Churches rethink in-person worship

BRIAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: restricting worship.

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an order earlier this month that banned singing in church. Several congregations have sued to block the order. They say the ban is unconstitutional, in violation of their First Amendment rights.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Churches don’t want officials dictating what they can and can’t do during worship. 

Yet some pastors have concluded meeting together in person is too risky. Some have even announced they won’t be meeting in person again until next year!

WORLD reporter Myrna Brown has our story.

AMBI: LIVE CHOIR PERFORMANCE: Sing it, we will not be moved…

MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: On February 9th as many as 300 men, women, teens, and children sang shoulder to shoulder, packed in a choir stand that spilled into the pulpit.

SOUND: That’s what we’re here to do today. To thank God for 75 years of ministry. 

Derek Allen was just four months into his new role as pastor of First Baptist Tillmans Corner. 

ALLEN: You think about what all I need to accomplish in the first year. Leading through a pandemic was not what I thought would be on the radar.

But like many pastors around the country, in mid-March Allen began leading his Mobile, Alabama congregation in online-only services. Two months later, the state of Alabama began relaxing its COVID-19 restrictions. Then on May 17th, First Baptist Tillmans Corner once again began meeting in person.

ALLEN: Excited, yes. But, overwhelmed emotionally is kind of more how we felt. We had lost something not gathering together and we knew it. So many people were fighting back tears. Others were not fighting back tears. They were just openly crying, you know with the emotion of it all.  

Before reopening that Sunday, Pastor Allen says his staff followed all state and C-D-C ordered protocols. But he says it wasn’t gathering on Sunday that brought the virus to his church.

ALLEN: It was during the week and it was a volunteer who was helping paint some rooms.  

Pastor Allen says while serving at the church, an infected volunteer had contact with a staff member. Once that volunteer began showing symptoms, both were put in quarantine and isolated. The rest of the church staff, including Pastor Allen, also got tested and put themselves in quarantine. But by then, it was too late. 

ALLEN: Another staff member was not feeling well. And then another staff member and another staff member and then the original staff member’s test came back as positive and then it just kind of started spreading so quickly.

Thirty-two church members, including several staff have either been diagnosed with the virus or are experiencing severe symptoms.

ALLEN: I felt helpless because I knew I was going to get another phone call. I knew another text message was coming. 

AMBI FACEBOOK POST: Hey everybody, this is Pastor Derek. We are moving back to an online format…

On July 1st, Pastor Allen announced plans to go back to online-only services. 

ALLEN: If I could go back, I would have isolated all of our staff members, including myself, gone to an online-only service, even though I found out on Saturday that one of our staff members had symptoms and we had to make a decision pretty quickly. I think I would have gone ahead and said, let’s do online only, even tomorrow and just make sure that this thing is not spreading. 

AMBI OUTDOOR SERVICE: Holy, holy, holy…

Six hours north of Mobile, a worship team sings from a small wooden platform, surrounded by trees and patches of grass. Families sit 6 feet apart in lawn chairs and on blankets. 

AMBI OUTDOOR SERVICE: It seems like one of the things we’re going to be doing for a while is this..

Grace New Hope Church is about an hour northeast of Atlanta. Pastor Randy Rainwater says even after the state of Georgia began reopening at the end of April, he waited an additional two months to offer in-person services.

RAINWATER: We had a member of our church that was 57, in good health, runs four or five days a week, that died in seven days. I feel like we wanted to come up with a plan that we thought was safe, based on what the medical personnel that are a part of our church were telling us in correlation with the C-D-C.  

AMBI ZOOM CALL: Hello Grace New Hope. This is Robert Sowa. I have a P.H.d in microbiology..  I’m Scott Keller. I’m a family physician in Lilburn, Georgia, My name is Noah Fouts. I’m a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner.

Pastor Rainwater asked doctors and nurses from Grace New Hope Church to come together online to answer questions from the congregation.

AMBI ZOOM CALL: Most of you are not used to wearing masks – 12 hour shifts. For teachers who are going to have to do it, start doing it now…

RAINWATER: We got those people together and talked with them about what we should be doing moving forward.

Back in Alabama, Pastor Allen says they’re moving forward with a growing perspective.

ALLEN: God doesn’t waste suffering. Every suffering that comes into our life is a tool He’s using to accomplish a greater good.  And I see that lived out not only in history, but in my own life, it’s just another validation of what God’s Word says. That God is working for our good and His glory, even in the middle of suffering.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Myrna Brown in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Derek Allen, pastor of First Baptist Tillmans Corner in Mobile, Alabama.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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