By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — After suspending most gatherings for the past several weeks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches in Tennessee are now beginning to explore the option of reopening their doors for worship.
But first, one colossal question must be answered: How should churches go about it?
The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board recently provided guidance on the topic by hosting a webinar called “Preparing for Future Regathering.” The webinar, which was available to pastors and church leaders across the state, featured five panelists: Bruce Raley, executive pastor, FBC Hendersonville; Mark Proctor, director of conference centers, TBMB; Scott Shepherd, worship and music specialist, TBMB; Phil Young, church revitalization specialist, TBMB; and Doug Finch, technology services, TBMB.
The event was moderated by TBMB collegiate ministries director Bill Choate, who opened the webinar by saying there aren’t any concrete answers to many of the questions surrounding the elements of regathering. There is not an iron-clad plan that can be applied to every church in every situation, Choate said.
“We looked for an expert on this topic, but we couldn’t find one,” said Choate with a smile. “There aren’t any. This is a new world and we’re all trying to figure it out together.”
Choate said the purpose of the webinar was to discuss the various elements of regathering. He added that, ultimately, every pastor would need to decide “what’s best as you lead your people” and that the decision about when to reopen would be left to each church.
“We are not going to hand you a date,” Choate said. “There’s not going to be a PowerPoint slide that comes up and says what day you should go back to church. We don’t know. … We’re all trying to figure that out.”
“Today we want to talk about ‘how,’ ” Choate continued. “How do we do this well, how can God be glorified in our efforts and how can our people be safe? How can the gospel be spread and the kingdom be supported?”
The idea of gathering together in a central location remains a hot button topic — not just for churches, but for sporting events, school rooms, restaurants and more. So, how does a church handle this situation in a manner that puts the attendees at ease?
Raley said he and his staff have tried to approach their plan by focusing on three primary areas: (1) the health concerns of all attendees; (2) the function of the church, and (3) the optics of the situation.
Regarding the health concerns of attendees, Raley said: “We want people to feel safe when they come back and to feel like the church has done everything it possibly can to keep everybody protected and protect their health.”
Proctor emphasized this by saying “Where people feel prepared for, they feel cared for.”
Proctor mentioned several crucial steps that churches can take to help ensure the safety of attendees, beginning with trying to limit close range exchanges.
“A lot of times churches have been designed intentionally to encourage gathering in lobbies and vestibules and (other) intersections,” Proctor said. “But now, we’re just trying to encourage the opposite behavior.”
Proctor said one of the ways in which churches can alleviate this problem is simply by planning ahead. Church leaders will need to communicate with their members, Proctor said, in order to ensure that “when people drive into the driveway, they already understand what’s expected of them. And we do that with mass communication. We do that with e-mail. We do that with social media. We do that with texts or any possible way we can communicate with people to let them know (what the guidelines will be).”
In regard to the function of the church, Raley encouraged pastors to examine the idea that “there is a difference between the function of the church and the methodologies of how we go about doing the function.” He said churches need to “make the function the priority rather than the methodology. … When we come back together, the function is worship — and we’re going to worship — but it’s going to look differently.”
Raley said virtually every aspect of ministry and worship, from small group gatherings to observing the ordinances to passing the offering plate, needs to be examined and carefully thought out.
On the topic of “optics” for church gatherings, Raley said, “What people see and what they interpret is going to be really crucial. If people perceive that some church leaders aren’t concerned about the reality of COVID-19, then (some attendees) probably won’t return.
“But if they feel a strong factor of safety,” he continued, “particularly those in vulnerable situations, (and) if they feel like we’ve done everything we can to help protect them, then at the time that they’re comfortable coming back, they’re going to do so.”
Proctor said the manner in which the “new rules” are applied should be considered.
“We need to be very careful as churches,” he said. “We do all things with love in the body of Christ, and so we don’t want to turn into enforcers, where we’re demanding that people do certain things and walk on certain arrows and behave in certain ways. We’re going to encourage them in love and in a spirit of worship.”
Questions about the “overall look” of worship services in the coming weeks are seemingly endless.
Where will the choir sit? Should there even be a choir? Should the worship team wear a mask? Should all attendees wear masks? Should the attendees sing?
Shepherd, worship and music specialist for the TBMB, fielded some of these questions from a worship leader’s perspective.
He said, for now at least, he would recommend going forward without a choir, noting that it would be nearly impossible to maintain social distancing rules with a large amount of people jammed together in a choir loft.
