So your church is opening up after COVID-19 closures? It won’t be what you are hoping for.

*** Guidelines and public health orders for opening up churches are sometimes hard to follow as the long lists can make your mind go numb. The following is a way of trying to put the guidelines in narrative context, to help picture what “going back to church” might look like in these COVID-19 days. ***

Sample Guidelines

It’s been months of isolation, months of mostly staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But active cases are going down (or maybe not), and politicians and business leaders are worried about the economic impact of social distancing. And so, for a few weeks now, things have been opening up. Playgrounds and hair salons, dentists and restaurant patios are letting people come back. 

And things seem to be going well enough, so the government announces the next phase of opening, which includes increased gathering sizes. And one of the places you have been missing the most, your church, sends out an email telling you that they are going to re-open for an in-person service on Sunday. 

You heard from a friend that your Pastor was against it, but enough folks were pressuring the council because of freedom of religion, people are getting tired of staying home and surely church should be a safe place right? Plus you are missing your friends, the folks you love to see on Sunday mornings, the other couples that you often go for brunch with following worship. 

Finally, the big day comes, you wake up excited to get back to this important part of your life, to something that feels little bit like normal, seeing familiar faces, hearing  familiar music, being in familiar community. 

You hop in the car with your spouse and make the well worn drive to church. You notice that the streets are even deader than usual for a Sunday morning. 

When you arrive at church there are few cars parked around building. You go to your normal parking spot, just down a side street, half a block from the church. 

You start walking up to the building, but before you get too close, a masked volunteer stops you. They are standing on the side walk. 

“Please stay there.” they stop you about 6 feet away from where they are standing. 

Okay… you think you know who this is, but they have a mask on their face and you aren’t totally sure. 

“Have you had any of the following symptoms recently: Cough, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing?”

“No, not that I know of,” you say.

“Are you over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions?”

“No,” you say.

Technically, you and your spouse are 67 and you take blood pressure meds. But it’s no big deal.

“Have you been travelling recently, or spent any time with someone who has travelled recently?”

“No,” you answer again.

You don’t mention the socially distanced backyard BBQ you had with your neighbours the other night, including one neighbour who is a long haul trucker. 

“Have you been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, such as health-care workers?” 

“I don’t think so,” you murmur.

The babysitting you do for your son and daughter-in-law, who is a care-home nurse, doesn’t count. Family doesn’t count, right? 

“Please maintain social distance while you wait in line here.”

The volunteer gestures ahead, where you see a few dozen folks lined up – all space out according to markers along the side walk.  

Usually when you arrive at church, you come early to visit with folks before the service, but as you stand in line, people just whisper amongst households. Even though you can see many familiar faces ahead, you cannot help but feel suspicion and fear when you look at the others. You try to shake the feeling, but this pandemic world has affected you more than you want to admit.

Another couple lines up behind you and then you hear the masked volunteer turn another family away. 

“Sorry, we are at the max group size we are allowed. Maybe try again next week.”

The church stays closed right up until the time of the service. Then finally with 5 minutes to go, the door opens and households begin entering, one at a time. Another masked volunteer is letting people in. 

Slowly, you shuffle up to the door. When it gets to your turn, the volunteer waves you in. There are two surgical masks and some hand sanitizer laid out on a table.

“Please clean your hands and then put these masks on.”

You comply.

“Please follow the taped line to pew number 23 and take your seat. Please don’t stop to talk to anyone, and please remain seated for the duration of the service.”

You follow the taped line into the sanctuary, everyone is sitting down in space-out pews by household. The church is eerily quiet, kind of a like a funeral with a masked pianist playing quietly. 

Finally when everyone is inside, the doors to the church are closed. 

Instead of processing in from the back, where the pastor is usually visiting with people before church, the pastor slips in from the front of the church through a side door. The pastor then greets you from behind a mask… which makes them hard to understand. The pastor then explains that there will be no singing in worship, and no praying together or communal responses to the liturgy. You then notice there are no hymnbooks, offering envelopes or welcome cards in the pews. They are just empty. You also didn’t get a bulletin on the way in. 

Listening to the pastor, they don’t sound like their normal self… forced, stressed, tense? You can’t quite put your finger on it. 

