Drive through any residential or commercial district on a Sunday morning and an irregular pattern emerges. Some church buildings have parking lots full or half-full; some have a smattering of cars (the administrative staff creating the live-streaming service); and some are stark-bare, lights off, no one inside.
Yet congregants continue worshipping. Some sing, some recite litanies; others read scripture and/or pray. As reported last fall: the building is closed but the church is very much alive, open and well. Pastors and church administrators (paid or volunteer) struggle with the decision of when, how or if to re-open their buildings for worship service.
Some churches barely closed their doors, like Berean Fellowship Church in Kansas City. They closed in March but resumed in-person worship near the end of June, when the state moved to pandemic reopening Phase Three. Pastor Adrion Roberson says, “We are a small enough congregation in a large enough space that we can have social distancing. The church plans to continue their online ministry. “If [the state goes] back to Phase Two, we’ll adjust.”
The state has (and individual counties have) gone in and out of phases but Berean Fellowship’s building has remained open. “We have about a third of our usual Sunday attendees who worship in person,” says Roberson. “We make sure those who continue on line feel comfortable in their decision.” He says, of those who choose to return to the building, “We haven’t had to visit anyone in the hospital (due to COVID) nor pray anyone through it.”
Kansas City Second Baptist Church has only allowed 15% of building capacity, with most of their congregation watching services online. But now, the congregation is looking forward to coming back to the building.
Pastor Joe Callahan said he predicts that when the church begins to welcome higher capacities, they won’t have a problem increasing their numbers. “We’ve gotten comfortable not coming to church,” Callahan said. “Now we’re realizing we’re missing it.”
Callahan says Second Baptist Church will allow more of the congregation to come back to the building once Covid-19 vaccinations become more widely available to the general public.
While the Covid-19 vaccine is now being administered to at-risk populations in Kansas City, he says church may never go back to the way it was. They’ll still take precautions like social distancing, have shorter services and ask those at-risk to stay home.
Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston suspended in-person church activities last March and just reopened for in-person worship on Jan. 24. Increased availability of both testing and the vaccine contributed to their decision. “With social distancing we have seating for about 90,” says Deb Roth, a member of the praise team. “About 100 showed up the first Sunday, we used our overflow.” She says fewer attended the second week but the turnout was still strong. The congregation continues to offer live-streaming services for those who prefer them.
Pastor Charles Bond at Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City also agrees that church congregations are getting too comfortable going to church from home. While he sees that his congregation’s older generation are wanting to come back, he says he anticipates a two-fold problem when they begin allowing more of their members to attend the service live.
One side of the problem is the anxiety the older, at-risk generation. They’re concern about whether it’s safe enough might keep then from coming back to the building. The other part of the problem is convincing the younger generation, who are used to doing everything on devices, to come back.
“With younger generations, it’s going to take some convincing and conditioning,” Bond said. “Just like we conditioned people to stay home, there’s going to need to be a reconditioning of getting them to come back.”
Knowing how important in-person fellowship is to the church, Bond and his leadership team have begun planning to slowly increase the number of members back into the building through spring. Then he’s planning to have a big Homecoming Service in August all while continuing to enforce masks and social distancing.
In Wichita, Dr. Cynthia Wolford, pastor of Greater Faith Christian Church, has not yielded to pressure to re-open the building. Several members of her congregation have contracted COVID and many members, including herself, belong to at-risk groups. “Our low-tech approach to worship (using a conference telephone line with no live-streaming) opens our worship to people across the country, not just our rostered membership, says Wolford. “I’m excited to see increased testing and the vaccine coming, but I don’t yet have discernment about re-opening our building.”
For those, such as Pastor Bond, who are navigating through the desires of some members to return and other members to remain virtual, there is a virtual resource coming later this month where all are welcome. The Center for Anabaptist Leadership and Learning (CALL) at Hesston College will host a special Weekend College event, “What If They Don’t Come Back? Pastoring through COVID.” The virtual event is for pastors, congregational leaders and conference leaders, but open to all, will be held on Sat., Feb. 20, 9 to 10:30 a.m. Presenter will be David Fitch, the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, Chicago, IL. You can register online @ www.hesston.edu/weekendcollege.
Jazzlyn Johnson contributed to this story