Reopening the church: Pastors, congregations take cautious early steps

 

ReopeningTheChurchThird in a series.

As the country slowly reopens following a three-month onslaught of the COVID-19 virus, EPC congregations are cautiously resuming corporate worship and other on-campus activities.

Middle Smithfield Evangelical Presbyterian Church in East Stroudsburg, Pa., lost the husband of an elder and son of a deacon to the virus. Despite the tragic death of a beloved member, Pastor Jeff Brower reported that they reopened public worship on May 15.

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Jeff Brower

“We announced the re-opening on May 8 with very little fanfare on our live feed and via email—we just said the doors will be open if you’d like to come back, but we were sure to make it as low-pressure as possible,” Brewer said. “We said, ‘Come if you want, but continue to watch the live stream if you’d prefer.’”

He said the church’s leadership prepared 13 policies for re-opening, and about 10 people in a congregation of 200 attended the first week—which included Brower and the praise team.

“I roped off every other pew so there would be no mistakes, and we provided masks for anyone who forgot theirs.”

He said attendance at the May 24 service doubled to about 20, including several from a nearby Reformed congregation that they participate in many activities with.

“The mood of the people here was great,” Brower said. “Everyone was very excited to be able to worship together, but also disappointed that we can’t stay and fellowship afterward. We normally have a small meal every Sunday after church and a big meal once a month—we’re very big on fellowship here.”

In Texas, Covenant EPC in Lake Jackson used a “soft opening” on May 10 to “iron out procedures,” said Senior Pastor Alan Trafford. He noted that they followed suggested guidelines such as maintaining social distance, providing hand sanitizer, encouraging worshipers to wear masks, and not to serve food.

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Alan Trafford

Though Gov. Greg Abbott did not require churches in Texas to close, Trafford said they held online-only services for seven weeks as a precaution, so the first service was “emotional and that of relief” for the congregation of about 200.

“The call to worship was from Psalm 84, ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.’ The praise team led with ‘Praise Belongs to You’ followed by a traditional hymn on the organ, ‘Come, We that Love the Lord.’ There was barely a dry eye in the place.”

He said 66 people attended the first service, and attendance has grown steadily in the weeks since.

“We can only get about 70 in our sanctuary with social distancing, so we are live streaming to our multi-purpose building,” Trafford noted. “Some have chosen to worship there since distancing is easier in the gym.”

He also said Covenant continues to stream its worship service on the church website, Facebook, YouTube, and a local cable TV station.

In Florida, Faith Community Church in Seminole also reopened on May 10 after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed retail and restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity.

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Dillon Thornton

“When that happened, we followed suit,” said Lead Pastor Dillon Thornton. “Our thinking was that most people spend at least 45 minutes in a restaurant, so offering a worship service of 45 minutes or so is consistent with the governor’s permission.”

He said they marked the pews with tape so that social distancing could be easily practiced and made face coverings optional.

He said the reopening of in-person gatherings has been met with “only positive feedback. I suspect this is because we have taken a hybrid approach—we offer both an online gathering and two in-person gatherings—and we have encouraged all gospel partners (how Faith refers to its members) to return in person whenever they feel ready to do so. No pressure.”

Worship attendance has ranged from 95 the first week to 108 on May 24. Prior to the shelter-in-place orders, the congregation had an average worship attendance of about 300.

“The majority of our gospel partners are not yet ready to return to in-person gatherings, so they join us online each week,” Thornton said. “Additionally, we’ve seen significant growth in online viewers.”

Thornton added that current services are abbreviated in length, and include prayer, praise, and communion.

“We intentionally made the first week back concise, and only the sanctuary is open at this stage,” he said. “Families worship together, but there are no children’s or student activities yet.”

Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Wilson, N.C, resumed public worship with outdoor services on May 17 and worship in the Sanctuary on May 24.

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Chris Greenwood

Pastor Chris Greenwood said the services have been well received, with more than 60 attending the outside service and 30 attending the first inside service. He said average attendance prior to the shutdown was 60 to 70—which has increased from about 35 just a few years ago.

“We spaced the chairs for social distancing and asked people to arrive in masks through the end of the musical worship time,” he said. “We then suggested they remove them for the sermon and put them back on from the benediction until they depart.”

Greenwood said the impact of COVID-19 on the Wilson area—about 50 miles east of Raleigh in the eastern North Carolina—has not been widespread. As a result, he hopes the church can soon return to some semblance of normalcy.

Back in Pennsylvania, Brower said the impact in East Stroudsburg has been much greater so returning to how things were before the coronavirus took hold may prove more difficult.

“We are in the Pocono Mountains just across the river from New Jersey, so we’re a vacation destination for folks from New Jersey and New York—and many of our parishioners commute to both,” he said. “The member of our church who died lived in New Jersey, and a couple with three small children tested positive but have recovered. Overall, our area has been relatively hard-hit.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent