On May 16th, a federal court judge granted a two-week temporary court order to allow North Carolina churches to reopen, although Governor Cooper’s guidelines limited indoor gatherings to no more than ten individuals. This week, we look at how two local churches handled the decision of whether or not to hold in-person services.
“The biggest thing that influenced us was not the Federal Court ruling,” Pastor Michael Lopes said about the decision to reopen Grace Reformed Baptist Church with distancing precautions. “We had anticipated that there would be some limited capacity opening with Phase 2. When Governor Cooper changed his mind about the gathering sizes for Phase 2, churches weren’t included in that guidance, so we just went forward with our plan. The biggest decision-making factor for us was that we had been separate for 10 or 11 weeks. Given what we had read from the Centers for Disease Control, we really thought that we could meet in limited capacity and do so following all the recommended guidelines. We have a little team of medical professionals and a few of our deacons gave us recommendations on how to do this in the safest manner for everyone.”
Grace Reformed Baptist Church holds services at limited capacity, as Governor Cooper had hinted at the possibility of meeting at 20-25 percent of maximum capacity when he was planning Phase 2. The church split its members into four groups, giving room for potential visitors, and it rotates the groups through its two Sunday services, completing a full rotation over the course of two weeks.
“The maximum capacity of our auditorium is around 400 people,” Pastor Lopes said. “Even though there’s no limitation on churches, we decided that it would be safest for us to open slowly and carefully, like a dimmer switch instead of a light switch. We were very clear with people that if you feel for any reason that it’s unsafe, or if you are anyone in the vulnerable 65 and older population or have preexisting conditions, we encourage you not to come. We encourage you to follow your conscience in this matter.”
“We have special seating arrangements, so people aren’t just finding their own seats,” Pastor Lopes said. “We are making sure that there is more than six feet of distance between families. We only use one or two rooms of the church building and after people leave, there is a cleaning crew that scrubs it down immediately. You’re not allowed to enter the church building again once you leave the building. When the service is over, we dismiss people by row so they’re not clustering, and we direct them outside immediately.”
Singing has resulted in super-spreader events of the virus, so Grace Reformed requires masks to sing.
“The rationale behind that is from what we’ve read that singing projects more droplets than talking. We have a large supply of masks, so even if people come and don’t bring them, we have them,” Lopes said.
Grace Reformed has also opened its nursery during services, but implements a strict cleaning regimen. However, they have not had any children use the nursery to date.
“We’ve stressed to parents that it’s okay to bring their kids in the service, they don’t have to use the nursery. If they’re noisy, that’s OK. We love children. They are a blessing and we understand the circumstances,” Pastor Lopes said. “We have a really strict cleaning process for the nursery, they sanitize afterwards, and we removed a ton of toys that can transfer between kids. If any child or anyone in the child’s family has been exposed to the disease, they can’t come in.
“We opened the nursery because there are a lot of childcare operations open in our state, so we figured that if there’s a way that they can do it, there’s a way that we can do it,” he explained. “There are a lot of young parents and it’s been a hard time for them, so we figured some of them might need a nursery.”
For Pastor Lopes, the best part about in-person gatherings is its reflection of Heaven.
“The biggest thing I appreciate about gathering is what the Bible teaches about gathering, that it reflects Heaven,” Pastor Lopes said. “It encourages your hope to persevere and your faith in Christ. To love other people, there are things that you can do not in-
person, but there are so many things you can’t do unless you’re in-person.”
“We wanted to be careful to make sure that people knew that our online services were not a substitute for in-person gatherings,” Pastor Lopes said. “They were necessary, because we wanted to love our neighbors and protect our fellow citizens and we couldn’t gather. We didn’t do things exactly the same, the order of service was different. We still had some level of music, but it was different, there were not as many songs. We would reference that this was a broadcast, not a church service.”
However, although Pastor Lopes does not consider online services to be a substitute, he expressed gratitude for the ability to have live broadcasts.
“We’re thankful that we have the capacity to broadcast, and though the people of the church aren’t together, they’re still hearing the same preaching,” Lopes said. “They’re together in the sense that they’re still reflecting on the same Word, they’ve heard the same sermon, and they’re meditating on the same things.”
Grace Reformed has found ways to maintain their connection to the Mebane community.
“There are various ministries that we’re involved in, like mentoring at the local elementary school, and collaborating with a few nursing homes,” Pastor Lopes said. “We have called those people on the phone to make sure that they have all the groceries that they need and that they’re OK and have someone to talk with. More organically, we’ve encouraged people as they go on walks to make sure that their neighbors are OK.”
Pastor Lopes has found encouragement in the response of the congregation to the pandemic.
“I’m encouraged by how respectful our people have been in terms of trusting leadership,” Pastor Lopes said. “In a congregation of a large size, you have a people with a spectrum of opinions on the pandemic, like on how and when we should open. In general, all of our people have been very respectful in loving one another despite their opinions. I’ve also been encouraged by how much our people really do love one another. They really want to come back together. I haven’t noticed a transition to thinking, ‘Oh, we could just do everything online.’ People really want to be together still. It’s meaningful that they have real relationships because of Jesus Christ, and that hasn’t changed in this pandemic.”