Serving amid COVID-19, husband and wife try to balance safety and compassion
Hours after Easter Sunday tornadoes walloped the twin cities of…
Masks or no masks?
Sing and make a joyful noise — or not?
Required temperature checks at the door?
These are among the questions facing Churches of Christ nationwide as congregations move to resume in-person assemblies, a Christian Chronicle survey found.
After nearly three months of closed doors, many churches have targeted this Sunday — the first Lord’s Day of June — for returning to the building.
But amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — with 1.95 million confirmed cases and 111,000 deaths in the U.S. — special measures designed to protect the flock’s health will greet most worshipers.
“We will have shortened services, communion to pick up upon entering, temperature monitors at the door, little to no singing, planned seating and either multiple services or multiple rooms in our building for small groups to meet and stream the worship service,” said Jed Lovejoy, worship and children’s minister for the Broadway Church of Christ in Paducah, Ky.
In Virginia, the Blacksburg Church of Christ will emphasize social distancing, make hand sanitizer available and possibly use the fellowship hall for extra seating “so folks can spread out even more,” member Lisa Leichner said.
“They’re suggesting but so far not requiring masks,” said Leichner, one of more than 100 members and leaders surveyed by the Chronicle.
“I think the biggest concern for me is members who are more at-risk returning because they miss their church family,” she added, “and then having others also present who didn’t take precautions to avoid the virus or aren’t taking it seriously.”
At the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., members will find assigned seating, at least 6 feet between families and bathroom use for emergencies only.
Missing from the Louisiana church’s meeting plan: any guilt for those who choose to stay home, be it because of age or a compromised immune system.
“There are multiple examples of church gatherings being super-spreader events,” noted a letter by the Forsythe elders, “and we are working hard to avoid such a result.”
The Elgin Church of Christ, a Spanish-speaking congregation northwest of Chicago, is inviting one-third of members to participate in each Sunday assembly.
Related: Serving amid COVID-19, husband and wife try to balance safety and compassion
“The other two-thirds stay home and watch online,” minister Ricardo Barrera said of the church’s means of creating space in a normally crowded auditorium.
Steve Beall, elder of the CrossPoint Church of Christ in Grand Prairie, Texas, said: “We can’t or won’t force our senior members to stay home, but we want them to know we encourage them to stay home for a while longer, and it is OK. The new normal will be missing many of our treasured traditions, such as children’s classes, hospitality table (snacks), coffee and the most difficult of all — hugs, kisses and handshakes.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued interim guidance “to help communities of faith discern how best to practice their beliefs while keeping their staff and congregations safe.”
Original CDC guidance was changed at the White House’s request.
Related: COVID-19 challenges Christian relief ministries’ response to spring tornadoes
Some leaders who responded to the Chronicle’s survey voiced frustration with members politicizing the question of when to reopen.
Specific reopening plans vary from congregation to congregation, depending on leaders’ attitudes concerning COVID-19’s threat and wide-ranging state restrictions on large-group meetings.
“When we closed our doors, the staff asked the question, ‘How can we take everything we do and translate it to an online format?'” said Chris McCurley, preaching minister for the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. “Through online content, daily Facebook devotionals, Zoom meetings, drive-by fellowships, etc., we have been able to stay connected.”
But McCurley said he’s excited to see his “Oldham Lane peeps” back in the church building this Sunday, albeit with social distancing and the most vulnerable members encouraged to stay home.
At the Downtown Church of Christ in Midland, Texas, members will pick up individual communion wafer/cup sets at entrances and see hymns and Scripture readings displayed on a screen.
To lessen germ exposure, no pew Bibles or songbooks will be available.
In developing guidelines for resumption of services, the West Texas church grappled with whether to allow singing. “Given how long the virus remains airborne … we may end up reviving the ancient practice of chanting,” minister Greg Fleming joked in May.
Gary Kirkendall, minister for the 120-member Hilton Head Church of Christ in South Carolina, echoed Fleming: “There is concern that projecting singing voices will increase the opportunity for spreading the virus.”
Some churches, including the Decatur Church of Christ in Texas, began meeting weeks ago.
Beverly Ross, whose husband, Rick, preaches for the North Texas church, said it “took an army of volunteers” to pull off the first Sunday back.
“We had volunteers to sanitize between services, people to remind us of social distancing and people to pass out communion in baggies,” she wrote on Facebook. “I faced the front door where I could see every set of eyes coming in our north entrance.
“I found myself drawn to the eyes of the people I hadn’t seen in over 10 weeks,” she added. “Many of us wore masks to protect the vulnerable among us. But those eyes spoke it all. Some were exhausted, some were a bit confused looking around to take in the changes, some were totally excited to be back!”
The Hentown Church of Christ in rural Blakely, Ga., has no room in its small building for members to separate themselves.
Instead, the Georgia congregation has turned to “drive-in” services.
“People sit on the tailgate of their trucks or in the hatchback of their cars,” church treasurer June Winkler said. “Each family brings their communion emblems. There is no handshaking or Southern hugging, but it is wonderful to see each other, and even though we are 6 feet apart, we can still communicate.”
Other churches remain undecided on when to resume in-person gatherings.
The Oakland Church of Christ in Southfield, Mich., has had multiple members suffer from the virus, minister Edward Cribbs said. Other members have lost children, siblings, parents, in-laws, cousins and friends to COVID-19.
The Michigan church’s tentative goal is to return to the building in July. Work is ongoing to prepare the building for that time.
“We are installing hands-free fixtures in bathrooms. We are expanding monitors in classrooms and offices to allow for viewing of services outside of the auditorium,” Cribbs said. “We are installing hand sanitizer stations throughout the building. We are purchasing masks and gloves for use by members.”
In Alabama, the Madison Church of Christ has developed a “red, yellow, green” approach for meeting starting this Sunday.
The red group will keep worshiping at home. The yellow group will meet at the building but wear masks. The green group will gather in a different area of the church with social distancing but no masks.
Related: COVID-19: Numbers and beyond, what Churches of Christ need to know
To promote unity, each group will watch the same prerecorded service.
“We want to be together in our worship, and to do that, we want to be singing together all the same songs,” shepherd Mark Kelly said in a church video. “We’ll be hearing the same message from God’s word, spoken to us by the same person. The same prayers.”
The Rochester Church of Christ in Indiana will come together for worship but not Bible classes this Sunday.
“We think we have figured out how to do it responsibly,” minister Jim Dillinger said. “The whole mask vs. no mask argument is going to be an issue, in my opinion.”
The church is encouraging but not requiring members to wear masks, Dillinger said.
“Even though people have missed greatly getting to see each other … they have loved the whole casual pace.”
“We also have a separate room for those not feeling safe to mingle,” he said. “Our county is rural, so it’s had very few positive cases, and that has lessened fears considerably.”
After months of virtual services, some changes may be more subtle than others.
“Even though people have missed greatly getting to see each other … they have loved the whole casual pace,” said Danny Holman, minister for the South Main Church of Christ in Greenville, Miss. “Sunday mornings are much less stressful.
“When I was a youth minister, we always worried about being detrimental to families by over-programming,” Holman added. “Now I am having to ask that about the church in general.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.