By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
As churches reopen, other larger gatherings are also being held. Gov. Bill Lee’s latest executive order issued on May 15 offered guidelines to facilitate the safe reopening of larger, non-contact attractions on or after May 22.
Six counties — Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan — may continue to follow individual, county-specific reopening plans created in consultation with state and local health departments, the executive order noted.
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board is proud of how churches have responded during the COVID-19 crisis.
He noted in his weekly update to Tennessee Baptists on May 20 that Tennessee has had more than 300 reported deaths due to the virus. “I believe that had our churches not gone into new modes of worship virtually, the death toll would have been much, much higher,” he observed.
“In churches all over the state — both in the metropolitan and rural areas — Tennessee Baptists have done their part in battling this invisible enemy called the coronavirus,” Davis said.
Davis’ message to churches that have not reopened is the same one he has reiterated for weeks — come back as quickly as possible with care and caution and a note of celebration. He reminded Tennessee Baptists that a “place is not sacred. It’s the people and the mission that are sacred.”
Churches that began earlier in May tried to do so with caution and respect for the varying views of church members.
Chris Thomas, pastor of New Horizon Baptist Church in LaFollette noted that he had some members who felt the church “waited too long and they were eager to return” while others felt “the return was too soon and too aggressive.”
Thomas acknowledged that the differences in view made it awkward. “The fact that many do not feel safe coming back feels like you are having Christmas without all of your family there.
“As a pastor you have to embrace the differences, love everyone, be encouraging and be positive,” Thomas added.
Steve Tiebout, pastor of The River Church in Cookeville also related that he had members who wanted to “be back in worship” while others were not quite ready and wanted to continue watching services online.
As people returned for services, the turnout was about 40 percent of attendance prior to COVID-19, Tiebout said. While he and church leaders had hoped for a higher attendance the first week back, “it accomplished what we wanted to accomplish” by meeting the needs of those who wanted to regather and those who were not ready to return in person, he noted.
“This is a guilt-free zone,” the Cookeville pastor said, stressing that the church does not want members to feel bad if they don’t attend or like they’re better Christians if they do attend. “Every family has to make their own decisions depending on their families’ medical situations,” Tiebout added.
Todd Stinnett, pastor of Black Oak Heights Baptist Church in Knoxville, said church members were glad to reopen once they received clearance from the health department.
“Some have not felt comfortable in returning to in-person worship and we have made it very clear that attendance is ultimately an issue to be decided by each person and the Lord,” he said.
“We support those who have elected to return and we’ve shown just as much support to those who have decided to stay home,” Stinnett added.
Every pastor interviewed by the Baptist and Reflector indicated their church tried to follow government or local government guidelines.
“We provided masks and sanitizer on the table in the foyer and our people observed social distancing instructions, maintaining at least six feet of separation,” said Jim Muston, pastor of Cordova Baptist Church, Cordova. He added that the church did not have greeters at the door, pass out bulletins or pass offering plates.
He observed that members understood the need for masks and social distancing. “We have become accustomed to this practice over the past seven weeks,” Muston noted.
Stinnett said his members accepted the masks and social distancing “since they know it is for the general welfare” of everyone.
“Distancing can be more of a challenge since most people are naturally social, but we have not clearly seen anyone violating the policies that we have set in place,” he said.
Ricky Holloway, music and Sunday School director at Essary Springs Baptist Church, a small rural congregation in Pocahontas, said their members wore masks and observed social distancing by blocking off every other pew.
Holloway said some of the members don’t like to wear a mask, “but were were cautious,” he acknowledged.
Though most every church is beginning only with worship services, Hopewell Baptist Church in Savannah is an exception. The church began Bible Fellowship (small groups or Sunday School) groups on May 3 and didn’t begin worship until May 24, said pastor Derek Westmoreland.
Because each group met on a weeknight and in one of the two largest rooms on campus (sanctuary and fellowship hall), they had plenty of room to observe social distancing, he added.
Westmoreland believes the church opened with the small groups at the appropriate time. In addition their planned opening for worship on May 24 coincided with Gov. Lee’s executive order on May 15.
“We believe that was another confirmation that the Lord is guiding us in what we do, how we do it and when we do it,” Westmoreland added.
As churches begin to reopen, several pastors shared advice based on their experiences.
First and foremost, I would show support to any pastor or church that is attempting to make these decisions in a manner that is compliant with local authorities and sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit,” Stinnett said.
He observed that pastors and churches have taken many different approaches during these unprecedented times.
“Our church affirms the autonomy of every local church and our liberty in Christ as followers of Jesus,” he said. “That said, I would encourage pastors and churches to return to worship.
“People are desiring an opportunity to return to fellowship, and if we can provide them a lawful way to do so I think it behooves us to provide those in-person opportunities,” Stinnett said.
“My only word of advice is to pray and seek leadership from the Lord,” Muston said. “If I were pastoring a large church, I would not have reopened at this time under the present guidelines.
“How can you stand at the door and turn people away when you reach the maximum capacity? I was confident that our numbers would be low enough to fall within the restrictions. I did not come to this decision easily, but after much prayer and consultation with other pastors and church leaders,” he added.