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Return from Exile

How to safely reopen church doors during COVID-19.

The church has often been at the forefront of emergency response to natural disasters, but it’s not as well-prepared to address public health crises, Dr. Jamie Aten told Christian Courier. Aten is the founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College in Illinois. Since COVID-19 hit North America in March, Aten and his colleagues have poured all their disaster-response knowledge into helping churches respond.

On March 13 – two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic – he and his colleague Kent Annan began free weekly webinars on topics like Holy Week online, presence in a pandemic and, more recently, liability issues. The HDI has also created two resource websites – “Spiritual First Aid” and “Reopening the Church” (in cooperation with the National Association of Evangelicals) – and hosted two large online summits.

From the beginning, Aten has encouraged churches to develop a marathon rather than sprint mentality about COVID-19. He understands the desire to meet and worship together in person: “the spiritual, social support that comes from being together helps buffer people against negative emotional stress,” yet “physical coming together also puts us at risk.” Church leaders need to discern how to support individual well-being and congregational life in a way that does not fuel the spread of the virus and put vulnerable people in harm’s way.

Covid-safe sanctuary at Marda Loop Christian Reformed Church in Calgary (Photo Credit John Van Sloten).
Covid-safe sanctuary at Marda Loop Christian Reformed Church in Calgary (Photo Credit John Van Sloten).

God is still with us

In the early stages of the pandemic, churches around the world were forced to move online rather than hold in-person meetings for worship. Rev. Dr. Christine O’Reilly of Knox Presbyterian Church in Thedford, Ontario, has been praying from the church building each Monday. She turns on the lights in the building – sanctuary, Sunday school rooms, church hall – and she encourages her congregation to turn their lights on at home as an expression of hope and solidarity. She does a Facebook Live broadcast before and after an hour of prayer for the community.

In the first of these broadcasts, O’Reilly spoke about all that has happened since 1877 at Knox Presbyterian Church: “the church was built then. It has been there through two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, the Korean War, lots and lots of things. We’re grateful that the church is still standing today, and that God is still with us.” She has had a positive response to these Monday night Facebook Live prayer times, as well as to the Sunday morning livestream: “People have said it’s been good to see the church. It gives people comfort and hope to see the church building.”

Despite being allowed by the Ontario provincial government to reopen for in-person services in July, the elders at Knox Presbyterian Church in Thedford are opting to continue with the livestream services for now rather than reopen without congregational singing and with limited capacity, which would restrict attendance. At the time of writing, worship with 30 percent capacity is currently allowed in Ontario, with physical distancing measures in place.

Meanwhile, a member of the congregation taped church directory photos to the pews for O’Reilly to see as she preaches to a virtually-empty building. As she and the elders looked at these photos when considering reopening, they realized that while many congregation members are not high-risk themselves, they may have a family member who is in a high-risk group and that reopening was not worth the risk at this point.

Leaders need support

“Guidelines to open are not commands to open,” cautions the resource “Four Pastoral Principles to Guide your Reopening Discussion” (from HDI’s Reopening the Church website). As churches navigate decision-making, Aten’s advice is to form a team: “the decision to re-open should not be by one leader. You really want the wisdom of a committee.” He encourages this team to take ongoing direction from local public health authorities as the local situation evolves over time.

Aten says that worship services will not be the same as they were before COVID-19. Mitigating risk means “paying attention to nitty-gritty details”: adhering to safety measures such as mask-wearing, physical distancing (marking off places for households to sit), sanitizing surfaces, opening windows for improved ventilation, and removing shared objects such as pew hymnals. Much-loved practices such as congregational singing and passing the peace may not occur at all. Socializing may happen in the parking lot at a distance of six feet instead of in a church hall over coffee.

Leaders need to be prepared for situations such as people not complying with mask-wearing or individuals exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 during worship. Aten observes that people often revert to old behaviours in familiar places, and he advises leaders and congregation members to think through each step of going to, participating in, and returning from the service, while adhering to protocols that prevent the community spread of COVID-19.

Aten encourages churches to continue with alternate modalities for worship, such as online services, even if in-person worship resumes, as much of the congregation may not be able or willing to join an in-person event. He encourages leaders to think of creative ways to reach out to the most vulnerable and under-served people in their communities, as well as to the at-risk groups within the congregation, “the people who are hurting the most.” A backyard Bible study with physical distancing, a drive-in service, or a prayer meeting on Zoom may be safer options than an indoor worship service.

While navigating this time, Aten has reflected on the importance of fortitude as a virtue for a situation that is ongoing: “This isn’t something we just push through and bounce back.” Fortitude is the capacity “to endure hardships. We can still do good in the face of those hardships.” He recommends reading scripture and engaging in “spiritual disciplines that give us hope and make us feel connected to God and our communities” to bolster this ability to endure.

O’Reilly agrees that digging deep into spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible reading is essential in order to build a sense of trust that God is at work within us and to “have a broader, wider, deeper perspective. Life-changing things happen all the time.” She finds encouragement in the quote that “‘God is not helpless among the ruins.’” O’Reilly says, “If God knows his way out of the tomb, we will get through this.”

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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