Now it has been announced that churches are allowed to reopen for services from 4th July, although not all the guidance has been made clear and we are still awaiting written guidelines, the headline is that churches may meet subject to social distancing measures.
For some, that announcement sparked a mad panic. For others, well thought through plans were able to be actioned. For others, the question was moot as they have taken the decision not to meet until more folks are able to attend and more elements of our usual church services are reintroduced.
At our church, we had three (very) broad plans in place:
- Scenario 1 – the ability to meet with major restrictions and 2m social distancing
- Scenario 2 – the ability to meet with significant restrictions and 1m social distancing
- Scenario 3 – the ability to meet with minor restrictions and minimal social distancing
By and large, we are have been dealt something close to scenario 2. It is out intention to meet when we are first permitted, so our first Sunday with anyone back in our building will be 5th July.
But what have we done to prepare and what are our plans for what we can do? In no particular order, it is this:
Our first task was working out how many people we could accommodate in our building under social distancing rules. If we couldn’t fit more than a few people in the building, there would be no value in meeting at this stage.
To that end, we first laid out as many of our chairs individually, each spaced apart (either side as well as front and back) by 2m. We then grouped some of these chairs into tighter groups for family households and pairs for couple households. This then gave us more space again to fit in some more individual chairs. We then decided whether some chairs needed to be moved slightly closer to fit in any further chairs. This allowed us to balance maximal distance between seats whilst fitting in as many as we were able.
Coupled to the question of how many chairs we needed, we estimated how many folk were likely to actually return at this juncture. A significant number of our members have either very serious health conditions or are over 70. This puts them in the most ‘at risk’ categories. Such people will be under advice to stay home and tune in to the live stream that we will be continuing. This means that our likely attendance will not require all of our seating and viability for opening is based on a smaller congregation than usual.
Further to this, we have undertaken a risk assessment of the building. What are the ‘pinch points’ for entry/exit from the building? How will we manage welcome and goodbyes? Where will we have cleaning stations? What are the things in the building that are liable to be touched? Can any of those things be mothballed for the time being (eg pew Bibles) and what, if necessary objects (eg light switches, door handles, etc) are we going to do to minimise the possibility of contamination? How will we ensure adequate cleaning?
Where will we operate?
Having worked out what the relative risk of each area happens to be, we were then in a position to decide what things we would use (and how to manage the risk) and what areas of the church would be in use to minimise risk of contamination.
Our building essentially consists of two largish rooms (one upstairs, one downstairs), with two smaller rooms in one of those as well as men, women’s and disabled toilets. We determined that risk is minimised by using fewer rooms. As such, we will not be using our upper room and will only meet in the downstairs area. We will also close of the men and women’s toilets and encourage anybody who needs to do so to only use the disabled toilet that can only be used one person at a time. This minimises contact in those areas.
What we won’t do and when we will do them?
The only specific piece of guidance we have received is that congregational singing is not permitted. So, we certainly won’t be doing that. However, normal elements of our meetings – such as communion – we have decided will also not take place straight away. Our intention is to start very simply and then look to reintroduce things over time as we have a safe way (or we are clearly told it is now safe) to do so. As it stands, this means our meeting will not initially have refreshments, congregational singing, communion, baptisms nor Sunday School.
The written guidelines may specify that some of these things are safe to do, in which case we may re-introduce them, but our intention is to keep those things under review. For example, communion has not been specifically advised against, but we haven’t yet thought of a way to do it without significant risk. As such, that will only be introduced if and when we are told this poses no risk or we figure out a way of doing it whereby we are happy any risk of contamination is well managed and minimal.
What we will do
Nevertheless, we are still able to read the Bible (though we’ll all be bringing our own from home or reading it off the projected screen), to listen to the Word preached, to hold open prayer and to share testimonies (from where we are seated) of how the Lord has been at work in our lives, even during this time. So, we will meet in one room, all sit in our socially distanced households and listen to the Word, respond in prayer and encourage one another with how the Lord has been dealing with us personally during this time. The rest we will keep under review and look to introduce over time.
Anyway, that is how we are doing it. It bears saying, I don’t think there is a right or wrong over this. Some of us may not feel able to meet yet. Others of us may have other ideas about what is possible. Each one of us ought to be convinced in our mind. But this is how we are approaching it at Oldham Bethel Church and, perhaps, it helps you think about how you might handle all this in your churches.