Soteria Des Moines welcomes people back for church services May 17.

As states loosen coronavirus restrictions, churches are taking steps to reopen. But those steps come with plenty of precautions, not only to keep congregations and communities safe but also to follow state guidelines.

“In the big picture, the impact of the coronavirus varies around the country. Some states, and even regions within states, have been hit harder than others by the virus,” says Mike Hess, GARBC national representative. For that reason, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reopening churches.

Across the Nation

Temple Baptist Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, reopened May 10, the Sunday after the state allowed religious organizations to resume limited public gatherings. Complying with two pages of state guidelines, the church is holding two gatherings each week: a Sunday morning worship service and a Wednesday evening Bible study. Bible studies for adults, Sunday School classes for children, and the weekly youth group meet online. The church is not yet making children’s church or the nursery available, so children stay with their parents during services.

In the auditorium, every other pew is marked as unavailable to maintain the six-feet-apart physical distancing guidelines. Ushers help people find available seating but do not hand out bulletins or pass offering plates. “Since nothing is permitted to be passed from person to person, bulletins and sermon notes are placed on the open pews in advance of each service, and offering plates are placed inside the front entrance for people to give as they enter or exit,” says Pastor Jeremy Penrod.

“While we would like to resume our full in-person ministry schedule, we have chosen at this point to submit to the governing authorities as Scripture directs us and are honoring the guidelines currently in place.”

Soteria Des Moines meets for a worship service, with the congregation taking social distancing into account.

Soteria Des Moines in West Des Moines, Iowa, reopened May 17. The congregation chose one of three services to attend that morning, with the earliest service reserved for seniors and those with health concerns. Seating in the auditorium had been arranged to take social distancing into account. Children sat with their parents in the services, as children’s ministries would not be offered for the first several weeks. There would also be no coffee or doughnuts offered, Pastor Mike Augsburger was sorry to announce.

“While services, seating, and childcare look a little different than normal, the church remains on mission, and we are excited about the ways that God is continuing to work through us as we make more and better disciples,” Augsburger says.

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Flint, Michigan, reopened May 17 with a “Welcome Home” service. About 250 people, half of the church’s usual attendance, chose one of three gatherings to attend. As people arrived, ushers directed them to available seating: either in the auditorium (where posters at the ends of pews listed how many individuals, couples, or families could sit according to social distancing guidelines) or in the gym or the connections hall (where the service would be shown on screens). Those who chose to stay home watched a livestream of the first or second service online.

At each of the services, those attending deposited their offering in a container when they entered or exited instead of passing around offering plates. The church also provided its children’s ministry, requiring that the children (but not siblings) sit 10 feet apart, but only a few kids attended.

Pastor John Scally says, “It was a great day! A start . . .”

Calvary Baptist Church, Georgetown, Delaware, reopened May 24 with a family-integrated worship service. “Don’t feel like because we’re having church, you have to come,” Pastor Peter Radford told his congregation online. The church’s priority would be making sure its members stayed safe, so he encouraged seniors and those with health risks to watch the service online from home. Fully reopening, with the entire congregation gathering, will “be a long process,” he said.

For those attending the service in person, the church would be taking many precautions, including ushers telling people where to sit, everyone being required to wear masks, and children attending the service with their parents rather than being in children’s church or the nursery. To hesitant parents, Radford says he is “fully expecting interruptions” from children. He assured parents that the service would engage children more than usual. At the end of the service, ushers would dismiss people so everyone could exit in a socially distanced way.

Radford encourages his congregation to attend church “with a servant’s heart”—“with a heart to love and serve each other.”

No, church services won’t be “business as usual,” Radford says. They might feel awkward and will certainly be different, he adds. “But we’re excited to get started with gathering once again.”

Meadowood Baptist Church, Madison, Wisconsin, reopened May 24. But in reopening the church, Pastor William Mattox wanted to keep his congregation and community safe by complying with state regulations and recommendations. The government is not “trying to steal our liberty to meet as a church,” Mattox says; rather, the government is “trying to protect us, . . . and I think we need to respond with grace.”

The church would therefore ensure that the number of people in the building totals no more than 25 percent of its capacity (which wouldn’t be a problem, Mattox says, for his small congregation); would not offer Communion or childcare; would ask individuals, but not family units, to sit six feet apart; and would recommend, but not require, that people wear masks. The church had ordered 100 disposable masks to offer attendees.

“We’re not trying to buttonhole or pigeonhole people,” Mattox says. If anyone isn’t comfortable coming to church, Mattox will still be offering a livestream of the service for people to watch at home. And to those who would rather stay home, he says, “I don’t want you to feel like somehow the rest of us are going to look at you like you’ve got six eyes.” There won’t be any “bullying or shaming from the rest of us.”

New Story Church, Kansas City, Kansas, plans to reopen June 21 with social distancing protocols and sanitizing efforts in place. Such precautions, says Pastor Aaron Patton, would “put one another first” and “put our neighbors and our community first.” “Even if you don’t like all the precautions,” he told his church online, “I want to encourage you to demonstrate love and compassion for others by refusing to complain.”