He also said worship teams should keep in mind that they are “modeling what we want our church members to be (doing). So, when our worship teams are on their platform, they need to be separated by at least six feet, in my opinion. And if the worship team is too big to do that, then we may have to rotate our worship teams so that we can fit in a comfortable manner on stage.”
“(Worship leaders) have to set the example for our people in terms of what we’re asking of them,” he added. “And it’s going to be hard because we want to still be hospitable and show love and care for the people and show our joy. But right now, the most loving thing we can do is to not touch them and hug them and be near them.”
Shepherd also mentioned that many medical experts have determined that singing is much like coughing in terms of the amount of germs that are spread. For this reason, Shepherd said he is encouraging worship teams to wear masks.
“Yes, masks are tough things to wear and it will be awkward singing in a mask,” he said. “But I think it will allow us to do some things with freedom and a little bit more caution and safety.”
Raley said roughly 35 percent of the members at his church indicated that they were planning to wear a facial mask when they returned to church based on a survey that was provided to church members,
Raley said this might look, and feel, strange at first, but will eventually become less so.
“The first time I wore a mask out in public, I felt really weird,” he said. “But now you see so many people doing it, so you feel like you’re part of something that everybody else is doing, too.”
Almost all church leaders agree that the church of the future is unlikely to look exactly like the church of the past.
Raley noted that the “March 8 Church” — referring to the last time that most churches in Tennessee held worship gatherings — cannot be compared to the church gatherings that will take place in the coming weeks and months.
“We would love to have a picture of the May 31 church or June 7 church or June 14 church … but none of us have a crystal ball and we don’t know what that church looks like,” he said. “The best we can do at this time is to begin to make plans anticipating what it might look like.”
Raley noted that information pertaining to COVID-19 is constantly being updated, along with policies and procedures related to the pandemic. For that reason, it is challenging to prepare.
“With our staff, I jokingly tell them that long range planning is six hours from now,” he said.
Young said pastors should use the experiences of the past to prepare for the future.
“I share with pastors that they should think about the car that they’re driving — it comes equipped with both a rear view mirror and a windshield and they both have a function,” Young said. “That rear view mirror helps you to back up and look where you’ve been, but it’s that windshield that you want to be looking through as you move forward. And so, as we began to look at that, I was trying to encourage them to begin to look ahead and to look forward to see where they could sense that God was taking them.”
LEARNING AND GROWING
The panelists were in agreement that there have been many positive developments even in the midst of the pandemic.
The heightened emphasis on online streaming, for instance, is one development that has clearly made a big impact across the nation. In some cases, churches are streaming online for the first time in the church’s history. In other cases, churches are putting more thought and effort into their online events. Those trends need to continue, the panelists said.
“The coronavirus has now made our online presence the front door of the church,” Raley said. “And that’s not just a worship service. It’s with Zoom groups or Facebook Live groups or other types of groups. And so, I see in the days ahead, when we do get to all come back together and gather, maybe we’ll not only have (groups) that are meeting in our church facility, but we’ll also have groups that are meeting virtually.”
He said online streaming of worship services can be an impactful part of ministry, and he hopes churches will continue to make it a priority.
Raley said churches don’t have to choose between having an online service or an in-person service.
“It is not going to be an ‘either-or’ situation,” he said. “It can be ‘both-and.’ ”
THE BIG PICTURE
Young noted some of the lessons that have been learned during the pandemic can be quite beneficial.
“One of the things that I think we’ve begun to learn is that we really can accomplish more if we cooperate with one another,” he said. “Through the midst of this, we have really seen individuals and we’ve seen churches, reach out and begin to cooperate with each other, share ideas, share thoughts, share resources.”
Young also said he has been encouraged by the selfless attitudes that have been displayed throughout the pandemic — and he hopes that spirit will remain prevalent long after the pandemic subsides.
“We’ve seen people mobilized to meet the needs of people in their community,” he said. “For us, as the church, (I hope we do) not lose the idea that we need to look beyond ourselves and look to the needs of others.”
Young also noted churches and church leaders have been open to new ideas and have been willing to adopt a “trial and error” approach to many facets of ministry. He said he hopes this will continue, too.
“(We need to always) stay in a constant learning curve,” he said. “We’ve been forced into a learning curve right now. Overnight, we were forced to learn things like livestreaming and online giving and Zoom Bible studies or whatever it might be. (Looking ahead), how much stronger can we emerge on the other side if we just choose to stay in a learning curve as we look at how our culture and our landscape is consistently changing?”