The pastor then goes and stands in front of a phone on a tripod at the front of church and starts talking to it, welcoming all the people worshipping online. The pastor explains where the bulletin can be found on the Facebook page, how to share the peace and greet others also watching online. Then the pastor picks up the tripod turns it around and asks you to wave at the phone… which feels pretty silly and weird. 

Worship begins.

The pianist plays the hymns, but no one can sing. So you just sit and listen. It felt awkward to sing along with the hymns at home, but this feels even more strange. 

The pastor then begins worship, and every time you want to say “And also with you” or “Amen” you have to stop yourself. Instead, there is just silence while the pastor imagines how long it would take the folks watching online to give the responses. 

The first masked volunteer goes to a mic and music stand on the other side of chancel to read the lessons. You can’t say join in the psalm responsively, so again you just sit quietly and listen. 

Finally it comes time for the sermon. The pastor preaches about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, encouraging you (but mostly the folks at home) to keep the faith. The pastor says that the time will come when the spirit will send us out into the world – but that time isn’t quite yet. And that even though we are apart, the spirit ties us together into one.

It doesn’t really feel like the pastor is preaching to you, but mostly to the those still at home.  

After listening to the hymn of the day, the creed and the prayers, it comes time for the peace.

The pastor offers the peace, but tells you that today it has to be virtual sharing only. The pastor uses their iPad to share with the folks online, and talks a bit to the phone again saying hello to people watching at home and commenting. 

Then it comes time for communion. Something you have missed for months now.  

The pastor puts on a face shield and changes their mask before the Thanksgiving at the Table. You notice that they don’t lift the bread or the wine. After the Lord’s prayer, which you say along with the pastor in your head, one of the masked volunteers steps up to the mic to instruct you on how to receive communion. 

And household by household you go forward. There is only bread to receive today. You have to hand sanitize again at the front. The pastor is using a set of kitchen tongs to put the wafers in the hands of each person. 

“The bread of Christ given for you.” you hear from behind mask and shield. 

This is not like communion you have ever received before. You aren’t allowed to eat until the pastor has moved away, and then after you put the wafer in your mouth, you have to hand sanitize again (also knowing that pulling off your mask has compromised it, because your daughter-in-law gave you a lecture in mask wearing). 

The service concludes with another hymn that you listen to, a blessing and some announcements. 

And then just like you came in, you have to follow the tape straight out of the building, one household at a time. The pastor isn’t greeting people on the way out, in fact there is no one. Just the the voice of the masked volunteer in the PA system announcing pew numbers. There are signs that tell you to leave the church straight away, no lingering. 

You walk back to your car with your spouse. 

You get in for the drive home. 

You have no idea what you just experienced. You were at church, there were other people there, there were hymns and prayers, the pastor preached, you received communion (kind of)… but that wasn’t church, and it certainly wasn’t what you imagined when you thought of things opening back up again….

You drive home in silence… realizing that just maybe the world has changed more than you figured before now. 

It might take some time to get used to this. 

+++

Three days later you get a text from your neighbour, one of the ones you have had a few socially distant BBQs with. 

“You are going to get a call from the public health nurse,” it reads.

“I am so sorry.”

A few minutes later the phone rings. 

“Hi, I am calling from your local public health agency. I am calling you today as a part of COVID-19 contact tracing.”

Your heart drops and the nurse’s voice starts to sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. You make out something about a testing appointment, the nurses gives you a time, date and address. 

Then the nurse says, “I am going to need to you to tell me all the people you might have come into contact with in the past two weeks. Especially, any groups in indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time, like doctor’s offices or someone else’s home, or maybe a church…”

57 thoughts on “So your church is opening up after COVID-19 closures? It won’t be what you are hoping for.”

      1. Virtue-signalling, fear-mongering, shaming those who want to go back, apocolyptic-dystopian porn. That’s what this is. It honestly reads like you’re a liberal… wait, just checked… Nevermind, you guys do you. Liberals love fear and control. I thought you were LCC.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Rev Erik Parker – this is a really catalytic blog post. It will be incredibly useful for me, illustrating the kind of thing we as a congregation need to be planning for. Manyt thanks.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. Ron – ah, yes, “virtue-signalling”; “Some librul just said something principled that challenges my certainty, and I don’t like that,so I’ll just try to make them sound like a hypocrite.” “Libruls just love fear and control…” Projection, anybody? Oh, and for someone who clearly embracees the wackjob mindset, you might find it useful to learn to spell “apocalyptic” properly.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. I am sorry that was your reaction. It is discouraging I admit, but this is a realistic portrayal of any version of “safe” “church in person” right now. Many of us are choosing to not meet because we understand the risk, the precautions needed, and how disconcerting it might be, more so than just not “being there”. Check out any of the websites, of say, any Roman Catholic church near you. This is very close to what I have seen on their videos.

