COVID-related restrictions are loosening for certain sectors, but congregants are still barred from seeking sanctuary in local houses of worship.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott was asked on Wednesday during his media briefing for any plans to get people congregating again in church buildings. “Stay tuned,” he said. “I’m not sure if we’ll address it on Friday or not, but we may.”
Leaders of local congregations are waiting for the official guidelines for reopening worship centers. They’ve been leading remotely for two months, learning to utilize technology to teach and preach, but they, and many of their churchgoers, are eager to reconnect in the same physical space.
“I will say our entire church is eager to worship in person again,” said Pastor Joshua Abetti, of Concord Community Church.
“We are doing our best with an online service and zoom prayer services, but everyone longs to be together again,” said Rev. Curtis E. Metzger, Rector, All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Littleton, N.H.
“We are hearing that everyone is really looking forward to ‘Getting back into the church,’” said Pastor Rick Menard, of New Beginnings Christian Church in St. Johnsbury. “We know that biblically the people are the church and not the building, but we all want to get to see each other in person again.”
An email response from Rev. Elisa Lucozzi and Pam Dearborn of United Community Church wrote, “Everyone is grieving the loss of being together in community and sharing in worship, but I think most appreciate at this point the need to consider what is best for all. We have a high percentage of at risk folks that attend.
Said Pastor Joel Battaglia of Lyndon Bible Church, “There is a huge desire to regather corporately as a church so we are anxious to be able to do so as soon as possible … You simply can’t replace the experience of singing, praying together, fellowshipping and listening to the preached word in person. All of these are vital to our faith and sorely missed.”
There is agreement, though, among church leaders that being forced into technology-driven worship hasn’t been all bad. “Attendance” has actually increased in that more people are tuning in via phones and computers than normally show up for in-person church services.
“We as a church are reaching WAY MORE people than we ever have,” noted Menard. “Our average attendance has been 60 but since we have shifted, we are now reaching more than 300 people a week!”
Noted Lucozzi and Dearborn, “We have more people able to participate in the worship service because of having it on line – those that are too sick or don’t have a ride for example. It also allows for those who would be intimidated by the big gray stone building to join us anonymously.”
Technology as an option for worship is expected to continue in area churches even after congregants return to the buildings.
“I think this will help us to see the importance of reaching people by both the social media and in-person services,” said Pastor Clifton Bullock of Union Baptist Church, Route 5 in Waterford. “In the past we have used the internet for mainly letting people know what is going on and that we are here. Now we view social media and the internet as a tool for reaching those that would never think to enter into a church building. That is why we now have a church app and looking for ways to expand our internet presence.”
How soon people can meet together again in the same place and how many of them will be allowed together is unknown, and leaders say they’re ready to open the doors as soon as the officials say the word. It is expected to be an allowance in phases. Currently the number of people who can be together is 10. As the allowed number increases high enough, church services will commence.
Vermont and New Hampshire have loosened restrictions related to in-person business activity, and Bullock noted making similar allowances for churches would get the doors open.
“If we could operate as businesses with a 25 percent occupancy rate, we could schedule 2 Sunday services and follow the safety standards set forth by the government,” Bullock noted.
Menard wrote, “We are waiting, watching and praying for the right time to begin to gather again. At this point in time, there are still more questions than answers and it is nearly impossible to plan anything with any degree of certainty.”
Some churches have resorted to parking lot worship as a way to honor the restrictions on social distancing while gathering corporately. Attendees will park their vehicles and stay inside them while the service is broadcast through speakers or through the radio on a dedicated FM receiver. Union Baptist Church is holding its first drive-in worship service on Sunday morning.
Church leaders say they longed for a return to “normalcy” in worship, but they also recognize the need to make congregants feel safe.
“While it is difficult to predict how many will feel comfortable to come, we think we can accommodate those who might want to,” said Battaglia. “We will use precautions such as distancing, sanitizing and masks for those who choose to wear them.”
Said Metzger, “Our overriding concern is protecting the health of our parishioners and the community.”
Menard said he didn’t know what kind of safety protocols will be put in place at New Beginnings. “We will do what we can to stay within the guidelines and common sense in hopes to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Church vs. State
None of the church leaders who responded to questions related to being shutdown for in-person worship took a hard-line stance to — at this time — challenge the government’s gathering restrictions on the basis of church and state separation.
Battaglia did reference the constitutional protection for the free exercise of religion and expressed its importance.
“In our country the First Amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …’ thus guaranteeing the freedom of religion and prohibiting the government from restricting the free exercise of it,” he said.
“We are concerned that it seems that in Vermont churches are not mentioned in government orders seemingly regarding them merely as another ‘nonprofit’ rather than a constitutionally protected entity,” Battaglia said. “We are also concerned about letting a very secular institution dictate to us how and when to practice our faith. We believe that the exercise of our faith by gathering corporately is both our constitutionally-protected right, and more importantly as essential part of our faith and life.”
Battaglia and other leaders said submitting to authority is biblical.
“When questioned about obedience to God and government by His critics who hoped to trap Him in a ‘no win’ answer, Jesus wisely replied to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,’” Battaglia said. “This principle dictates our relationship of obedience to both God and human government.”
Menard said, “We do not want to be discriminated against because of our faith, yet at the same time, we are mindful of being submitted to the government that has been placed over us. If we get demanding and pushy, we could easily alienate those we are doing all we can to reach for with the Gospel. We are praying and believing for a smooth ‘re-launching’ of our churches and that it can be done without having hostilities or resentment.”
Bullock said, “Yes, we do have the constitutional right to gather together for worship, but that must also come into agreement with loving our neighbor. We must look at the situation for what it is rather than just ‘I have my constitutional right.’ If I do not take precautions (using known safety standards) in relating to my neighbor, then do I truly love Jesus Christ and then my neighbor?”
Luccozi and Dearborn noted that they appreciate the need for the separation of church and state, and, in fact, are making the argument in an appeal for the church to be able to open up its space for a social time that opens the doors to homeless people. But in terms of the regulations surrounding the virus they see it as a safety issue. “We do of course want to keep our congregants and community safe, so we are not going to go against good advice from reliable sources and jeopardize safety just to ‘maintain our rights,’” they wrote.
Battaglia said the ongoing health data that reflects a lack of coronavirus infections is reason for the state to open things up, and if the numbers don’t justify the lockdown on worship centers, Lyndon Bible Church may move to open the doors ahead of the government’s official blessing.
“While we are disappointed at the extending of the current restrictions when the ‘data’ that was supposed to undergird those restrictions doesn’t appear to support it (particularly in the Northeast Kingdom) we are attempting to be patient and do what we can to practice our faith and help our community,” he said. “But if restrictions continue to be imposed on churches without valid reasons, we will be forced to choose to obey God rather than man and practice our constitutionally-protected right to the freedom of religion.”