Everything has changed. Now, instead of meeting at the church together, it’s just me and a few media folks that are sending our church services over the invisible airwaves. Instead of audible “amens,” crickets. Instead of looking at between 500-600 people in the eyes as I preach, I have to constantly remind myself to look into the camera up the center aisle. I can’t tell who’s paying attention and who has nodded off. I have become a televangelist, and frankly, I don’t think I have the hair for it.
A New Challenge
Now, as we see the country taking steps to open back up, we are being faced with a new challenge—when do we reopen our churches back up? Is it safe to just throw open the doors of our churches and sit shoulder to shoulder again? Should we open up our children’s wing and have children in close contact, touching all the stuffed animals and crafts and felts (yes, we still like felts)? Is there a date certain that we should all just ignore the potential dangers of this invisible virus and throw caution to the wind?
It’s the opinion of this pastor that first and foremost in my consideration for reopening my church building is the safety of my congregants. Most Adventist congregations have a decent number of senior citizens attending. I would feel pretty awful if we rushed into reopening only to have a second wave sneak up and take the lives of some of our saints. These saints are the backbone and wisdom of our churches. I would never do anything to compromise their health and wellbeing. And then there’s that whole “Thou shalt not kill” commandment to consider. It’s out of love and caution that I won’t risk the lives of any of my church members.
Suggestions to Reopen Safely and Responsibly
So what can we do to reopen safely and responsibly? Here are some suggestions that my church will be considering:
- Assemble a reopening team. On that team have pastors, elders, deacons, deaconesses, and most importantly, healthcare workers. Have them use all resources from state and local officials and local conference offices to make measured and informed decisions about how and when to reopen.
- Until all is back to some sense of safe and normal, strongly consider limiting or eliminating congregational singing. I know congregational singing is a part of our DNA but projecting little spit particles on the backs of the heads of the saints standing in front of you might not be safe right now.
- After reopening, establish a protocol for greeting each other in church. Avoid handshakes and hugs and go to elbow taps—maybe ask all your gentlemen to wear a top hat and when seeing each other, tip it and say, “Top of the Sabbath mornin’ to ya!” Figure out a way to communicate to your congregation safe and appropriate greeting protocol.
- Sabbath Schools might need to be limited for a season. Again, I know that SS is a part of our DNA, but SS is usually conducted with people in close proximity discussing topics with each other around tables and in smaller rooms. For adults at least, maybe consider having it taught for everyone in the main sanctuary, where proper distancing can take place.
- If you have more than one service as we do, consider how vigilant cleaning and sterilization needs to be between services. Maybe take hymnals and Bibles out of your pews for a season and have tithe envelops in your bulletins instead of in your pew backs. Try to remove things that multiple people might touch.
- I know this sounds weird, but consider not having wind instruments for special music, especially if you have a church where the platform isn’t far from your congregants. Not only is the force of what’s coming out of the instrument a risk, have you seen what trumpet players blow out onto your platform floor during rest measures? Yikes!
- Consider having gloved greeters open doors for all coming into your church. This will eliminate scads of people touching the same surface.
- Potlucks bad. Eating at home, good. For the foreseeable future anyway. Which makes me sad. Gladys’s Jello salad is legendary in my church. But you don’t want folks standing in line and touching the same utensils over and over again.
- If you have the ability to do this, have your AV team assign one mic per person. As a preacher who is a bit of a spitter, I don’t want to pass on my little treasures to the next person who uses my mic.
- Finally, remember the lessons this season of separation has taught you. Incorporate the good things that have happened into your new reality. My church’s worship service attendance has gone up. We have more people watching online than were attending by almost double. Keep advertising that. Shut-ins have been attending Zoom Sabbath Schools. We need to keep including them even when Sabbath Schools go live again. Set up your SS rooms with the ability to include shut-ins via some media platform. Giving is up in my church because we’ve been including an emphasis on this in our media productions. We will keep doing that. Keep doing the things that are working for you and don’t fall back into the same ol’ same ol’. Let’s learn and grow from this experience!
As you may have noticed in this article and in your own experience, our churches never stopped meeting together. We just found another way to do it. For centuries there have been people, governments, natural disasters and viruses that have tried to thwart the spread of the Gospel, but to no avail. The Good News has the ability to morph and adapt like nothing else in the world. It can’t be stopped. For centuries the church has adapted to whatever situation it has found itself in and championed the Gospel in spite of it all.
As you weigh the reopening of your church, keep federal and local rules in mind (let’s not mistake the closing of all gatherings, business, social and religious, for religious persecution), keep your parishioners safety in mind, and be innovative as you think of new and better ways to introduce people to a life changing relationship with Jesus.
Mark Witas writes from the Pacific Northwest where he is the lead pastor of the Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Portland, Oregon.
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