          Liked by 3 people

        3. I was directed to this article by my Minister, and find it refreshing. I understand being disdainful of fear culture, but to assign this culture to one political leaning or another is, in my opinion, lacking in self reflection. Many non-liberals use fear of economic security and “Terrorist” or “Foreigner” Bogymen to forward their own agendas, as well. I will offer my own situation. I love my funky little United Cuhrch of Canada Congregation. We are a church of Mixed Marriages, in the faith sense. We have people raised and Baptized in all manner of Christian Churches, many of whom found partners from different denominations and doctrines. We all believe in love and acceptance.
          As I imagine a return to worship, i am faced with the following realities. the Majority of our congregation is over 65. We have half a dozen children under the age of four, and we have, until now, encouraged them to wander about the sanctuary until it is time for Sunday school. I ride the Bus 10-15 trips per week. I interact with 10-40 customers a week who are in and out of restaurants, bars and private homes. I open and inspect customer returns. I receive regular shipping. I load outbound freight. I live in a high rise building with 2 elevators, and 25% of my Neighbors have no sense of personal space or basic hygiene.
          I am extremely careful, but no one is perfect. No one has full control over who they share space with, and what those people were up to. I have taken Life in Military service. I have also, accidentally taken life in an auto collision, which was my fault. I was not criminally responsible, due to an un-diagnosed medical condition, but that’s not how I felt in court, listening to impact statements from the family of a 21 year old girl who had just Graduated, and was looking forward to beginning her life. I find it gut wrenching when i am in the midst of creating an amazing and joyous memory with my own Daughter, and imagine how that other father feels, as he reminisces on Sundays of watching Nascar Races together.And an extra layer of guilt, as I am depriving my own daughter of my full, untainted joy in our time together, through no fault of her own.
          so when it comes to greeting and sharing space with those people I love, and look forward to greeting every Sunday, I rejoice in our ability, in this modern age, to share Virtual and Spiritual Communion with my Church Family. Because, if I had to face the most minute possibility that I carried the bug into Church that takes even one of our members, prematurely, how could I, knowing just how that feels, and how far reaching that Tsunami of grief can travel, explain to my Church Family, the Memory of Caitlyn, or my Savior and Maker, why I couldn’t wait a few more weeks? It is not a feeling or a doubt that anyone should ever know. However, since I do, I feel it fitting to share my wisdom of experience. And if you believe me fear mongering in this regard, you are correct. Of this experience, having taken a human life, everyone should be afraid.

          Thanks for listening. Feel free to share. Dan

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  1. A very telling piece with such honesty. The tidbits the churchgoers left out fall nicely into the category of “loopholes,” a recent Rick Mercer rant.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Erik. Gloomy, but not inaccurate, as I hear from my colleagues who are already trying this sort of thing. As for me and my people, we’re in no rush.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a word – community. Christianity isn’ an individualistic spirituality (and I’m not disrespecting people whose spirituality is individualistic, in saying that.) Christianiity is to do with loving people – and church is to do with loving people who irritate the heck out of you. I do see what the attraction is of watching/listening to worship from any number of sources, but without community SOMEWHERE, you are missing a huge part of what it means to be a Christian. We’re going to have to learn how to be communities online – but we ARE going to have to embrace community, even if it’s in radically new ways.

      Have a look at Bonhoeffer’s “Living Together”.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Don’t you love and believe in your home preacher? He or she counts you as part of the vibrancy of their community. You chose them for a reason – I’m sure there’s a church around the corner you could have chosen. And, you were always able to be part of the global church – there are just more choices, so this isn’t entirely new. You can take in a range of new online experiences – that’s okay – but don’t abandon your home church – they’ve been working unimaginably hard to transition and keep you engaged and provide for your spiritual care.

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  3. I like the choices you’ve made in this depiction. And very well-written. Great job. Thank you for this.

