Churches reopen their doors with caution

Indiana churches have been closed for worship since the stay-at-home order began in late March.

Some closed even sooner in order to join the community in flattening the curve and to protect their most vulnerable church members.

Beginning May 4, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said places of worship could reconvene in most Indiana counties following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines and minimum health protocols.

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour suspended in-person worship March 18 in order to protect those most vulnerable who would likely show up to church and also to share the sacrifice with others in the community, like businesses, industries and restaurants, that also were closing, the Rev. Ralph Blomenberg said.

“We wanted others to know that we’re not oblivious to the idea that people can be involved in the transmission of this virus,” he said. “So we’ve tried to really be supportive of our local hospital and health care facilities as well as our business community.”

He said they didn’t want to disregard other closings and keep on going as if nothing was taking place.

“We feel like our community has done a good job of sharing this together, and I think the community can also share the joy of resuming some activities when they’re safe with each person making the decision that would be suitable for them,” he said. “Ever since we closed, we’ve been looking forward to having people come back to church again.”

That day finally came May 17 when Immanuel reopened its doors and welcomed congregation members.

“It’s limited in the sense that we’re following the physical distancing, the sanitization and have made a number of changes in conducting the service,” Blomenberg said. “There was a fair number of people that attended, and it worked out well.”

Blomenberg said they will still be livestreaming and broadcasting on the radio for those who should not or choose not to attend at this time.

“We feel like people can use their good judgment as to whether they’re ready to come back and make good choices, and they have,” he said. “People are welcome to wear masks if they want to but don’t have to, and we’ll have hand sanitizer everywhere.”

Blomenberg said it was great to see people again sitting in the places they were accustomed to, even though it has been a couple of months.

“There were big smiles on their faces just beaming that they could get back into church again,” he said. “There were some accommodations we had to make, but nobody complained and they seemed very understanding, and I think they were appreciative of the above and beyond protective measures to feel safe and worship at the same time.”

All three regular services will be available, 9 and 11:15 a.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday, using every other row of seating. There is no Sunday school, small groups or staffed nurseries at this time.

Keeping people safe

First Baptist Church in Seymour reopened Sunday with a registration process of either calling the church office or going online to reserve a spot with a limit of 100 people per service.

“We will offer two identical worship services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. in the sanctuary,” the Rev. Jeremy Myers said. “This will provide us with a 45-minute window of time between services to clean and sanitize the church in preparation for the next service.”

Myers said there are still a lot of questions about the risks surrounding COVID-19, and church officials want to make sure they are doing their very best to protect members by providing a safe and healthy environment.

In keeping with current safety standards, they are requesting that those attending the in-person worship services wear masks when entering and exiting the church building.

“We will not turn people away for not wearing them, but we are strongly recommending and requesting attendees to do so,” Myers said. “Everyone will enter through the carport entrance and will be guided up the hall to the back of the sanctuary.”

Ushers will then seat parties from the front of the sanctuary to the back, using every other pew and maintaining 6 feet of space between parties.

“While we are not afraid of this virus, we are concerned for the well-being of all of those God has entrusted into our care,” Myers said. “We would much prefer to have you around for years of subsequent Sundays than risk your health for this one Sunday.”

All other ministries will continue to use digital mediums for the time being as they continue to re-evaluate their programs and procedures, moving into the future and as more information becomes available, Myers said.

“We are as eager to get things up and running again as anyone else,” he said. “But we want to make sure we do so with wisdom, patience and grace.”

Excitement abounds

Mitchell McIntyre, lead minister at Brownstown Christian Church, said he also has been anticipating the day when he could assemble again with the church family.

The church reopens Sunday with services at 9 and 10:45 a.m. limited to 100 people in the sanctuary per service.

“There’s an excitement about starting the services back and also a level of trying to do our very best to open up and keep everything safe and listen to the CDC guidelines,” McIntyre said. “We want to do our best every Sunday, whether it’s streaming online or in-person, so we’re going to continue to stream online and do our best.”

People are asked to email or call the church by Wednesday to let staff know how many in their family will be attending.

“We’re doing that so we can prepare for the amount of people who are going to be here and have adequate seating for everyone and to make sure that we’re able to keep at those distances and we want to be able to welcome them here,” McIntyre said.

It’s recommended that everyone wear a mask if possible. There will be no Sunday school classes or children’s activities at this time.

“As most pastors would say, it was a change to do the streaming services only, but I’ve seen God work through it,” McIntyre said. “We’ve seen people come to faith since COVID-19 broke out, and we got to celebrate in that and we’ve got to see people connect through Facebook.”

He has seen people who hadn’t been to church before tune into the online services.

“One thing we’ve continued to say is the verse from Hebrews 13:8, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,’ and Jesus is still on the throne, and no matter what, God is in control and we just want to rely on him,” McIntyre said.

Valuable lesson

Steve Greene, pastor at The Point in Seymour, said his church is doing its best to navigate the challenges in a way they believe is Christlike and God-honoring.

“COVID-19 has taught us many things. We have all learned to value the things that really matter in our lives. God has used this pandemic in some significant ways,” Greene said. “My hope is that we will hold tightly to the lessons we have learned and to the things he has shown us through this experience.”

As society emerges from the health crisis, Greene said people must exercise wisdom as decisions are made that affect everyone’s lives and health.

“Some will think that the government or the church is opening too soon. To those, I would urge you to continue to shelter in place and pray for and check in on those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “If you are a part of the vulnerable among us, please continue to stay home.”

The Point plans to reopen for two morning worship services June 7. Service times will remain at 9:30 and 11 a.m.

Services will continue to be livestreamed for those not quite ready to return to an on-site worship experience.

“There are many aspects of our service that will be different as we begin to emerge from this health crisis,” Greene said. “We have removed well over half of the chairs in the worship center in order to allow for social distancing.”

As a result, those wishing to attend a service will need to go to the church website starting June 1 and reserve seats for the service they will be attending the following Sunday. Also, there will not be kids programming on Sunday mornings yet, but there are some exciting plans for these areas over the summer months, Greene said.

“The past few weeks have been some of the most unusual and unexpected days of my life and ministry,” he said. “While none of us would have chosen to go through this, I believe God has used it, and he is using it.”

Greene said the reach of the church has been extended, as God is bringing church to people who would have never attended otherwise, and decisions have been made for Christ. Plus, people are reading their Bibles and entering into spiritual conversations.

“Our entire team has stepped up to do whatever they had to do to be able to connect with children, students and adults, and we are blessed to have such a dedicated team who is so committed to serving the Lord together at this time and place,” Greene said. “I want to say again how much I love our entire church family. I can’t wait to see you again.”