Lifegate, a multi-site church based in Omaha, had just returned from its annual high school winter retreat when the news broke about Nebraska’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.
The Fremont YMCA, mere miles from where the group had been staying the weekend, was suddenly squarely in the public eye for being the birthplace of the virus in the state. Though none of the Lifegate students contracted the virus in Fremont that weekend, it was close enough to home for the staff to act quickly to make changes to the structure of their youth programming.
“We were coming off a huge wave of energy in our youth ministry, right as COVID was trying to bring our world down because we had just gotten done with our massive high school retreat which was amazing,” said Pastor Taylor Foster, the head of Lifegate’s youth ministry. “So what we did instantly was we actually kept having youth group, but we streamed it online through our YouTube channel.”
Through virtual interactions, the church was able to keep students engaged, not missing a single week of programming, even as times became more uncertain in the world around them. Foster lauded the work the Lifegate team did to maintain relationships with students during the time, to creatively adapt normal programming into something that fit the circumstances.
“We turned it from a preaching more to like a Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon vibe where we’d have guests, and one of us would host and one of us would talk,” Foster said. “This sounds really weird, but COVID was excellent for our youth ministry. Our engagement was great. The creativity with which we were able to deliver the Gospel was great, because we did a different medium rather than preaching.”
Across the state, at the same time, North Platte Berean Church, a church a fraction of the size of Lifegate, was experiencing a similar dilemma: how do you connect with students in a world where in-person contact is not possible?
“The final time we met in person was March 11, and everything was fairly normal then, but by the next Wednesday, we had shifted completely to online,” NPBC Youth Pastor Andrew Walker said. “Right away, we went to a kind of digital recording that had worship and teaching on it, that we would push out on Wednesday afternoons, around the same time students would typically be coming to student ministry.”
With things completely online, Walker said the church put an emphasis on small group leaders connecting with their students directly, finding ways to interact in the same smaller communities that had been cultivated over time in the NPBC youth environment.
“It took a few weeks to get into that, and then it seemed like groups were starting to get the hang of it,” Walker said. “That was good, for the time it was really the only option because we couldn’t meet in person because of the restrictions. We did that for a while, but as time went on and got closer to the end of the school year, students were kind of tired of the Zoom thing, of technology at least in that context.”
With the morale of students and leaders starting to dip, NBPC pressed pause on the digital gatherings around the end of May. Most years they take the month of June off anyway because it’s the run up to one of the biggest youth events of the year: summer camp.
For both Lifegate and NBPC, summer camp is the pinnacle of youth engagement. It means significantly more uninterrupted time with students where information can be shared and teaching administered with more frequency for longer periods of time than at normal midweek meetings.
In 2020, though, summer camp could not operate in the same capacity as it could in a normal year. In western Nebraska, with case numbers both low and stable, there was optimism.
“At that point, leading up to it, we thought camp would maybe still happen in June for middle school and high school camp, but then that got pushed back a couple weeks, and then got pushed back even farther to July,” Walker said.
NPBC operated in this fashion for approximately a month in limbo, until they got the news they had been waiting for: camp was on. During that month of limbo, the church encouraged their leaders to meet with students outside to get back into a routine.
“Summer camp was able to still happen at the beginning of July,” Walker said. “It was shortened and definitely looked a little different, but we’re still grateful that it happened, and we had a good chunk of kids able to participate in that. Students were just looking forward to something after a weird spring and unfortunate summer where it wasn’t like it typically was.”
In Omaha, where case numbers were higher and more volatile week-to-week, Lifegate decided quickly to cancel its original plans for camp and create a realistic, safe alternative: Campference.
“Our summer camp is massive; we have 250-some students every year, if not more, and it’s like this huge thing we do,” Foster said. “We had to cancel, and it was devastating. Our kids at this time were getting a little weary of all the COVID stuff. Prom had been taken away; none of my seniors really had grad parties. It was just a hard time. So we prayed and felt led to hold a local youth conference. We called it Campference. It’s not camp; it’s not conference; it’s Campference and we had all local Omaha speakers.”
By requiring masks indoors where social distancing was not possible, holding all the games and activities outside and distributing meals in safe packaging, none of the more than 260 students who participated in the event contracted the virus.
Today, both churches are back meeting in person. Lifegate returned in mid-July and NPBC at the start of August.
Both churches, despite differences in size of groups and manpower, are employing significant measures to safely gather. At NPBC, temperature checks and masks are required to enter the building, with similar measures in place at Lifegate.
Both churches have received pushback over resuming in-person meetings, both from parents concerned things are not safe enough yet and parents upset over how strict the policies are for students to participate.
While both pastors understand the concerns of parents, they said they believe the benefits of the in-person gatherings outweigh the potential risks. Foster specifically sees potential growth in many of the Lifegate students and said he hopes parents will see the benefits and trust the Lifegate leadership enough to send their kids to in-person gatherings to be spiritually fed.
“We’re being wise, we’re wearing masks, and Jesus is moving,” Foster said.