Editor’s note – For additional resources and an updated version of the TBMB Gathering Together Again document that includes information about how your church should move forward when members test positive for COVID-19, visit TnBaptist.org/reopen.
In-person gatherings suspended on numerous campuses across state
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — With the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise in certain parts of the state, pastors and church leaders are once again having to make tough decisions regarding worship services and other gatherings.
Numerous churches in Tennessee have recently suspended their on-campus services and returned to an online-only format for worship gatherings. Some churches have done this for a couple of weeks, while others are considering longer suspensions.
These decisions were reached, in some instances, after church members either tested positive for COVID-19 or were concerned that they might be infected.
At Mary’s Chapel Baptist Church, Ripley, church leaders elected to postpone on-campus worship services for the final two Sundays in June after two church members — a husband and wife — learned they had been exposed to individuals with COVID.
After the husband and wife were tested, and the results came back negative, the church resumed on-campus gatherings on July 5.
“For me personally, it was very hard to shut down our in-person gathering, even if it was for only two weeks,” said Brent Willis, pastor of Mary’s Chapel.
“I didn’t like shutting down back in March, but I really struggled making the call on June 14 (to shut down again and return to online services) for June 21 and 28,” he said. “I felt we had some momentum when we gathered for the first time on June 7, but now we have to gain that momentum back. It feels almost like we’ll be gathering for the first time again.”
Willis said the church body has, for the most part, agreed with the decisions that have been made. “Our folks are very patient and understanding with all of this, but we are all ready to come back together again,” he said.
Friendship Baptist Church, Friendship, temporarily halted its on-campus gatherings for the final week in June and returned to ‘Parking Lot Church’ — a format that the church first used during the early stages of the pandemic.
Pastor Jerry Drace said the decision to return to Parking Lot Church was based on the fact that there “was an increase in COVID-19 cases in Dyer County, which is adjacent to Crockett County (where Friendship is located). Several of our members live in Dyer County,” he added.
Drace said the church was planning to “have a full corporate worship service or go back to dual services” for the first Sunday in July.
“I stay in close contact with the chief medical doctor in Crockett County and with other authorities,” Drace said.
At First Baptist Church, Counce, it was learned that someone in attendance at the June 14 service had tested positive for COVID.
“Because of this we are going to close our doors for two weeks, self-quarantine, and resume our services online only,” FBC senior pastor Jimmie McChristial said in a letter to the church members. The letter stated “No activities, meetings, or services will be in our church facilities until we re-evaluate on Monday, June 29.”
At Long Hollow Baptist Church, Hendersonville, pastor Robby Gallaty and his staff have also made the decision to return to online-only services.
In an e-mail to members, Gallaty said the decision was reached “after several reports of COVID-19 cases (came) from the first week of our limited gatherings. Based on the recent uptick of cases in our area, our entire production team having to quarantine, and a positive case from our service the previous week, we took the advice of healthcare experts in our church and county to postpone our plan to return to in-person gatherings (even the limited gatherings we just started).”
At Mary’s Chapel, Willis said that even though the decision to suspend on-campus gatherings was difficult, the choice was unanimous among the church leaders.
“They all felt that it was best for the health of the church,” he said. “And they all felt it was better to be proactive rather than reactive. They also felt good about not meeting for two weeks and then coming back together after that. From here on out, we now have an idea as to how to respond if someone in our congregation does test positive for COVID.”
Willis said his staff and church body are looking forward to being able to meet again — even with the unusual circumstances of wearing masks and following other guidelines. “I believe our people are ready to get back together,” he said. “I have talked with a few of our church members and they have expressed their gratitude for our online services because they do not want to get out for the time being. However, I think most are ready to return.”
At Friendship, Drace began posting a daily devotional online during the early stages of the pandemic. The devotionals, which generally last about five minutes, were popular from the start — and Drace said he plans to continue the ministry for the foreseeable future.
“The members of Friendship have requested I keep this up even after we come back together,” he said. “The viewer numbers have almost doubled with several from other churches and states looking in everyday.”
Drace noted that the pandemic has, in some ways, opened new avenues for gospel conversations.
“The coronavirus has certainly had negative repercussions, but has also offered positive possibilities for sharing the Good News,” he said. “It is time the church becomes creative in reaching our communities and our nation. … I believe that this pandemic has caused us to rethink our approach to worship and hopefully embrace new methods and styles to present the claims of Christ.”
Gallaty offered some words of encouragement to the members at Long Hollow: “This season won’t last forever, and … God is still at work in our midst,” he said.