Many churches have been faced with empty pews on Sunday mornings, and have had to switch to online sermons in order to reach their congregations.
As more and more states begin the process of re-opening, many church leaders are faced with new decisions about what their services might look like as members are allowed to attend services in person.
Over the past weekend, Indiana churches began reopening for in-person services as restrictions were lifted by Gov. Eric Holcomb.
One such church, Brandywine Community Church in Greenfield, Indiana welcomed it’s members back. Not without precautions though.
Early birds were asked to wait a few more minutes in their cars in order for the church to properly sanitize the building. Parishioners wanting to attend services were required to purchase tickets for the services as the crowd size was limited to 300 out of 700 of the usual seats. Those who did attend were separated by seats of three.
“Wow. This is so much better than just preaching to a cameraman, and welcome back home.” Anyone else feel like a mole who has been released out of their mole hole after two months?”Senior Pastor Mark Wright, Brandywine Community Church, Greenfield, Indiana
Tim Madden is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Forest City, Pennsylvania – a small city in Susquehanna County. He has served as the pastor of Cornerstone Church for nearly 13 years. Like many pastors around the country, his church has been greatly affected by the “shelter-in-place” lockdowns enacted to stem the spread of the Coronavirus.
Prior to the lockdowns, Cornerstone had a devoted weekly crowd of over 100 people attending services in person.
Like most churches, Cornerstone was forced to move to online services and has continued those online worship services. Along with weekly sermons, they have also been providing people with links to Christian music for home worship.
Pastor Madden explained that the coronavirus has affected their church in several ways:
It has made it difficult for the members of the church to gather together and encourage one another in God and the gospel, partake in communion and to sing and praise God with one another.Tim Madden, Pastor, Forest City, PA
Among other things, Madden added that several members of the church had faced job losses and are unsure when they will be able to return to work.
The unemployment rate nationwide currently stands at 22.8% and, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, that rate could be even higher and be at 25%.
Madden explained that while he strongly believes in practicing social distancing whenever possible, he also believes that people should have the freedom to run their businesses as long as they are adhering to CDC guidelines.
Over in Montana, Governor Steve Bullock gave the green light for churches to hold in-person services with certain caveats. Specifically, his order states churches can reopen as long as physical distance can be maintained inside, otherwise, the directive limits capacity to 10 people.
One Montana church, Valley Assembly, has adopted fairly strict protocols such as no handshaking, spaced seating, and pre-packaged, self-serve communion that will allow churchgoers to maintain six feet of space between them and others inside the church building. Valley Assembly would normally seat 65 churchgoers, however, it will limit service to 25 people.
“Everyone has been very respectful to abide by what we’re asking them to do,” Valley Assembly Pastor Duane Deshner noted.
While many churches are reopening with certain state and local conditions in place, there are some churches that feel they are not ready to reopen -usually based on larger congregation size.
Zootown Church in Missoula, Montana explained that they will continue to stick with online services until the end of May. Thaiv Amerding, the church manager for Zootown explained that “In the governor’s directive, he talked a little bit about music venues and things like that.” He continued to explain, “We feel like we fall a bit more into that camp than the church camp, just based on what our services look like.”
Armerding noted that normally 1,500 people attend services at Zootown Church on Sundays, and 250 kids attend children’s programs. Even with a 40,000-square-foot building, Armerding said church leaders were concerned about the ability to enforce distancing guidelines directed by Gov. Bullock’s administration.
Amidst all of this, a long list of religious leaders have signed a letter to Congress that asks that the next coronavirus relief package include legal immunity for religious organizations.
Franklin Graham, who signed the letter, stated:
“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a proliferation of complex and often contradictory orders and guidelines at the state, county, and local levels, each purporting to govern when and how to reopen.”Franklin Graham
The letter continues “Unfortunately, no religious organization – or any organization- can follow every guideline or order that has been issued around the country. We are concerned that some people-and their lawyers-will cherry-pick certain guidelines from around the nation in order to assign liability to religious organizations. They might claim that a religious organization or a house of worship was negligent because it did not follow a single recommendation buried deep within a set of guidelines.”
The letter has received 300 signatures from dozens of pastors as well as actor Kirk Cameron.
More and more churches will face a myriad of decisionss as they navigate their paths through state and local guidelines and regulations to allow churchgoers back in to live church services. Churches will wonder what types of precautions they should (must) put in place, for example, how often they should be sanitizing the building in between services, what regulations put us in compliance with local, county, and state guidelines.
This is all uncharted territory and we are navigating it together.