Editor’s note: This story was updated May 1.
By Lonnie Wilkey and Chris Turner
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — The question most often asked by church leaders today is simple: When can we gather again as a congregation? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.
A good criterion was suggested recently by Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee. His answer to the question is: “As soon as we can as safely as we can.”
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, agrees with Floyd’s assessment. (video) He cautioned, however, that “doing it as safely as we can may not mean doing it as soon as we would like.”
During his weekly update to Tennessee Baptists on April 29, Davis encouraged churches to continue doing “the best you can where you are with what you have.” He suggested that church leadership get together (via phone or internet) and make plans that will keep their people safe.
“We trust our church leaders and our churches,” Davis said. “The best place to formulate missions and ministry strategy is right on the frontlines of the local church.”
Tennessee governor Bill Lee addressed live person services in his April 29 media briefing. He stressed that church services have not been closed during the pandemic, though he did encourage churches to not have in person meetings when he issued stay at home orders in March. “First amendment rights are incredibly important,” Lee said.
The governor applauded the efforts of Tennessee churches that have found alternative ways to meet. “The faith community is incredibly important, even more so in the midst of crisis.”
Lee said his office will release guidelines to assist churches as they reopen but in the meantime he encouraged churches to continue to use drive in and online services.
Under the guidelines in Lee’s latest Executive Order 30 released earlier this week, it specifies that social gatherings of 10 or more remain prohibited. Social gatherings, according to the order include “overnight summer youth camps.”
In addition, the order states that “religious services, rites or gatherings, weddings and funerals are not social gatherings” and nothing in this order “mandates closure of a place of worship, or prohibits weddings or funerals as a matter of law. However, places of worship are strongly encouraged to utilized virtual or online services and gatherings and strongly encouraged to follow guidelines to be issued by the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives regarding any in-person services that can be conducted safely.
“Further, it is strongly encouraged that the public celebration component of weddings and funerals be postponed or attended only by close family members.”
The order also reminded everyone: that “staying at home when possible and eliminating unnecessary activity is still critically important to maintaining a healthy and economically vibrant Tennessee.”
Based on the governor’s remarks on April 29, Davis said “our position has not changed” since last week.
The following five points complement what the governor says and should help churches come to a decision about what “quickly and safely” mean for them, Davis said.
- Ultimately it is a local church decision (both in terms of autonomy and the church’s context relative to the pandemic).
- Be prudent and make decisions based on the best available information for your area.
- Consult with local health officials in making a decision as they will have the best understanding of area risks.
- Consider the potential risks to members and visitors, especially those who might fall into high-risk categories.
- Be a good neighbor and a good example to your community (What would it look like if you’re meeting and the community is locked down?).
Davis said the Gathering Together Again document (https://www.tnbaptist.org/reopen) will be updated with the latest information and made available to churches as soon as possible. He also noted the TBMB hosted a webinar on reopening churches on April 30. The video of the webinar is now available at https://vimeo.com/413797529. B&R