by Pastor Doug Kings

Resuming In-person Worship

As was announced last week, our first in-person worship since the beginning of the pandemic will be outdoors on Saturday afternoon, November 21 (rain date is November 28). One change is that the service will begin at 4:30 PM, not 5:00 as originally stated, to give us more cushion for adequate daylight. We will gather on the parking pad on the north side of the church building. Please bring a folding chair if you can. A few church chairs will be available for those who don’t bring their own and/or need a more stable seat.

When our regular worship was suspended last March, none of us expected this situation to last so long. Almost immediately we began asking when and how our usual worship practices could be resumed. And frankly, we still don’t know and won’t for some time.

In resuming any kind of in-person worship, my sole question has always been: Can we do so safely? Because of the many questions still unanswered about COVID-19, we don’t yet have a clear understanding what that means. Nor is “safe” a black-and-white quality but exists on a continuum of “more” and “less.” Right now I believe a simple outdoor service can be done in a way that poses little risk of spreading infection.

To do so, we will follow these basic practices:

*Everyone must wear a mask.

*Everyone must sit or stand 6 feet or more apart.

*There will be no singing and minimal congregational responses.

*There will be no socializing in the worship seating area.

The service on Saturday will be similar to what we have been doing online, with the addition of communion at the end. Communion will be with wafers and wine. Come forward when directed by an usher. A wafer will be dropped into your open hand. Wine will be poured from a “pouring chalice” into a small disposable cup, which you will be holding. After communing, return to your seat, fold it up if it’s one you brought, and return to your car.

From this it’s obvious that the service will be very different from our typical worship experience. Nonetheless, it will be worshipful. Some of these practices are based on what will be required when we move indoors so we can get accustomed to them. Because there are so many changes, we are keeping this first service simple to minimize confusion for both worshipers and worship leaders, myself included!

Conditions for safe worship have been studied and discussed by health and church officials since the pandemic began. Normal worship events have been considered high risk activities and there have been numerous documented cases of infection spread at worship services, some with tragic results.

In contrast to when the pandemic first began, it is now understood that the primary way the coronavirus spreads is through the air, rather than by contact with a surface containing the virus. Therefore, the greatest risk is from what you breathe rather than from what you touch. Hand washing and cleaning surfaces are still important, but wearing face masks and keeping apart are the most effective ways we can reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The unspoken question for many now is, “But is COVID-19 really that big a deal? Aren’t we overreacting?” This suspicion has been fueled by awareness that the disease’s mortality rate has declined and by stories of many infected people with mild or even no symptoms at all. While these observations are accurate, COVID-19 remains a dangerous, unpredictable, and highly contagious disease.

That more people are surviving this disease is certainly good news, partially explained by our having learned better how to treat it. It remains, however, one of the leading causes of death in the US. At the same time, we are learning that COVID-19 can also have serious and long-lasting side effects, even among those who had only mild symptoms initially. Moreover, while we know that the elderly and those with chronic conditions are most at risk from COVID-19, there are now many confirmed cases of young and previously healthy people, including children, becoming seriously ill and even dying. This is not a disease to be taken for granted.

Moving worship into our sanctuary will require wearing masks, social distancing (thus greatly reducing seating capacity), no singing or loud talking (as this propels more vapor particles further), and avoiding situations that would cause congestion (as when people arrive or leave).

Like many worship spaces, ours has poor air circulation. Our windows don’t open, there are no ceiling fans, and our cooled air enters from vents in the floor and returns via vents at floor level (under the altar platform). Also, our AC system only recirculates the air without bring in outside fresh air. The council has been pondering remedies for this situation and should act soon. Cost is obviously a factor, but we are also limited by the realities of our building. To be frank, we can make the situation better but not ideal.

For that reason will we continue to monitor the infection rate in our area, as that is likely the single most important factor for conducting worship safely. I am aware that many churches near us have resumed limited indoor worship sooner than we have. (This is less true in other parts of the country.) I have watched some of these services online and many are not following what I believe are the safest practices, thus running unnecessary risk.

For the past few months, our local infection rate has been relatively low, perhaps allowing “looser” practices. Projections are that this may soon change, however, as it has across much of the country. Should that occur we will certainly factor that into our worship decisions. Outdoor transmission, while not unheard of, seems rare. With summer heat gone, this should allow us to offer outdoor services (probably trying other days and times) throughout the winter for those who wish to participate in this way.

My thanks go out to all of you for your patience and perseverance in this strange and difficult time. I especially appreciate your enthusiastic embrace of our online worship, even in its early fits and starts. This service will continue and be a primary connection with our church family near and far. How many of our snowbirds will return this season is uncertain. Some we know will not, so this will continue to be a valuable way to include them in our fellowship.

Finally, I conclude with the words I use at the end of our online service as they are vital activities we all can do: please, be safe and be kind.

Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug