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Returning to the Pulpit

With Governor Tate Reeves’ guidance to churches on offering in-person services, some local houses of worship are beginning to hold in-person services again, but for other churches coming together indoors is still far in the future.

Goodyear Baptist Church will be going back to in-person services again for the first time this weekend, said Pastor Jeremy Williams.

“It’s such a difficult call to know when’s the right time to gather together,” said Williams.
The church will maintain the online services it has established for people who are not comfortable worshiping together in the physical building, said Williams.

The service will look different than it was previously, with an additional service on Saturday night to reduce the number of people in the room during worship. Chairs have been spaced into small rows for families to sit together. The rows are separated from other rows by six feet. There will be no physical bulletins and instead of passing the plate, offerings will be collected in a box in the back of the sanctuary. A fellowship time that normally includes shaking hands and hugging has been suspended. Masks will be available for attendees who do not have one but would like to wear one.

Youth groups and Bible studies will still not be meeting, replaced by online videos from Williams and the youth leaders throughout the week. Choosing when to come back together in person was a difficult decision that the church leaders made based on the COVID-19 case numbers from the Mississippi State Department of Health, conversations with medical professionals and a desire from many in the congregation to begin seeing each other in person again for services, said Williams.

“There’s just something about being there in person and we felt like we could do it in a safe way at this time without risking any kind of spread of the virus,” he said.

Along with the service looking different, the church building will also be different, as the two months it has stayed empty have been used to repaint, hang new art work, redo the stage area and shampoo the carpet.

“Sometimes physical space speaks to our inner self, and I think in and of itself that might be an encouraging aspect, to see that during this time period we haven’t just come to a stalemate or taken a vacation,” said Williams.

At the Roseland Park Baptist Church every other pew has been roped off. Masks are optional during services, and about a third to half of the congregation choose to wear them, said Pastor Dan Young.

So far the church has held in-person services for two weeks. The church is holding two Sunday morning services, one at 9 a.m. reserved for adults aged 60 and older and one at 11 a.m.

Ushers wear gloves to hand people bulletins.

The 11 a.m. service is still livestreamed online to ensure everyone who wants to participate from home still can. The church’s leadership wanted to make sure no members of the congregation felt pressure to return to in-person services.

Young expects some of the congregation will continue to worship from home until schools return in the fall. The majority of people who are not comfortable coming back yet seem to be parents of young children and older adults, said Young.

“We recognize that almost daily there are new cases of COVID here in the county,” said Young. “We don’t want to create a situation that makes it appear to our folks that everything is normal.”

The church leaders considered COVID-19 statistics, and factored in that none of the members have had the virus before deciding to return to in-person services, said Young.
“It’s hard to tell people it’s okay to go to Walmart and shop but you can’t go to church,” said Young.

Both churches are bringing back church programs gradually, starting with only in-person worship services and waiting to see how those go before beginning other programs like youth groups or Bible studies.

Roseland Park runs a large vacation Bible school program, and in the upcoming summer that program will go virtual. It will offer activity packets available for parents to pick up and livestreamed songs and activities, said Young.

Many churches are continuing with drive-up services and avoiding bringing their members together indoors.

Pastor Donald Hart with the Newness Life Ministries said the church is not even considering bringing people together indoors until after June. Hart has also been turning to the COVID-19 case numbers provided on the MSDH website to determine how to move forward.

His biggest concern is that so many people have to travel outside of the community to work. Hart said he does not want to put a large crowd in an indoor space, especially having done air conditioning work previously.

“We don’t have a large ministry and we wouldn’t want to put anybody in jeopardy,” said Hart.

Some of the parishioners at the church have pre-existing conditions and are staying at home so they can worship online through Facebook or YouTube.

About 50 percent of the congregation is attending the drive-up services, which began five weeks ago. The services have given members some sense of normalcy after two months with only online services.

Long-term, the pandemic has changed how the church reaches its members, by pushing it to go online. Previously, the church offered no online services, but now has new cameras and lighting to make sure online videos are good quality. Hart has been taking webinairs to improve his own digital skills.

“It seems like the millennial crowd is kind of more into the online stuff. We want to be able to cater to people that may not be as computer savvy as well as the millenials that are definitely into the online stuff,” said Hart.