Sunday mornings are typically busy for Brian and Katherine Cornell, but the coronavirus outbreak has transformed their living room into a makeshift television studio.

Brian and Katherine are both pastors at local United Methodist churches — Brian serving Northwood UMC in Esko and Norton Park UMC in Duluth and Katherine at Asbury UMC in Duluth. They continue to lead worship services online.

The couple worked together prior to the outbreak on sermons and other ministries, but now they are working to conduct three services each Sunday morning.

“We still preach in three different environments, but now we are preaching three different times in the same house,” Brian said.

The couple has tried to maintain a similar worship service structure for their congregations, with their son Michael, 16, running the sound board and cameras.

“It’s the same room, same candle, same sermon, some similar music, and same 16-year-old running the audio and visuals because the guy is a freaking genius,” Brian said. “Right now our 16-year-old is more important than any of us.”

Michael Cornell, 16, runs the audio and visual equipment for his parents' online worship service for Northwood United Methodist Church Sunday, April 5, in Esko. (Photo by Brian Cornell)
Michael Cornell, 16, runs the audio and visual equipment for his parents' online worship service for Northwood United Methodist Church Sunday, April 5, in Esko. (Photo by Brian Cornell)

At Cloquet’s Zion Lutheran Church, Pastor C.J. Boettcher has made similar moves. He has gone from in-person services to streaming services from an empty sanctuary to broadcasting services from his home.

Boettcher said the services have been a challenge, but Facebook Live allow him to reach a larger audience and allow instant feedback.

“People that I don’t see as often in church tend to like and comment on things,” Boettcher said. “It’s been kind of helpful, and also it is kind of a nice and unique way to see whether something I’m doing is connecting with people. There isn’t a ‘like’ button in real life — sometimes I don’t know if they are just here for the snacks.”

Zion had a bit of a head start on some other churches. They began posting their services to YouTube after CAT7, Cloquet’s public access television channel, went off the air for several months last year.

The churches are also doing Bible studies and other online outreach activities for their congregations.

C.J. Boettcher leads a daily online prayer service using Facebook Live for the congregation of Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet Monday, April 6, from his home. (Screenshot)
C.J. Boettcher leads a daily online prayer service using Facebook Live for the congregation of Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet Monday, April 6, from his home. (Screenshot)

Boettcher was even conducting a drive-thru prayer time in the carport at Zion until Gov. Tim Walz issued a Stay at Home order. Now Boettcher hosts a daily online prayer and devotion at 5:17 p.m. The timing of the daily prayer session refers to I Thessalonians 5:17 that says “Pray without ceasing.”

Leaders at the churches continue to brainstorm different ways of reaching out to congregations.

“Right now at the beginning it is just like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” Boettcher said.

Kyle Terrio-Johnson, a member at Zion, said the need for social distancing and separation due to the pandemic is difficult, but technology does help.

“We aren’t having the same family experience that we normally have,” Terrio-Johnson said. “Half of church is a social thing — getting together with like-minded people and sharing the Lord with them is a personal thing. Separation like this is difficult, but the new technologies allow us to be as close as we really dare be without completely changing the experience.”

Brian said the toughest part of the social distancing on his ministry has been a member who has moved from a nursing home to hospice care during the outbreak.

“My church member who is in hospice has been calling for her pastor and God to come,” Brian said. “Her children are in the impossible situation of hearing that and wanting to make her comfortable, and the phone is just not an adequate replacement for that — but it’s all that we have.”

Daisy Rose, a member at Northwood, said the congregation is still getting used to the idea of online worship, but they understand the Cornell family is making the best of a difficult and unfamiliar situation.

“He and his family have transformed their living room into a sanctuary and they are doing a church service,” Rose said. “In our little Methodist church in Esko, we are so fortunate and blessed to have that family involved and doing this every Sunday — not only for just our church in Esko, but the two other churches that are involved.”