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    1. Covid 19 will call on us to adapt new ways we c church, but there are some fundamentals we will b challended with. We gather to encourage, to embrace and pray with each other. We are instructed in Hebrews chap 25, not to forsake the assembling of our selves in manner as some do. There are more. Collectively, we need wisdom but also to stick with the biblical script. We r truly challenged

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  4. Do you see any purpose or benefit in the gathering together as the body of Christ beyond merely a social aspect? This writing seems extremely biased toward the view that gathering as a physical congregation has absolutely no purpose beyond self-serving, self-centered motivation that has nothing to do with God. Is that your belief?

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    1. Quite the opposite, it is because the gathering of the assembled Body of Christ is so important, that the love and care we have for other another implores is to be cautious in considering gathering in person and indoors. Online gathering or outdoor gatherings are much more suitable for this time.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Jennifer Varner – it’s for Rev Parker to answer that, but it’s quite clear to me that you read that completely inside out, and it might be helpful for someone who DIDN’T write this blog post to say that. I don’t see how you could possibly misread this text as comprehensively as you do, and you might want to ask yourself why that is.

      Are you really saying that in an age of pandemic, anyone who suggests that congregating in church is something that may be impossible for many people, who might die if they do, is somehow a sign of lack of faith?

      I read this piece as full of love and concern for people whose community life as Church is everything to them, and may have to grieve what is about to happen.

      I think you’re mixing up COVID-19 with the Emperor Diocletian. This is a pandemic, not a persecution, and insisting that people either show up to church or give up claiming to be real Christians is untheological and pharisaical, not to mention dangerous and stupid.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Erik – your honest and comprehensive portrayal of what a return might actually “look” like is the perfect antidote for any nostalgic anxiety among our members who are longing to go “back” to what sounds familiar. Eye-opening to say the least.

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  6. I think the narrative you paint is absolutely blown out of proportion. So; during all this social distancing you never have conversation? The liturgical dialogue of responses to the presider; with people wearing masks and spaced apart; I believe will have very slight chance of spreading the virus. I understand not singing; but also not speaking? Where is your scientific that speaking normally with a mask on is bad? I would find it a more pleasant experience if you just presided from the Altar with your back to me in Latin. At least that would have a more prayerful experience than your description.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dan, all of the provisions in my narrative were based on the extrapolation of public health orders (here in Canada) and recommendations by various church bodies. The provision against communal speaking is one from the Bishop of Manitoba Northwesters Ontario of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Wisconsin Council of Churches, who indicate that speaking increased the risk of transmitting aerosols by a factor of 10 compared to normal breathing. The reality is that most social distancing factors become irrelevant after 10 minutes in an indoor space with poor ventilation or direct airflow: https://www.wichurches.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Returning-to-Church-Church-Music-final.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2piy2Yw50ufZCoW5rR1ni1MNUrhWdR6ZqZGiSh3Q3D19KLUTrA-VRNOU0

      Liked by 1 person

  7. People don’t realize, or don’t want to realize that it will be a long time before we can feel safe getting back to what used to be considered “normal.” That article must have been heart-breaking to write. Of course it depicts a worst case scenario, but if we are not ready to deal with worst-case, then we are not ready to progress. As a pastor, I don’t want a single member of my congregation contracting this virus as a result of physically attending worship. In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayers.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. My husband is an Anglican priest. I can tell you now that it would take the whooole day for him to pick up all those wafers with weinie tongs!😁
    This was sobering but not impossible for those who for some reason need to be in the building

    Liked by 2 people

  9. By the sound of everything I just read it’ll be a long time before I consider going into a church. I never missed mass. I also enjoyed the socializing with my friends after mass. This is definitely a different world we are living in today. Lots more to think about. We have a new baby in our family so none of us will be taking any chances. We already lost my mother in law who lived in a local nursing home and died of covid19 virus.

