MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 12th of May, 2020. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we’re so glad you are! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: reopening churches.
As you just heard, more and more states are announcing plans to reopen. That includes restaurants, retail outlets, and churches. But that doesn’t mean Christians will start meeting together again right away.
REICHARD: Pastors must consider the needs of their entire flock, including those at most risk for complications. WORLD reporter Anna Johansen talked to several church leaders across the country about their reopening dilemmas.
ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Georgia was one of the first states to start lifting restrictions on businesses: Bowling alleys, dine-in restaurants, movie theaters. As things started opening back up, John Crotts had one main question: What about churches?
CROTTS: You’ve got different people hearing different things are interpreting things differently. So we have a pretty wide array, even in our own church family, of what they think we should do.
Crotts is the senior pastor of Faith Bible Church just outside Atlanta. As he and the church staff work out strategies to reopen, they’re encouraging members to be gracious to each other.
CROTTS: Some are more eager, of course, to be back together with no restrictions, others they’re very content to sit tight at home for now.
Faith Bible Church is still live-streaming its Sunday services. But the past few weeks, the church has started allowing a few more people into the building: Church members with a last name that starts with A, B, or C, could come the first week. D through G were invited the next. Ushers blocked off rows so families could space out.
CROTTS: People were very well behaved. They did their best in this difficult time.
The sanctuary seats 500. About 50 people showed up last week. But some people who were invited didn’t come. Crotts says they just didn’t feel comfortable gathering in person, but he thinks that will change.
CROTTS: They kind of see okay, yeah, this is going pretty well. I appreciated what one member of our church said to me this week. She said, Just seeing more people in the video was so encouraging and gave her hope. Yes, we are going to be able to gather again soon.
But some Georgia pastors say “soon” is too ambitious. Last week, a group of 15 pastors in Macon, Georgia gathered to protest the state’s reopening plans. They wore face masks during interviews with local media outlet 13WMAZ News.
GEORGIA PASTOR: I plead the blood of Jesus. But I also exercise common sense.
They insist it’s irresponsible to reopen churches at this point.
GEORGIA PASTOR: We’d love to go to church. But we actually would like to keep people alive long enough so that we can save their souls.
In California, church gatherings are still banned under the state’s emergency orders. But some evangelical leaders are making plans to hold in-person services anyway.
John Jackson is the president of William Jessup University in Rocklin, California. He says churches should be careful, but that physically gathering together is not optional.
JACKSON: We have a Biblical mandate to worship, a Biblical mandate to gather.
Jackson put together a set of guidelines he hopes churches will follow as they begin to gather in person. Start with drive-in services. Then move to small groups, maybe 25 percent of the building’s capacity.
JACKSON: We’re not suggesting people be radicals and revolutionaries and you know, disregard government outlines, we’re just saying, look, if the grocery store in your community can operate with protocols, then you can operate in your church with protocols.
Samuel Rodriguez is a California pastor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He worked with Jackson on those guidelines.
RODRIGUEZ: The spiritual health of a community is equally as important as the physical, mental, and economic health of a community.
Rodriguez says right now, California Governor Gavin Newsom is lumping churches in with large sporting events and concerts. That means churches wouldn’t be able to open until late July or August. Rodriguez says that’s asking too much.
RODRIGUEZ: With or without Governor Newsom’s blessing, come the first week of June, we will open up our buildings to a maximum of 25 percent building capacity with every CDC recommendation in place.
He hopes that won’t spark conflict with the government, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take.
RODRIGUEZ: My fear is that if we don’t come back together and wait for governors to give us the green light, we are in essence affirming the idea that churches and the spiritual health of a community is not important when it is essential.
In Texas, churches were never forced to close. But most chose to anyway.
David Adams is a pastor at First Baptist Church in Pearland, Texas. As his church moves forward with plans to gradually reopen, he wants to be especially mindful of at-risk members.
ADAMS: I think we have to be cautious as pastors not to simply encourage those at risk to stay at home while everyone else gets to come together.
It’s easy for people who are older or who have health issues to feel isolated from the church body.
ADAMS: If we are encouraging them to stay away from the early services, then it’ll be imperative on the church body that we go above and beyond in reminding them that they are part of the church family not just asking them to tune in online while everybody else gets the joy of being in person.
Pastors everywhere are grappling with how to fulfill spiritual needs, maintain physical safety, and respect state authority all at once. But regardless of when or how, John Crotts says every member of the church body should look forward to being reunited.
CROTTS: I’ve tried to say every week on livestream, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. The church is supposed to be together. We thank God for the technology allowing us to do it over the internet. But we can’t wait to be back together again as a church family.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.