To Worship In-Person, or Not To Worship In-Person. That is the question …

Some folks have been wondering about why our church is waiting until September to open its doors for in-person worship.  They are especially curious since last March I wrote about how I view the church as an essential service provider.

“If you believe churches are essential service providers, doesn’t that mean you would want us to open our doors as soon as possible?!” some have asked.

Let me take a moment and share with you how my thinking has evolved since the early days of March.

Leaders of worship communities here in California have been given very specific information about what would be required in order for us to open our doors to in-person gatherings.  Let me list a few of those requirements to help you better understand what would be required.

First, we would have to limit the number of worshippers to 25% of the Sanctuary’s capacity.  This means that we would potentially have individuals posted at the doors who would turn people away once our capacity has been reach.  That alone would break my heart and spirit!

Second, the flow into the Sanctuary would look and feel very different than what we are used to.  As folks filed in to the entry way (6-feet apart and one at a time), for instance, they would have to sign a liability waiver which would indicate they understand the risk they are assuming and would not hold the church liable for an exposure to the virus.  The waiver forms would service a dual purpose.  In case of an exposure, it would give the church the ability to contact those who had been exposed so they could quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Of course, as they are waiting to sign waivers, individual temperatures would be taken to ensure they are not symptomatic.  For those not wearing face masks, they would be given one to wear.  A volunteer would also be stationed near the restrooms to ensure that only one person at a time could use the restroom.  The volunteer would also ensure that surfaces would be wiped down between users as well.  Since we could not allow individuals to pass one another in the hallway, bathroom users would then be required to head down the hallway and enter our sanctuary through the front – rather than through the narthex.

No Sunday bulletins, hymnals, song books, prayer cards, pen/pencils, or offering envelopes would be made available.  We cannot offer materials that could be reused.

Ushers would ensure that people were seated 6-feet apart from one another in the sanctuary and in the order they arrived.  Those arriving first, for instance, would be seated at the front; those arriving late would be seated in the back.  No exceptions would be made – so individuals could not sit where they choose.

Third, the service itself would feel very different.  There would be no congregational singing or responsive reading (i.e. Call to Worship or Unison Prayer of Dedication of offerings) since these forms of projection are high risk activities for the transmission of the virus.  Standing would also be eliminated during the service so people would not be tempted to use the backs of the pews in front of them to stand.

If someone coughs or sneezes during the service, they would be removed from the worship area so as not to risk others to exposure.

There would be no offering taken – since offering plates could not be passed from one person to another.  At most, there would be a plate or box where folks could drop the offering into as they leave.

At the end of the service, folks would be dismissed in the reverse order from which they arrived.  Those who had arrived last who were seated in the back would be dismissed first; those who had arrived first who were seated in the front would leave last.

There would also be no opportunity to physically greet or connect with one another.  There wouldn’t be any handshakes, hugs, or closing circle (where people joined hands).

There would be no coffee hour offering to risk the chance of transmission in closely gathered space. 

If an exposure did occur, then in-person services would be suspended for at least 14 days since all of the worship leaders would have been exposed.  This means those churches who are rushing back to worship would face the very real possibility of starting – and then stopping – their in-person services.

As our church Leadership Team looked at the list of requirements, they realized two things.  First, it will take a while to draw up a plan of action to ensure all the required steps are taken.  Second, the service would not feel like our usual worship experience.  That’s why they decided to give us until September to get ready for a return to worship.

After hearing all this, you might think, “I understand how challenging the circumstances are that would allow us to return.  But if we are an essential service, why don’t we just work hard and meet the requirements right away so we can worship?”

There is one important way church are very different than some of the other essential service providers.  Most essential service providers have large paid staffs that can take all of the required actions.  Most small local churches do not have large paid staffs.  They depend primarily on volunteers.  And while most of our volunteers are reliable – this situation would take volunteering to a whole new level.  If the person who volunteered for one of the essential tasks failed to show (i.e. the person who agreed to take temperatures or the person who agreed to monitor and wipe down the rest rooms), then we might potentially have to cancel the services.  We could no longer try to skate by with last minute fill ins.

While everything I’ve mentioned so far has to do with physical – or practical – concerns, there are theological reasons as well.  I do NOT believe that the church is defined by its building.  I believe that the church – or the Body of Christ – is a spiritual body that comes alive whenever its members gather.  It just so happens that now, the body is gathering online.

What’s exciting is that the body is doing something now that it has never done before at WHCC: it’s gathering 7-days a week in one form or another!  So while of course we miss the opportunity to be physically in one another’s presence, as members of the body of Christ we cannot yet take the risk of exposing our beloved sisters and brothers to a virus that would be deadly for those who are the most vulnerable members of our community.

I have watched as some pastors and faith leaders have railed against our elected officials for taking away their Constitutionally given right to worship.  I vehemently disagree with how they are positioning themselves.  I believe that our elected officials who are establishing guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus are acting with the very best interests of the residents of their communities in mind.  I think they are honorable people: many of whom are themselves part of worshipping communities.  It pains me greatly to see these honorable people vilified.

Even worse, it saddens me to think that some of these pastors and faith leaders are trying to rush back to worship largely for financial reasons.  While I certainly understand the challenges of churches meeting their financial obligations during this time of lock downs, I do not see how these pastors and lay leaders can look themselves in the mirror – knowing that they are putting their financial concerns before the well-being of their members.

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to share this information with you.  I understand that not all of my readers will agree with some of my statements or concerns.  That’s okay.  I just wanted you to hear a side of the conversation that is often completely left out in the coverage of this matter.

Take care, be safe, and thanks for “listening”.

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 53-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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