Barb and I attend a local church that’s going through the trials and tribulations associated with our COVID pandemic. In our case, we’re talking about United Church of Sun City, AZ.
For several months, the sanctuary was closed, with services - such as they were - recorded and put online. For we elderly, not born with a keyboard to reach out to our electronic world, such a transition was a poor substitute for the real thing. But, with so many “substitutes” in nearly all normal life activities these days in a COVID world, we made do.
Now, UC of Sun City is dealing with the same problems most churches across the nation face in this time of declining congregants in what we hope will soon become the “post-COVID” era.
For example, masks or no masks? Make masks mandatory for entrance or leave it to individual choice? Remove masks when seated or leave them in place for the entire service? Have masks at the door or turn people without coverings away? No masks? Limit the number of worshipers?
In reopening the sanctuary, what new - and distanced - seating arrangements are necessary? Open every other pew? Rope off half of each pew? How best to create a welcoming service environment without making congregants feel uncomfortable while observing the added recommended spacing requirements of the CDC?
Then, there’s the choir. Normally, we have 30 or so singing in the Chancel area. Singing in close proximity to others has been confirmed as an excellent disease spreader. Reduce the number of singers? Space them out on both sides of the Chancel? Sopranos over here - tenors over there? No choir at all?
Hymn singing. Keep hymnals in the pews or remove to keep the best sanitary conditions. The pew Bibles? Keep ‘em? No, out with both.
And communion. Worshipers stay seated and elements brought to them as usual? Worshipers come forward for communion by intinction? Worshipers bring their own elements? Our church opted for the last choice with congregants asked to bring a grape and a cracker. That’s what we did. As you’d expect, it just wasn’t the same. But, we were together.
How about coffee hour following worship? Keep the convivial process going? How about those ubiquitous homemade cookies? Keep ‘em coming? And the social chatting and “catching up” time. Keep it up?
In our case, we decided to stop the coffee hour. Not a popular decision but a necessary one. For some of us seniors, used to the conviviality of coffee hour, that may be the biggest change. When the preacher says his last “Amen,” what’s a guy supposed to do? No coffee hour!
And the office. Do you keep it open the normal hours? Do you make it a “No Visitors” area? What about those endless committee meetings? For some, a time of catching up with others over the ever-present coffee.
As with most other churches, we’ve come up with reasonable answers for all the necessary changes. Took some time, but we did it. Actually, we’re still doing it.
The Cathedrals and mega-churches around probably faced many of the same issues. Maybe more. But, the backbone of Christianity today is most likely the small church - the neighborhood church like UC of Sun City. Close to the congregants. Nearby to provide all the services expected. Nearby to keep lines of communication open and people connected.
There was a time when being a Christian could mean imprisonment or even death. There was a time of gladiators. And lions. And whips and chains. And stake burnings. Those who stayed true to their beliefs - stayed with the church despite the dangers - found their reward in an open door - in a gathering of like souls - in the certain redemption of Jesus Christ.
So it is today. In our time, it’s a pandemic that’s killed millions around the world. It’s the invisible presence of a potentially life-taking virus called COVID. A disease that cares not if you’re a Moslem or a Jew or a Hindu. Or, a Christian.
UC of Sun City, AZ, and all the other churches and denominations, have been wrestling with questions of how to keep members - neighbors and friends - safe from today’s enemy. From today’s scourge. Little by little, leaders have begun the process of returning to “normal” - if normal there be. Small steps to accommodate the threat but to do so in a new and safer environment. Small steps. Steps to lead us back to where we’ve always been.
Your church has been doing the same things. Taking many of the similar steps. Working to welcome you back just as we have.
Sundays at 10am. It feels better already.