In March, when churches voluntarily suspended in-person services in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it was meant to be temporary. But with shifting legal requirements and without clear medical consensus on best disease-spread prevention methods, getting back together is proving to be complicated.
Derek Bouma, pastor of Strathroy East Christian Reformed Church in Strathroy, Ont., said their committee brainstormed all the possible issues. “What does entry look like? How are we going to do hand sanitizer? How are we going to do seating? Lots of questions.” Ontario hadn’t announced guidelines for churches, so Bouma searched for information on a CRC pastor’s Facebook group, which he said was “really helpful in the midst of this whole COVID-19 process.” The province released requirements the Friday before his church reopened. This back and forth was frustrating and confusing, said Bouma.
It’s been a different challenge for Brookfield (Wisc.) Christian Reformed Church since the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the governor’s “Safer at Home” order mid-May and no replacement state-wide guidance was issued. Guidelines vary between counties and towns, said Pastor Brandon Haan, so “we're sort of on our own when it comes to determining what we're going to do.” He did find resources from the Wisconsin Council of Churches website helpful, and church members were supportive. A member who is a software engineer provides Haan with a weekly risk evaluation based on statistical tracking of local data; a professional vocalist in the congregation explained why masks matter when singing; and doctors and a pediatrician in their congregation are offering their perspective on protocols.
Wallaceburg (Ont.) Christian Reformed Church is challenged by what is now the thorn in the side of many churches: technology. “We moved from just an audio recording of the service to learning how to record, edit, and post a (video) service on the website, and now we are moving toward streaming,” said Josh Tuininga, pastor.
None of these three pastors knew how many congregants to expect when church reopened; each said fewer attended than they prepared for. Brookfield had been the first of the three to close; its last service was March 8; and it was the first to reopen, June 7. Wallaceburg and Strathroy both closed March 22; Strathroy reopened June 21;Wallaceburg, July 5.
“We're only getting about 40-50 additional people (outside of council members, worship team, and their families), so we're falling below our projected 100 attendees,” Haan said. Strathroy had planned for 30% capacity—inviting half of the congregation at a time, but only 53 people came to the first service.
The pastors said some stayed home for health concerns; many are discouraged by the requirement to wear a mask and the absence of nursery and programs for children.
“We want people to be comfortable so they don't have to feel guilty about the choice they make,” said Tuininga.
Both Strathroy and Brookfield created videos demonstrating the new procedures for church—which doors to enter, where to sit, which washrooms are available, and how to exit.
Strathroy’s video includes a warm welcome to visitors, asking them to RSVP ahead of time. Their livestream services have been joined by many, including local people who normally don’t attend church. “It’s been really neat how God has used that technology to share the good news, and as a result we wanted to be sure that when we open, those same people would feel free to come,” said Bouma.
Those who have come out in person have offered positive feedback: “Lots of people have craved the community,” said Tuininga.
“The people who are coming have loved it, and they've overwhelmingly expressed that they're thankful to be coming to worship again, even if it's not what we're used to,” said Haan.
For Brookfield, a church with many young families, discerning how to relaunch nursery and modify children’s services is the next challenge. He said they're hoping for modifications to be ready in August.
For more conversations about Christian Reformed churches reopening, see The Network.