More on “When Can We Come Back to Church?”

Probably a day doesn’t pass without at least one person asking, “When are we going to have church again?” I get it. In this time of sheltering in place, people are anxious – and I use that word advisedly, since it means something more like “in a state of anxiety” and less like “in a state of anticipation and readiness.” In our case, I think it’s likely both: we are anxious because of uncertainty, and we are wanting to return to something closer to what we know as “normal.”

I can’t give you a date yet for when we will open the building. If we were a regular business, I might be tempted to blow smoke and give you an answer you want to hear, but because we are a church of Jesus Christ sitting at the foot of his cross, I must tell you plainly: We are in for a long haul. The re-opening of the church building is going to move in stages or phases. I’ll say more about that in a minute, but rest assured that there is a team of people keeping the CORE Council advised on ongoing discussion about making this work.

Let me give you the extreme answer first, and then I’ll scale things back into more manageable pieces.
So, we will not meet in the “normal” way until there is a vaccine that is widely available and/or there are medical interventions/therapies for people suffering from COVID-19 that are significantly effective. So that’s the longest-term answer I can give, and based on current projections, it may be as late as 2021 before those things are in place. A harsh truth, but we are about truth, not about pleasing answers.

But don’t lose heart! Between now and then, we will work in phases. Phase 1 is where we currently stand: strict physical distancing. For us that looks like entry to the church building only by appointment with appropriate masking and social distancing kept. It also looks like online-only worship.

Phase 2 is going to be a staged re-opening. This will still include limited access to the building for most people. It will probably be a long stage, since we will be anticipating during this time:
* A “flattening of the curve” (declining numbers of new cases for 2 weeks in a row)
* Increased accessibility to testing and diagnoses at the least for people who are experiencing symptoms, plus those people’s close contacts
* More availability of PPE for first responders and healthcare workers
* Better contact tracing for all new cases

During this phase, we are all going to need to show a lot of grace and love and patience toward one another, because we will likely have to do a lot of back-and-forth, now-we’re-open-now-we’re-not maneuvering. And during this phase, access to the building will be limited to people 65 and under and without underlying health conditions that could make them vulnerable. Even so, people with access will be required to sign a waiver of liability stating that the congregation (a legal entity) will not be held responsible yadda yadda. You’ll get a copy of this at some point.

When we do open the building during phase 2, when waivers are signed, numbers of people allowed in will still be limited; masks will be required at all times; there will be no physical contact including passing of the peace; communal objects including the baptismal font, the offering plate for passing, the elements of Holy Communion will not be available; we will have no fellowship time, no in-person meetings or Bible studies, no in-person choir rehearsals; no choir performances (and very limited musical performances); no communal coffee available, and restroom access will be limited to emergency use only.

An advanced/adaptive version of Phase 2 might include outdoor worship gatherings with masking and proper distances kept, and this might allow us to have some singing. Oklahoma weather will need to cooperate with us for a change in order for this to be feasible, though. In terms of Communion, we will recommend that you BYOE (Bring Your Own Elements). This is similar to what we’re doing online right now. It’s not sacramentally and theologically ideal, since the symbolism of a single bread and a single cup are very important, and yet we must adapt for the sake of health and safety. (Incidentally, intinction, which is less sanitary even than drinking from a common cup, will probably go away permanently, even as we enter Phase 3 and beyond.)

In order to move into Phase 3 (or “new normal” phase)  we will need to increase sanitation and hygiene measures in the building. We will continue to offer online worship and other online meetings for members and friends who are unable for any reason to be physically present with us. In phase 3 itself, we will be able to relax requirements on physical distancing and use of masks in most or all places.

So, there is the plan. We do have one, and we will work the plan. The timeline, as I said, isn’t ours to set. The virus is sort of “in charge” here, as is the behavior of the public insofar as it affects the way the virus spreads or doesn’t. Please know that our entire approach is based first on our love for all of you and our desire to keep you as safe as possible while we seek to return to the precious gathering of the saints in something like the way to which we have grown accustomed. It is a privilege and a joy to meet face-to-face, and if there is a silver lining in all of this (I believe there are several), it is that we are gaining clarity on how important public worship and Christian fellowship truly are in our lives.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for caring and continuing to care about what happens to this community. You really are a special People, First Lutheran. Your patience and care for one another are an example for the world of Christ’s love for one another, even as he has loved us. Keep fighting the good fight and running the race. Feed your spirits with THE Spirit through prayer, devotion, work for the sake of your neighbor. Please continue to support the work of the congregation with your offerings. It has been inspirational how faithful you all have been in that regard during this time. Be filled with blessing.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you.
May he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.
(And may he do it sooner rather than later!)

Amen.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Rob Martin

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