Churches welcome congregations back for Sunday services

| July 3, 2020

For months places have been closed, including churches, and it hasn’t been easy. Dave Boots, pastor of the Coshocton Church of the Nazarene revealed that within the first couple of weeks of the pandemic he was frustrated, “People were getting scared, attendance was going down, and I was getting frustrated.” Similarly, Pastor Mike Jansen of the Coshocton Christian Tabernacle said that “Our church, because churches were exempt, we decided to stay open, but we dropped to a core of 10 percent of our population. Since we were averaging around 30 people in the services instead of the regular 160, we went to online services.”

Both the Nazarene church and New Life Ministries also chose to hold services virtually and utilized Facebook Live and other means to broadcast services and maintain contact with their congregations during the closure. Each church did what they could to stay connected and encouraged, however. Some pastors and their church staff sent letters, emails, newsletters, weekly bulletins and made phone calls. Pastor Boots and the staff at the Nazarene church, for instance, went through their church directory and made calls daily in an effort to ensure that most, if not all, regular attendees were contacted at least once during the two months they were closed.

The closure also presented each church with the opportunity to be creative. The Tabernacle, for example, started a daily online devotional and began holding parking lot services where church and community members gathered in the parking lot and participated in the service from the safety of their vehicles. The Tabernacle also chose to view the closure as a gift to do some work in the church and thus began some construction, made storage rooms and repainted the sanctuary. In addition, the Nazarene Church utilized the virtual meeting app, Zoom, so that Sunday School classes could continue to meet, and Pastor Boots said it was so successful that it has continued even after reopening.

“What really encouraged me, even when we couldn’t have church services is people continued to support the church financially. I know we support our missionaries on a monthly basis and some churches had people stop giving. The finances that has continued to come in has allowed us to keep supporting our missionaries and pay the bills. I don’t harp on money, but I am thankful people have continued to give and support in that area” said Mark Granger, pastor of New Life Ministries.  Likewise, Pastor Jansen shared that “finances are down a little bit but the special offering has been off the charts.”

Pastor Boots shared that the biggest encouragement he got during this time was “when the Lord put on me a spirit of rest. Resting in peace in the Lord calmed my frustration and I went from five and half hours of sleep a night to more around eight.”

Pastor Jansen expressed that his wife, family and church board were a huge encouragement to him. “I am really blessed to have a group of people who we have a lot of fun together, we respect each other, and who are problem solvers that love the Lord. One of the benefits of going to church is that you get to do life with others, and they won’t let you stay in the doldrums.”

Jansen further expressed, “It is always discouraging to look at the world around you. The news media pumps you so full of fear and concern and distrust. But, for a Christian it’s like, ‘oh well, I lost my business, but I still have God.’ It’s all about your worldview. If your worldview is such as ‘God is in control’, then you’ve settled in your heart that God’s got this and you.” Jansen continued, admitting, “Sure, you’re going to have bad days, but when you settle in your heart that God is in charge, and if at the end of the day you really are trusting the Lord with everything – your health, your finances, then you don’t have any worries. There have been times where I have paused but not a moment when I was worried about getting Covid-19. It’s important to remember who you are and who’s you are.”

Making the choice to close, conduct services virtually, and finding creative ways to stay connected and encouraged aren’t the only challenges these pastors and churches have faced the last few months. Deciding when to open, how to make church goers feel comfortable and how to keep everyone safe once the door reopened were some of the biggest challenges.

The Nazarene church held a service on May 31 for graduates and their families. Then, they reopened for 50 people on Sunday, June 7. On June 21 they opened to 100 people. Pastor Boots stated, “we had over 50 people our first two Sundays and then over 100 the other Sundays. I’ve noticed people want to get back to church, and we’ve had several visitors come in because some churches still aren’t open.”

In preparation for reopening, the Nazarene church hired Covic Cleaning to come in and clean the whole building, hired a new janitor, have been seating every other row to promote the practice of social distancing and have been trying to dismiss in groups. “We’ve told people if they don’t feel comfortable with coming then they don’t need to. People are welcome to wear masks if they want, and I think a handful of people do. We want people to feel as comfortable as possible and to do what they are comfortable with. I’ve noticed a lot more people are washing their hands, trying to keep from touching their faces and not shaking hands. That’s probably been the biggest change I’ve noticed is that people aren’t shaking hands, and that most of the conversations have been taking place outside,” said Boots.

Similarly, the Tabernacle reopened for Sunday morning services on June 7 as well. “The question we asked ourselves when preparing to open was ‘how can we continue to provide an opportunity to meet together while still using the wise recommended safety precautions?’,” said Jansen. “I took out about 150 seats. We were blessed to be able to do that. We have chairs and are pretty flexible and able to set up for social distancing. We’ve opened up all the doors to the sanctuary so that people don’t have to come in contact with a door. We never mandated masks but told people to do what they felt comfortable with doing. For some people, Sunday mornings at church are the only contact they have with people during the week. We are a friendly church, love seeing each other and are very talkative,” shared Jansen. While the church has not been doing a meet and greet in their services, the greeters at the Tabernacle are still greeting people and saying “hi”. “We’ve also changed how we do communion. Before folks would come up and share in communion and now we have individually packaged communion.”

Pastor Jansen also shared that “attendance has been lighter since reopening. We are probably running about 65-70 percent now. Some folks have not come back yet because they don’t feel safe, and typically, in the summer, attendance goes down because of vacations so that has been a challenge as well. However, I think attendance will come back slowly.”

Pastor Granger shared that his church reopened for Sunday morning services at the beginning of May. “We had the chairs divided up for social distancing for the first month but have put the chairs back up normal and people have been separating themselves how they feel comfortable.” A little over half of the regular attendees have returned to New Life, and Pastor Granger said they have seen an increase in attendance every Sunday. “Everyone’s afraid and everyone’s scared, and if people don’t feel comfortable to come to church, they don’t have to. You have to understand where people are coming from and be sensitive to that. But, we also know that when people stop going to church, some don’t come back. Not going makes it harder to come back. But, we have also seen some new people coming to church since reopening, and I’ve noticed that everyone is glad to be here,” said Granger.

Granger further shared that he’s noticed “the atmosphere of our services has been better than before because people really want to be there. People were being taught to be afraid of everything, and fear is a powerful weapon. We’re taught to be afraid of bees, storms, snakes, etcetera. I think everyone has heard that the Black Lives Matter movement says they are coming for churches next, but there is life in being involved in church, and there’s life in having a relationship with God. In everybody’s heart, they know the seriousness of the issues we are facing, and if anything is going to change what’s going on, it’s prayer. We are encouraging people to pray and get serious about their spiritual life.”

Granger confessed that he doesn’t know if churches will ever be the same again and admitted this could be a great time of discouragement for pastors and Christians as a whole. He shared that he and his church pray for all the pastors in the community and stated, “a lot of people have told me they don’t know if their church is going to reopen. When we were making decisions about opening, we knew we just had to pick a day and do it. The longer it takes to reopen the harder it is to get people to come back, and even though we can’t be controlled by numbers, it’s important to remember that every person matters to God.”

Jansen also shared a word of encouragement for people in general because this time has potentially been a time of turmoil for everyone. “Try to make a difference every day with the people you are doing life with. Keep the faith and be strong. If you’ve never encouraged the spiritual side of your life, this is the perfect time to get your spirit anchored in the Lord. For folks who gave up on church a long time ago because of getting angry with someone, with God or with something that happened, this is a time for you to give God another chance.”

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