I rejoiced when they said unto me, “Let us go up to the house of the LORD!”
- Psalm 122:1
So are you ready to go back to Church? This may not be the right question to be asking. It might be better to ask, “Is the Church ready for people to come back?” The CDC recently released interim guidance for houses of worship planning to reopen. This can be found at the CDC website - CDC.gov and in the search box type in “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith”. This guidance was published May 28 and as it is interim guidance, we know it will likely change before final guidelines are issued. In the meantime, there are several questions that need to be asked and answered to see if we are “ready” to start in person worship services again. Some of these have already been addressed by the ministry and executive boards, others will be taken up at our next meeting a few weeks before we reopen.
The first thing to note about guidance - whether from CDC, Governor Murphy, District or Synod - is that every congregation is unique and not all guidelines will apply to all congregations equally. The first thing that needs to be established is how high on the risk scale does Redeemer fall. Is our congregation mostly older members (55+) and/or comprised of people with underlying risk factors. The average age of those in the pews prior to Covid-19 was 61.3 years old. MOST of our members are in the “high risk” category, so we would want to be more cautious than a congregation of fit and healthy 30-40 year olds. With a vaccine 6-18 months away, and no effective treatment for Covid-19 yet (though some drugs are showing some promise), gathering for worship to lead to more harm than good.
Also within our demographics, do we have enough low-risk people to handle what would need to be done to safely reopen? Someone will need to clean and sterilize the facility after each worship service - are they sufficiently low risk as to not get infected / hospitalized in carrying out this function. Do we have enough gloves and / or other PPE for those tasked with preparing and/ or cleaning the facility? Someone will need to handle the offering envelopes and communion-ware. Greeters, ushers, and choirs will likely not be part of worship in the foreseeable future - but more on worship changes next week.
We also need to consider our building / physical plant. Do we have enough space to rope off every other row of pews and establish 6ft of distance between family groups within pews? Given we normally worship 50 in a sanctuary with seating for 150, this shouldn’t be a problem for us. One of the guidelines calls for “unidirectional flow of foot traffic”. In other words, are our entrances and exits set up such that we can have one-way movement of people entering and exiting the building? Redeemer’s sanctuary is not really built for that, but by staggering entrance and exit times, we can make sure people can safely enter and exit the sanctuary - it just may take a bit longer to get everyone in and out. Also recommended is signage showing flow of traffic and postings about Covid-19 and its symptoms and where to go for testing. That can be easily achieved.
The next set of questions has to do with worship particulars and we’ll address this more in next week’s blog. Can we worship without hymnals? (paper is very difficult to disinfect) Can we worship without bulletins? Should we or should we not sing? Singing apparently produces more “respiratory droplets” which is the chief way Covid-19 spreads. Is it worship without hymnody? Can we do a contact-less offering (no passing of a plate)? What about Communion - can you take Communion in a mask? How do we take attendance in case contact-tracing becomes necessary?
The next series of questions has to do with providing for proper hygiene and sanitation. Should the bathrooms be open during worship? The best suggestion to date is “do your business before you come” and keep the bathrooms closed. They would need to be re-sanitized after each user which would be difficult as worship is happening. What about frequently touched surfaces like door handles? Maybe we should just leave the doors open and take our chances of a squirrel running in. BTW I now have Ray Stevens’ “The Great Mississippi Squirrel Revival” running through my head - you should YouTube it if you want a good laugh. Do we have enough hand sanitizer for the expected number of worshipers? Where do we put it? This may lead to a new church tradition not entirely unlike having a trough of holy water to use upon entrance to the sanctuary. Should the congregation purchase masks for any who may show up without one? Will we usher out anyone who refuse to keep their mask on? What else might the church have to do to create a “safe space” and who will be tasked with making it so?
So, are you ready to come back to church? If you’re like me, you have been itching for the day when our exile from the Lord’s house is at an end and God’s family can gather around His table of grace again. Once Gov. Murphy lifts the restriction on gatherings of up to 50 in enclosed areas I will very likely respond the way the Psalmist did as cited above. But is the church ready for you to come back? Well, we’re working on it. We hope to have all these (and many other) questions resolved before Gov. Murphy lifts executive order 107 - or the NJ Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional. It is our hope to go above and beyond the minimal guidance from the CDC and other authorities so we can worship and enjoy at least seeing each other (while staying 6 ft, apart) once more. Keep checking out this blog and other announcements on our website and make sure your Redeemer emails aren’t going to your spam folder as we’ll try to keep you up to date as conditions change.
As one of our old hymns says, “God be with you til we meet again”. Remember we have Facebook live at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and we alternate Zoom services and regular podcasts (podcasts are also available Zoom weeks). I look forward to being with you again soon (hopefully).
- Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.