Latino services and support groups are thriving because of online optionality, and “Go! Bags” for the kids are here to stay.

With everyone now able to get vaccinated in Summit County, Laura is optimistic for the future. “Gathering together, whether just a few people or in a larger group at church, is so vital to our Christian walk,” she muses. “We absolutely need each other. We weren’t created to live life alone.”
By Liz Yokubison
Liz Yokubison is a freelance writer and author. You can follow her on her website, www.lizyokubison.com.

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