On Mar. 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

The subsequent lockdowns and restrictions were felt in every aspect of life in southern Manitoba, but some would argue nowhere more keenly than in faith communities.

Four days later, many churches closed their doors to in-person services, including the EMMC in Winkler. Even while complying with the recommendations of the province, Pastor James Peters recalls members of his church registering a sense of shock.

“It was hard to understand why we were closing churches just because of something that could be coming our way. Nobody really knew what the virus would do in Manitoba at that point," Peters says.

"We were hearing that in some countries a lot of people were getting sick and it affected them very severely. The uncertainty of what it would do here prompted us to follow that advice.”

With in-person services no longer an option, churches scrambled to implement a streaming format to keep members connected. Technologies needed to be put in place to provide a high-quality live stream. Some churches set up FM-transmitted drive-in services while they were allowed to.

Peters says connecting virtually has been a good option for the time being, and a beneficial sideline ministry for those who can’t attend Sunday services regularly, but notes it falls short as a replacement for in-person fellowship.

“There is no substitute for it. That has been a difficulty for all of us, not just the churches in the community, but for everyone. How do we maintain those relationships, that face-to-face connection? There are some things you just can’t do over video. My wife and I have children who live several hours away. We’ve been doing a lot of face-timing or video chatting with them. It’s good, it’s enjoyable. But it’s not the same as when you’re face to face.”

While acknowledging the dark side of the pandemic, Peters also sees how being forced to look beyond normal routines has served as a source of spiritual growth.

“Our habits, our traditions, our schedule – they’ve all been thrown for a loop. This time of COVID and these restrictions have brought us opportunity to evaluate. On the other side, we can just react to what’s going on, just complain about it. That doesn’t do anyone any good.”

While adults are grieving the loss of live interaction, Peters has noticed that their church’s young people have a similar need.

“One interesting thing that our youth pastor has realized is that even though our impression may be that younger generations are totally connected virtually through their phones and so on, he’s finding more and more, that they value and need the in-person connection.”

Peters feels even a pandemic could be a positive thing in the end if it teaches people how to look out for each other.

His church will continue to offer streaming worship services as a way to spread positive content within the community.