The joyful hospitality Sunday in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Farmersville reminded Pastor Bart Barber of a scene from the fairytale musical “Beauty and the Beast.”
Easthaven Baptist Church in Kalispell, Mont., was one of a smattering of churches around the U.S. that began phasing in on-site worship Sunday. Worshipers stayed in family units, distant from one another.
The worship service at First Farmersville was the first time in weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic that church members had greeted, ushered, played music or performed any number of other volunteer activities inside the sanctuary.
“Watching them serve on Sunday reminded me of the ‘Be Our Guest’ scene from Beauty and the Beast and the joy that everyone from the candlestick to the teapot felt to be able to serve once again,” Barber said. “There was a palpable joy on the face of those who found that outlet for service again.”
Across the nation, some churches practiced safety guidelines and adjusted routines while resuming onsite worship for the first time in nearly two months. Among those were Easthaven Baptist Church in Kalispell, Mont., and Country Estates Baptist Church in Midwest City, Okla. The churches continued their livestream options.
Deacon Gary Edwards was among those happy to be in the service again at Farmersville First Baptist.
“Sheltering at home to a deacon is like a fish on the bank,” Edwards said. “We have to get back in the water as quickly as possible!”
It wasn’t church as usual. First Farmersville developed safety plans in consultation with the city’s emergency management personnel. The church marked social distancing intervals in an entrance line, used only one entry point, enlisted greeters to manage foot traffic, and created an overflow area in the church gymnasium, Barber said. A crew of volunteers sanitized the sanctuary and gym facilities between the church’s two services, and a greeter managed bathroom access by limiting use to one household at a time.
‘Normal’ life for our church involves a small army of greeters, teachers, ushers, choir members, instrumentalists, tech crew members and others.
For each of those believers, their weekly avenue of service is a gift that they are giving to the Lord,” Barber said. “It can quickly become a part of one’s identity as a disciple. Closing the church campus has prevented them from serving in that way. … Yes, people need to worship, but I had underestimated their spiritual hunger to serve.”
Members complied with social distancing, with combined attendance for both services about 120, Barber said, compared to a pre-COVID-19 average attendance of 350.
Easthaven Baptist’s cautious return to onsite worship came in a location that has been only lightly impacted by the pandemic. Montana has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates of any state, with 457 confirmed cases and only 16 deaths in a statewide population of 1.07 million, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. But one of the two deaths of COVID-19 in Flathead County was an Easthaven member who died about a month ago, according to Easthaven college and young adult pastor Jon Dowling.
The mega congregation took many precautions to ensure member safety and comfort, drawing to its four services a combined attendance of about a quarter of the normal attendance of 1,000.
“We wanted to not be foolish, but to step out in faith and not be fearful,” Dowling said. “We’re one of the larger Southern Baptist churches in Montana and we also had one of our church members that passed away from COVID. We wanted to be very sensitive to that, but we also wanted to be able to meet. We were very conservative because we wanted to set a good example.”
Hand sanitizing stations are one of the many changes churches are implementing as they get back to worshiping together in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Submitted photo The church achieved social distancing by removing every other row of chairs and maintaining six feet between family units on each row. Greeters and ministers at all services wore masks, doors were propped open to avoid touchpoints, central baskets were stationed for offerings and response cards and families entered and were seated one at a time.
“We were extra cautious to show wisdom,” Dowling said, “but also to set the example of wise leadership in the midst of challenging circumstances.”
The worship portion of each service was videotaped and shown on screens, with sermons preached live, senior pastor Daniel Lambert said in an invitational video at Easthaven.org.
“This weekend’s services are really going to be a watch party. There’ll be no live worship band on the stage,” Lambert said. “However, I will also let you know that I’m going to be the watch party crasher, and I’m going to be preaching all four services live, because I just can’t stand it anymore.”
Easthaven is phasing in regular weekday activities and gradually reducing safety layers on Sundays. Next Sunday, for instance, greeters will not wear masks but social distancing will continue.
Country Estates Baptist Church in Midwest City, Okla., held two worship services instead of its usual one. Combined worship attendance was about 100, senior pastor Steve Holland said, compared to a pre-COVID-19 average attendance of about 250.
“We have heard from a majority of our church members that they wanted to start coming back,” Holland said. “The governor of the state of Oklahoma opened that up for churches to consider doing if they wanted to. … I talked with almost everybody who was in the two services, and all of them were very excited to be back and very appreciative that we had opened it back up.”
Different entry doors were used for each service; masks, gloves and hand sanitizer were provided, social distancing was observed, and the sanctuary was sanitized between services. Holland said most of those in high-risk categories stayed home, with five or six members in vulnerable populations attending.
“The majority of them stayed home and have communicated that they’ll probably stay home a couple of more weeks,” Holland said, “and then somewhere around the 17th or possibly the 24th, as along as the [COVID-19 case] numbers continue to go down, they’ll probably start coming back.”
Weekday activities have not resumed, but the church offers a daily devotion on Facebook.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.