While most churches are hesitant to hold services physically again for fear of spreading the COVID-19 virus and having to comply with "stay-home" orders prohibiting large gatherings, some churches started to hold services onsite by following safety rules.
Some of these churches were Easthaven Baptist Church in Kalispell, Montana. and Country Estates Baptist Church in Oklahoma. The churches practiced safety guidelines and adjusted their routine and had onsite services for the first time in nearly two months.
Montana is one of the states that is lightly impacted by COVID-19. Montana has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates of any state, with 457 confirmed cases and only 16 deaths in a statewide population of 1.07 million, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The State's "stay-home" order was being lifted starting April 26.
"Watching them serve on Sunday reminded me of the 'Be Our Guest' scene from Beauty and the Beast and the joy that everyone from the candlestick to the teapot felt to be able to serve once again," Pastor Barber of Easthaven Baptist Church said. "There was a palpable joy on the face of those who found that outlet for service again."
One of the church members, Deacon Gary Edwards, was happy to be in the service again at First Farmersville. He shared, "Sheltering at home to a deacon is like a fish on the bank," Edwards said. "We have to get back in the water as quickly as possible!"
But church service didn't operate as usual. Church organized safety plans in consultation with the city's emergency management personnel. Pastor Barber mentioned that the church only used one entry point, implemented social distancing intervals, asked the greeters to manage foot traffic, and created overflow areas in the gymnasium. Some church members volunteered to sanitize the sanctuary and gym facilities between the church's two services, and they only allowed one household at a time when using the bathroom.
They also make sure to achieved social distancing by removing every other row of chairs and maintaining six feet between family units on each row. "Greeters and ministers at all services wore masks, doors were propped open to avoid touchpoints, central baskets were stationed for offerings and response cards and families entered and were seated one at a time."
"'Normal' life for our church involves a small army of greeters, teachers, ushers, choir members, instrumentalists, tech crew members and others. For each of those believers, their weekly avenue of service is a gift that they are giving to the Lord," Barber said. "It can quickly become a part of one's identity as a disciple. Closing the church campus has prevented them from serving in that way. ... Yes, people need to worship, but I had underestimated their spiritual hunger to serve."
Members complied with social distancing, with combined attendance for both services about 120, Barber said, compared to a pre-COVID-19 average attendance of 350. Most of those in high-risk categories stayed home, with five or six members in vulnerable populations attending.
"The majority of them stayed home and have communicated that they'll probably stay home a couple of more weeks," Holland said, "and then somewhere around the 17th or possibly the 24th, as long as the [COVID-19 case] numbers continue to go down, they'll probably start coming back."
Easthaven Church is phasing in regular weekday activities and gradually will start to reduce safety layers on Sundays. Next Sunday, greeters will not wear masks, but social distancing will continue.