Most of us wonder how long this unprecedented time of online Sunday worship will continue. Many of us may be feeling unfulfilled and disappointed with “online everything” — longing to return to “church as usual,” especially when so many other churches, businesses, and organizations are resuming some semblance of normality.
You’re not alone.
You may also wonder why these other groups and denominations can do it and we can’t. Looking around you may see some of the same demographics we have and wonder, “what is wrong with our church that we can’t move forward, too?”
We get it. It’s frustrating. And your church leadership grieves with you. And if you, like so many, just want a date when all of this will be over, we feel your angst and echo it. This virus isn’t giving us — or anyone else in the world — any solid clues.
However, here’s what we do know, drawing on information curated from our local public health officials, that provide ample cause for this continued and elongated pause:
- Throughout the pandemic, we have looked at several possible dates to return with protocols in place, but as each date approached, the trends in Tarrant County were such that we had to postpone. We have had plans and protocols in place since May, waiting for a time when we could safely return. To date, those same trends continue, and our Tarrant County Public Health Department still classifies our community spread as “substantial.” We have also been advised not to change anything we’re doing until this spread becomes “moderate.”
- In consultation with our public health experts, we made plans to hold three weeks of very careful outdoor worship and evaluate those experiences. This Sunday will be the second Sunday of outdoor worship at 9:30 on Fifth street; for the next two Sundays we will worship outdoors at 9:30 (The Gathering) and continue to livestream the 11:00 Sanctuary service from the sanctuary.
- Once we have had a chance to evaluate the first two weeks of in-person outdoor worship, in consultation with public health officials we will announce another tentative date for returning to in-person worship, knowing full well that as we continue to watch the trends we may have to postpone these plans, as well.
- Recently we began allowing small groups to meet on campus, including our new Fall study opportunity, GROW, which meets both in-person under strict COVID guidelines and via Zoom for those who are not yet comfortable with in-person worship. We will continue to monitor these groups and make decisions as warranted by changing trends in the spread of COVID-19 in our local community.
Because this virus — and response to it — has become so politicized, it can be very difficult to sort out fact from political spin. It’s enough to make your head spin right along with it. That’s why we rely on the insights offered to us by our public health officials, the actual data gathered by the county on confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19, and the most current scientific knowledge about how this virus behaves and spreads. For some, getting COVID-19 may not result in serious illness or death. But for others, contacting COVID-19 could be fatal. And, based on statistics, we have no way of knowing who that is.
Here are a few of these guideposts that help us make the determinations about how, whether, and when we will return to in-person gatherings:
- We are still a “substantial” spread. Public Health officials agree that they would like to see that rating move to “moderate” before moving forward with much.
- We only have 1427 hospital beds in Tarrant County out of 5025 available on 9/22/2020, so only 28% of our hospital bed capacity would be available in the event of another spike.
- Potential good signs are that September confirmed cases and emergency room visits seem relatively right now. Ideally, we would like to see them start decreasing.
- Because of this relative flatness, public health officials have let us know it’s worth exploring an opening plan but caution us that we must be willing to close back up if things increase again.
We miss being together in person, but at the same time, it is very important to remember that we are a church family, and the safety and wellbeing of one another has to be our primary concern.
Ultimately, the decision not to hold services indoors wasn’t made out of fear, but rather with our deepest respect for health and life. Our love for God and our neighbor drives us, and we are called by John Wesley to do no harm.
We’re hopeful that the COVID-19 numbers in Tarrant County will continue to trend downward, and we will be able to gather indoors in a limited capacity beginning October 11. Our staff has worked diligently to create a plan that prioritizes the health and safety of our members and guests, and we look forward to sharing those details with you as the time for in-person worship indoors grows closer.
Even after our doors reopen, we will continue to offer Sunday morning worship online and on-demand throughout the week so you will have the opportunity to make the best decisions for you and your family.
Yes, we’re all sick to death of social distancing. Nobody likes online worship as well as being there. Know that your church leadership is well aware of the frustration you are feeling. Know that your church leaders love and miss being together as much if not more than you do. And that your clergy is more than tired of preaching to empty spaces and the lenses of cameras rather than to the expressive faces of our congregation, sitting in their usual places.
Also know this: we will be together again. This pandemic will be behind us all someday. And just because we don’t exactly know what day that will be, or how will get there from here, it doesn’t mean that anything else has changed about who we are as a church — and that caring for one another will remain our highest priority.