Jacksonville College

Churches ‘kick the tires’ to test regathering

May 14th, 2020 / By: Kayla Rinker / comments

NACOGDOCHES—After months of COVID-19 social distancing ministry, Calvary Baptist Church in Nacogdoches is ready to “kick the tires” and gather in person once again.

“We are trying it this Sunday with one service at 11 a.m. and we will see how it goes,” said Paul Sevar, who has served as pastor at Calvary for 21 years. “I say, ‘kicking the tires,’ because it’s a test drive. We don’t know how many people will show up, but it’s our hope that they will come prepared to serve the Lord and worship Him,” referring to the reopening May 17.

Church staff and volunteers are making special preparations to receive those who come. Calvary, a longtime SBTC-affiliated church that averaged close to 400 people between two services before the pandemic halted large gatherings, will be taking several hygiene-related precautions in response to the guidelines suggested by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

First, they will be inviting attendees to their fellowship hall with available seating spaced six feet apart per family unit. They will also have three overflow spaces available; including the youth area for families with young children, the college classroom as a make-shift nursery, and the parlor for those who might be at a higher risk health-wise and so desire a little more separation.

“It’s going to be hard to do, but we are also asking people not to shake hands or hug each other,” Sevar said. “We are going to see how it goes, listen to feedback and adjust as we go along week by week. The Lord has made a way for us to open back up, but it’s important that as we move forward we do it graciously and respectfully with each other because we certainly don’t want to get somebody sick.”

Mario Martínez, pastor of Genesis Baptist Church in Odessa, might be even more excited than most about his church’s plans to regather.

“We were remodeling our sanctuary right when COVID-19 hit, so right now about 80 percent of our people have not seen the finished work,” he said. “It’s going to be double excitement for me and for them to enter into a renewed and remodeled space and to be reunited again.”

Instead of starting off with a Sunday service, their first regathering is set for Wednesday, May 20, and will include worship in the fellowship hall and then a time of prayer and dedication for their new auditorium.

“We want what Jesus wanted when he said, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a greater need than a house of prayer right now.”

He said they are also planning to follow the guidelines regarding social distancing and thorough disinfecting between services. While they don’t have many senior adults who regularly attend, Martínez said they do have a lot of children and he is concerned about how that is going to work.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge because we are a family and handshakes and hugs are a big part of our church culture,” he said. “Our time together is going to look a lot different.”

While many churches are planning and anticipating what their regathering will look like, some churches like Fellowship Church, a 10,000 multisite church with a campus in several Texas cities including Grapevine, have already resumed in-person worship services at some locations.

Ed Young Jr., senior pastor of Fellowship Church, told Baptist Press that though it was clear people wanted to return, “You could feel the angst and the fear in people. You could see how pandemic fear is.”

In order to allow people to feel more comfortable and confident in their decision to attend church in person after weeks of isolation, Fellowship Church adopted extensive safety protocols.

They opted to limit attendance to 25 percent capacity, and so have asked churchgoers who want to attend to make reservations. People are greeted outside at designated entrances, are provided face coverings, and are escorted to their seats (six feet apart between family units) by ushers.

First Baptist Church in Premont has also started gathering again, though Pastor Rick Rice said their COVID-19 safety measures aren’t quite so extensive.

Before the pandemic began the church averaged right around 50 people, most of whom are senior adults. He said that they’ve met in-person all of May, while also continuing to stream online, and they have not had to make any major changes from what they did prior to the pandemic.

“The only thing we haven’t been doing is passing the offering plate,” Rice said. “We just designate a place in the back where they can give if they so choose. Also, since I am one of the youngest people in the church and I’m 72, we are asking everyone to wear masks and gloves and we give out hand sanitizer as an added precaution. I’m hoping we will continue to progress and we can get back to our Sunday night prayer meetings very soon. We are a close-knit group and I think we are going to be able to come through this without much, if any, loss.”

While Sevar said sustaining ministry through technology and expanding their church’s online presence has been great in a lot of ways, it doesn’t compare to what it means to look people in the eye and connect by traditional means.

“Our people are ready to be together,” he said. “Some are fearful but ‘Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.’ We serve the light and the darkness cannot overtake us. I’m looking forward to seeing my people again.”

For guidance and resources detailing strategy options for regathering the church while adhering to COVID-19 recommendations visit sbtexas.com.