Government restrictions on a whole host of things were lifted as of the 4th July 2020. A right good number of us probably went for a haircut on Saturday – and if you’ve caught the FIEC webinar on Church in Deprived Communities to which I contributed – you’ll reckon, in my case particularly, it was well over due! But most significantly for us, albeit with certain restrictions still in place and the need to abide by social distancing measures, we were permitted to meet as a church yesterday for the first time in about 4 months.
It bears saying, not every church has taken the opportunity – or even been able – to meet again. Of those that have, various of us have taken slightly different approaches to what we deemed possible and worthwhile within the spirit of the government guidelines. It is important to say there is no right or wrong answer here.
For many with no church building, they are at the whim of whether those who manage the spaces they rent are willing to open for them at this time. For those of us with buildings, we are weighing what is possible to do in person against what we can achieve online. All of us are having to consider the nature of our congregations i.e. do we have a credible number of people who could come or are too many of our people in vulnerable categories to make it worth opening? There are a whole host of other considerations too that do not make this the ‘no brainer’ that some seem to believe it is (in either direction).
When none of us have ever had to face leading through such a lock down before, let each one be convinced in his own mind for their context. Our decision to meet is no comment on the decisions of others either way. We are not every church, they are not in our specific situation with our particular people and nor are we in theirs. We are all seeking to balance public safety and love of neighbour, the desire to worship corporately, submitting to the authorities and a number of other significant biblical imperatives. There will be things we decided not to do – although we were permitted – that others chose to do. There will be things that we did – as permitted – that others decided not to do. This is a matter of wisdom and we each apply it in our particular context according to the measure which God has given. It may well be he hasn’t given me and my elders very much or it might be he hasn’t given much to yours. Or, maybe, he has given us an equal amount of wisdom and its application in different settings is what makes the difference. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
So, with all that said, this is what we did on our first Sunday back and how it all went.
Prior to our service, we had setup the church for live streaming. Up to now, we have been doing it from home using smartphones and external mics. We have also been using an inbuilt second screen function through our streaming app for PowerPoint for those at home. This has been fine but we felt probably not suitable for a setup in church. In the building, we are still using a single shot smartphone setup. However, we have setup a large screen TV to act as the screen for those viewing at home. Instead of external microphones, we have setup our sound to run through our existing mixing desk.
We also setup the chairs in banks of different sizes and spaced each set out by 2m on all sides. This gave us a maximum physical capacity of 42 people in the building, but that was dependent on particular households attending (larger households congregated together). However, we have space to up to 12 separate households to attend in some form.
Further to this, we setup cleaning stations at the entrance of the building. We also measured out 2m distances outside in case people had to queue to get into the building. Each household was welcomed into the church one at a time. They were instructed to use the hand sanitiser available. They were registered (members with a tick next to their name; non-members and visitors by taking their contact details) and then ushered to a seat. People were asked to remain in their seats throughout the service, only leaving them if they needed the toilet (which had a one-in-one-out policy) and when they were dismissed at the end of the meeting. Essentially, everything took place in one socially distanced room.
Our first meeting back was due to be our monthly all-age service. So, there were certain elements of our usual meeting that we didn’t attempt at all. But, apart from singing, we included all the usual elements of that service. Going forward, as we hold our more regular service, the only things we would usually do that we won’t at present is sing and take communion. We are permitted to do the latter but we are still trying to work out the most appropriate way to do it so that everyone in attendance can keep safe. I am sure there is a way, but we aren’t yet convinced we have figured out what it is. And so, until that time, we won’t be doing it. Singing is not yet permitted under the current guidelines, though research is presently being undertaken to establish whether it might be permissible. As soon as it is allowed, we will be incorporating this back into our meetings.
Yesterday, we had 16 people physically gathered. We had a good number tuning into the live stream too and we know that a number of those were either families tuning in on one screen together or households choosing to watch the live stream together. The people in the room meant the service was more interactive than it has been when it was merely ‘preached to camera’. Despite the restrictions, those in the room were glad to be able to be together again and those who stayed home felt the live stream worked much better in the church building with people there again.
There was one (very minor) issue. Our TV screen suffered from a bit of glare that, whilst usually not a problem, if words were a bit small made them hard to see. In the most part, it wasn’t an issue but it periodically made things a bit awkward. We’ll have to play around with how best to resolve that. Maybe reangling the TV screen and ensuring words are larger is all that is needed. But we expected there would be some kinks we needed to work out.
Overall, we were quite pleased with how things went. We had a reasonable number in the room and a decent amount of people watching online. Over time, we will look to reintroduce more stuff as we are permitted and if we can find safe and reasonable ways to achieve them. We don’t feel everything has to be done straight away. We have time to work through what worked and what didn’t.
Nevertheless, you can judge for yourself how it all went by watching it here if you are so inclined.