Back to Church: How 5 Congregations Reopened Last Sunday

Back to Church: How 5 Congregations Reopened Last Sunday by SARAH EEKHOFF ZYLSTRA for The Gospel Coalition

On Pentecost Sunday, congregations across America met via livestream, podcast, or recorded video. But hundreds also met in person—many for the first time.

“We were watching the same data points as everyone else,” Immanuel Church Nashville lead pastor T. J. Tims said. His church opened with face masks and assigned seating. “The thing that triggered reopening for us was the Tennessee governor giving out guidelines for houses of worship reopening.”

Immanuel was delayed a week while the staff awaited their backordered electrostatic disinfecting fogger. And pulling off a physical gathering was “more complicated than we imagined at first,” Tims said. “But it was totally worth it.”

TGC talked to five pastors from across the country—all of whom regathered for the first time last Sunday—to see how it went.

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Name: Aaron Lentz
Church: Athens Church
Location: Columbus, Indiana
Average Attendance (pre-COVID 19): 225 including kids

Athens Church is a relatively new church plant; before COVID-19, the congregation met in a middle school. But they haven’t been able to gather there since mid-March, and probably won’t be able to again until July at the earliest.

“We wanted to try to gather as responsibly as possible,” pastor Aaron Lentz said. “Outside seemed safe.” But the parks weren’t big enough to fit the whole congregation, so Athens Church opted for the local fairgrounds. The leaders figured this would give a lot of options, and it did: about half the congregation said they’d bring their own chairs or blankets and sit outside, while 25 percent said they’d sit in their car, and another 25 percent said they’d prefer to watch online.

Athens Church regathered at the local fairgrounds. / Courtesy of Aaron Lentz

But Sunday was in the high 60s and sunny in Columbus, and only about 10 people ended up staying in their cars while another 35 watched online. Everyone else—around 150, Lentz estimated—came to sit outside. “It was probably the best weather we’ve ever had for an outdoor service,” he said.

People came early and stayed late, including about a dozen who had begun attending Athens during coronavirus. “It was cool to see a visible evidence of God’s grace in person, and to begin a friendship with those people,” Lentz said. Congregants sat about 10 feet apart and brought their masks, though few put them on. Everyone was able to sing, share individually packaged communion, and hear Lentz’s sermon over the loudspeaker.

“I spoke about racism and injustice and this moment that God is awakening us to,” said Lentz, who is preaching a series in Lamentations. “I talked about how our Savior understands what it is like to be wrongly arrested, tried, condemned, and killed. I was trying to give people an opportunity to see the gospel in the light of all the racism and injustice.”

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