Pastor Dale Williams holds the offering container after a drive-in worship service at Emmanuel Baptist Church of Warrenville in Naperville, Illinois.

Emmanuel Baptist Church of Warrenville, Illinois, in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, is holding drive-in services in its parking lot. To make the service available, Pastor Dale Williams bought a $300 short-range FM transmitter. He set up and tested the system on Saturday morning so he could find a frequency where the transmission operated best.

“Since the signal here is good up to 600 feet, which covers all of our immediate neighbors, we made special invitations and invited them to join us by tuning in on the radio, or linking in by Zoom, or listening to the prerecorded sermon on our website link,” Dale says.

On a Sunday morning, eight people facilitated the service inside the building. Outside, a volunteer in mask and gloves handed out bulletins and song sheets to people in arriving vehicles. A parking lot attendant made sure cars were parked at a proper distance from each other and that people observed social distancing guidelines.

Members were glad to “wave to each other, say hello from a distance, and sing along together,” Dale says. After the service, they drove under the church’s canopy, where they deposited their offering and returned the friendly waves of Dale and his wife, Shirley.

Baker Creek Bible Church, Bellingham, Washington, is also holding drive-in services, with the first on Mother’s Day. Parking lot attendants directed people where to park to observe social distancing. The church hopes to begin meeting in its building again by Father’s Day “if all goes smoothly with phases 1 and 2” of the state’s reopening plan, says Pastor Joshua Ausfahl. But in the meantime, he is encouraging the congregation to enjoy the drive-in services “and belt out the songs” from their vehicles.

On the opposite side of the state, First Baptist Church, Colville, Washington, will reopen June 7 with no more than half the building’s capacity filled. One member has made nearly 100 masks for attendees to wear if they choose, and the congregation will observe social distancing guidelines even in the sanctuary. Announcing the reopening plan to the church family online, Pastor Dennis Wilkening said he and his wife, Lori, were “hopeful that in the next few weeks we’ll begin to see a little bit of that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Riverside Drive Baptist Church, Auburn, Maine, began holding drive-in services May 17. In accordance with state regulations, attendees stayed in their vehicles in the parking lot and could not enter the building. Interim Pastor David Rowe and the music director led the service outside, and those attending listened and sang along by tuning in to a radio station. Those who opted to stay home watched the livestreamed service online.

One member says “everyone enjoyed seeing each other and chatting after the service while keeping a distance.” The church says the drive-in services are “one step closer to gathering in His house.”

Faith Church, Lafayette, Indiana, with three large campuses, will reopen May 31. “The beauty of our situation,” Pastor Steve Viars says about the church’s multicampus ministry, “is that the number of meeting rooms and staff members the Lord has given us allows us to worship while practicing appropriate social distancing and providing a variety of ministry settings for people with different health needs and concerns.”

In its “staged, socially responsible plan,” the church will offer several worship services at each campus. People will sign up to attend the services where they feel most comfortable—for example, in services for low-risk adults and teens, low-risk families with children, or high-risk individuals. Each service will also have its own entrance. Online services and DVD recordings will be offered as well. These worship service options are “a new approach for a new season,” the church says.

For each worship service, bulletins and sermon handouts will be available online, but printed copies will not be distributed. The congregation would deposit their offering in a container at a welcome desk instead of passing offering plates during a service. The church has also removed its general-use Bibles from the chairs and will not offer coffee stations, so in its reopening plan documents, the church encourages people to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bible) and BYOC (Bring Your Own Coffee).

Childcare will be available for children under age 2, but room occupancy will be limited to eight people. Those serving in the children’s ministry would wear masks, and the temperature would be taken of all the children and those serving in the area as they enter.

“Over time as testing for COVID-19 improves and we move closer to a vaccine, in consultation with our church’s health professionals, we plan to slowly begin providing many of the ministries that we offered before the pandemic began,” the church says.

No Template for Church Ministry

Church ministry in this COVID-19 world “is a unique and challenging situation,” says Jim Vogel, executive director of the Northeast Fellowship. “In my almost 45 years of pastoral ministry, I know we have not faced anything like this before. There are no templates; there’s no manual or explanation book that we can find to tell us what to do in these kinds of settings.”

Brian King, associate director of the Northeast Fellowship, reiterates that there’s no one-size-fits-all method for churches to reopen. “There are so many differing factors, particularly by location, that it’s going to be different for each church and very different between some churches.”

Two elements are common, however, among churches that are reopening: cleaning the buildings and making hand sanitizer available. All of the churches will be putting in extra effort to clean and disinfect their buildings between and after services. And hand sanitizer will be a familiar sight at entrances and on surfaces.

King encourages people not to “put our hope in returning to the way things were or reopening soon or having things our way.” Instead, we should “put our hope in God—in Him, in His wisdom, in His plan, in all of His great traits,” as Psalm 42 and 43 instruct us, he says. When we put our hope in God, “we really won’t be—can’t be—disappointed.”

Melissa Meyer is an editor for Regular Baptist Press.

  • Churches holding online-only or limited worship services can continue to build strong lives in their children and youth. Regular Baptist Press offers ideas for your church to keep in touch with students using Strong Kids curriculum and Kids4Truth Clubs.