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  10. Went to a funeral today and it was similar to this – no volunteers asking us screening questions, and we spoke responses together. Came to the guest book and thought “this is a bad idea!” – hand sanitizer next to it, but still. They completed the Mass with only the priest taking the sacrament, then ushered people out by pews, giving out consecrated wafers on the way to the door (but not to us Lutherans). In the parking lot, folks removed their masks and gathered in small groups to visit – which is what I think will happen, because we can’t see our dear church friends as a risk. I needed to support my friend at her mom’s service, but won’t be trying to offer in-person, indoor worship anytime soon
    Thanks for your thoughtful writing

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If your intent was to intimidate, then well done.
    If your intent was to demoralize, then great job.
    If your intent was to frighten, then a perfect ten.
    If your intent was to paint a dystopian masterpiece in which Orwell himself becomes a CNN correspondent and reports BREAKING NEWS LIVE! from his local church, then I’m sure the ratings would be stellar.

    Sadly, I have no idea what your intentions were … but man, are you missing the most important themes of Christianity (faith, hope and love) and emphasizing the worst (fear, gossip and shallowness).

    The church’s one foundation
    is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
    she is his new creation
    by water and the Word:
    from heav’n he came and sought her
    to be his holy bride;
    with his own blood he bought her,
    and for her life he died.

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  12. Well done! The only thing missing is the request during the announcements for volunteers to completely disinfect the facility following worship who don’t mind putting themselves at further risk. Oh, and the fact that the restrooms are closed.

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  13. Thanks Pastor. An accurate description of church going with common current guidelines, I needed the wake up call. It is so different and yet it is the Body of Christ, may we all find a way to remember that

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  14. Rev. Erik, I deeply appreciate the message and especially the creativity in presenting this piece. I am sorry that so many are having difficulty examining multiple angles to our current reality. In the Jewish tradition, we teach that there are 70 faces to Torah – so at least 70 perspectives to view learning. What I learn, thought before reading this piece, and has become more and more clear as that we, in the Jewish faith, cannot yet live our goal, our mission perhaps, of gathering while practicing highly (not nec. entirely) effective physical (social) distancing. We lose out, at this moment, in the sense of being together…. Thank you for putting this piece out there…. – Rabbi Evon

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I would like to have permission to print this in our church newsletter, of course giving credit and a link to the post. But my members aren’t online. I really believe they would benefit from reading this

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Our church is zoom meeting today on what returning might look like. Your piece lines up with what most of us are thinking. Hand sanitizers, distancing, temperature taking, pew separation. This certainly isn’t church as we know it, but in reality life hasn’t been “as we know it.”
    I believe we are living in a new world and we need to start looking at things “not as go back to where we were, but how do we move forward to a safer, cleaner environment.” By the way, I’m not a Green peace” person so don’t label me!

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  17. Well written agree, we can never go back to the same. But that can be a good thing. But our country is becoming so fractured with the continued closings. Some are fighting to return to church and those with something to say about it are getting bombarded by those insisting on their rights. It is sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Like all good writers, you force us to examine ourselves, which clearly makes some people uncomfortable. Dare I say, even triggered. I find your portrayal convincing and sobering, without being dystopian. But, that is irrelevant. What matters is that you’ve forced me to pay attention to safety issues that I may have otherwise overlooked, which could save lives. And that is the most important point.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I sort of get the reason for no singing. I have some trouble with not speaking litanies or prayers, even with a mask. There seems to be consensus about this, but I have seen no “science” to support it. Also, WHO is now saying 3.3 ft. for social distancing. What about that?

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  20. The ELCA website says what you have described for us. Also, if we are 65 years old or older, or have a compromised immune system, we won’t be able to attend worship for quite some time. Thank you for sharing this!

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  21. Grace to everyone and peace. Erik – Thank you for a very thoughtful articulation of the limitations and challenges associated with the desire of churches trying to “get back to normal”. I regret that some individuals chose to engage in unedifying diatribes. I offer this post as food for thought for those who are engaging in the pandemic equivalent of saying “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” I am the chaplain of a retirement community for senior citizens. All of my residents are in a highly vulnerable demographic. I am ALSO the stated supply preacher for a small congregation which is currently sharing virtual worship via ZOOM. If I am exposed to covid in a church on Sunday morning, then I may bring covid among senior citizens on Monday, which is an unacceptable risk at this stage of the pandemic. I greatly value the experience of community and fellowship which we experience in church, but I value human life even more. Thank you again for a thoughtful and pertinent post.

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  22. Erik – Would you give my parish your blessing to post this in this month’s parish newsletter? I am an Episcopal priest who serves in the inner city of Manchester NH. Our church Vestry/board read it and many said we should encourage our congregation to read your article as well. Please advise and stay safe.

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