We will rise up! One church’s work in welcoming members back

When the pandemic first slinked into the United States in March, and then slammed most of the nation broadside in April, we all watched the whole social and economic system of America come to a halt as we lost the wind in our sails. We seemed almost dead in the water. All I could think of that Sunday morning on March 15, 2020, was, “You have got to be kidding me”—what an implausible moment. (Hey, I had a pretty good sermon for that Sunday, but that was lost in the shuffle.)

We are months away from those March days, but we are still in the battle for the vessel we so desire to keep afloat. Today is a new day, a different day ,but still the Lord’s Day!!

Let me offer a few reflections on reopening face-to-face worship in northeastern Ohio: The church at Dover reopened her doors for “face/mask to face/mask worship on Sunday, June 21, after 14 weeks of sequestered church connections. The church has been very slow and deliberate with this reopening. We have not been in a rush and have allowed the data to dictate the pace. We placed simple guidelines that all adhered to including:

  • If you have a fever, or do not feel well. Stay home and watch the service online.
  • Mask wearing in worship and in the building is required. If you cannot abide by that, then stay home and watch the service online.
  • We will have no congregational or choral singing, only a soloist set apart from the gathering.
  • Social distancing will be applied in the sanctuary and throughout the building.
  • We replaced hand-shaking with smiling with our eyes, placing our hand on our heart and bowing.

The congregation responded like I thought they would, with much grace and level headedness. Early on in Ohio’s “shelter and place” orders, I recommended to the joint board that we forgo live worship services for the rest of spring. I told the joint board, as their pastor, our choices would be dictated by good information from the state of Ohio as well as county leadership. We would live by this anthem of service by continually returning to this standing statement, “We do what we do for now because we want to keep the flock safe.”

Our opening service unfolded as well as it could. Sixty-three sisters and brothers in Christ returned for worship. We kept the service upbeat and kindhearted. We had a “playful” spirit to the service and learned to try on this new look for worship like breaking in a brand-new pair of red “Chucks” on our feet.
As a pastor at Dover for the past 11 years, what I witnessed was much mutual respect and love offered to one another. People genuinely glowed and beamed just to “see” one another and be back in the sanctuary. I enjoyed witnessing the renewal of friendships. The service seemed delightful, just like watching children opening up their Christmas gift on Christmas Day. Eyes sparked. Conversation danced. The Spirit rose forth.

“Being back was so meaningful; a peace seemed to ascend over us as we entered the sanctuary once again. We sat quietly and let that peace (that passes all understanding) surround us again as the service began,” said member Tom Armstrong.

In worship, I paid particular attention to the liturgies and the words. We prayed together and used stronger prayers in our discipline as well. Our Children’s Moment included children standing up in the pews – to see the children’s message from afar. This summer are providing Summer Kid’s Kit, craft projects, stories, scripture lesson and questions tied directly to the worship theme of the day.

“The church reopening was important for our family because it meant reconnecting with our church family, although we still must maintain our distance. We got to see the smiling eyes of our friends we have been missing,” said member Hallie McGlumpy.

The Sunday morning service has no singing yet we feature the trademark of quality special music: two pieces like a solo, bells, instrumental and more for each service. On Wednesday evenings, we offer a second service for the summer called “Creating Sunday’s Worship.” We invite members to join the team that puts together the online service each week. This strategy helps solve a couple of issues. It spreads out the number of people at the Sunday service and accommodates another opportunity to worship for those constituents that might not like the larger crowd or were planning to be gone for the weekend.
In this service, people are invited to join us in the sanctuary as we assemble the pieces for the mosaic we call “worship” on Sunday’s YouTube service. A smaller crowd, yes, but an active group of loyal individuals who understand and appreciate the service and watching the team put the services together.

I like how one of our members, Karol Jones, responded to the reopening: “I had mixed feelings about our church reopening. It was good to see friends that I had not seen in many weeks, and it felt good to worship at church rather than on my couch (but I liked my pj’s!) It was odd to have to wear a mask but not difficult as I know there will come a time when we won’t need them. For me, the social distancing was hardest, not being able to sit close to people. But I just keep reminding myself that this too shall pass, and it feels good to be together as a congregation.”

Over and over again, I remind the church that this will last as long as the pandemic dictates. We do not control the timetable – the virus does. I encourage our flock to enjoy the time we have together and not to take this moment in the epidemic—worshiping face-to-face—for granted.

That may be one of the most important lessons we will learn from this whole ordeal: take nothing in God’s creation and humanity for granted. So we “rise up,” like Alicia Keyes so aptly put, to meet the challenges before our church, our nation and the world. We remain all in this together. n

The Rev. John Wallace is pastor of First Moravian Church of Dover, Ohio.