GREAT FALLS — The drum emits a steady beat that bounces off the auditorium walls while the lead singer and guitarist fiddles with his foot pedals. Cory Engel watches from the back of the room, ready to watch another round of rehearsal. “About 24 hours until the first service,” one member of the band points out. For the Harvest Springs Community Church band, pastors, and staff, it can’t come soon enough.
“In 2019, we did what was called the ‘Jesus Experience’,” recalls Cory Engel, the church’s lead pastor. “So, it was an interactive walkthrough through our whole building, kind of leading people to experience Jesus in a different way. When we got to 2020, all of that kind of stuff was shut down.”
After a year and some change dominated by words like “Zoom”, “virtual”, and “remote”, seeing people in the Harvest Spring auditorium seats will be a welcome sight this Easter Sunday. In fact, signs of a return to normal have already begun poking through like the sun at the end of a long Montana winter.
"This year, we did a traditional Jewish Passover meal called the Seder Meal,” Engel explains as the band tunes their instruments and the staff fiddles with lights and videos. “About 300 people came in over the course of six days, and we got to just kind of set the stage for really what Easter Weekend is all about.”
With Cascade County’s mask mandate gone, Harvest Springs hasn’t officially returned to normal operations, but they’re excited about the steps they’ve been able to take so far. Cory says service capacity has opened back up to about 50%, and he’s seen a decent number of people returning and feeling comfortable about in-person services again.
While the mood at Harvest Springs can certainly be described as overall excitement to get people back inside, they also know the toll that COVID-19 has taken, both on them and the families they’ve been talking to through a screen for the past year.
“The hardest part, especially as a church, is helping people, especially with COVID, navigate grief situations from a distance,” Cory admitted. “Many people have had sicknesses, illnesses, surgeries, even deaths in their family where, as a church, the community couldn’t really gather around people. You kind of felt like there was a distance that you had to maintain as a pastor that was limiting, even for me, to be able to go to hospitals and visit people.”
Of course, there have been positives too. Cory says the ministry is as accessible as it’s ever been. That’s especially beneficial to the church’s military families who might be forced to leave the community for work even after spending years integrating into the church. While Harvest Springs was already streaming many services online before the pandemic, there’s no doubt that the number of people tuning in from places other than Great Falls has risen during COVID-19. Even people in Great Falls have utilized the remote options more frequently during COVID-19.
“I think we’ve learned that community is really important,” Cory said. “A little quote I heard was, ‘online marriage isn’t as good as in-person marriage.’ Well, in the same way, online community just isn’t the same as in-person community, and I think it’s important for us to grow that community, connect with people personally, and I think being separated helped us understand just how important that was.”