Local churches begin moving inside to worship

By: Emily Willis​ of Hickory Daily Record

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many local churches jumped countless hurdles in order to continue worshipping. With cold weather lurking around the corner and restrictions being lifted, many congregations have decided to return to their sanctuaries.

Rob Helton, pastor at St. Paul’s Reformed Church in Newton, said many factors influenced church leadership to opt for the congregation to re-enter the sanctuary. “A lot of factors were coming together. Some of our people were kind of fatigued of the drive-in services,” he explained.

Helton’s church held drive-in services and streamed online from the Sunday after Easter until the last Sunday in September. He added that the planning and set-up for these services was starting to weigh on church volunteers. “More than that, there was something about not worshipping in the building that made (congregants) feel a little disconnected,” Helton said. “A lot of people would tell me that they spiritually feel a little anemic. It just wasn’t quite the same.”

Church leadership came up with plans to re-enter the sanctuary about a month ago. “We knew we needed to be intentional about how we bring people in and get them out,” Helton said.

Helton’s church asks folks to wear a mask during the entire service, they get their temperature taken before entering the building and they are escorted by an usher to a pew or to the fellowship hall. In the sanctuary, every other pew is closed in order to social distance.

“It’s hard to tell people where they’re going to sit — but our people have been really good about it. They have been so cooperative and so good-hearted,” Helton said.

“We haven’t had any complaints or any kind of resistance or anything, which has been refreshing,” Helton continued. “I guess what they say about times of crisis, you know, they either pull people together or push people apart. Our people fortunately have really come together.”

Helton said on a normal Sunday morning, there would be about 100 people in service. Since re-entering their building, he said there are a little over 50 folks who come out. The church is not holding Sunday school or offering child care. “We are still live-streaming our services, so our people can watch from home if they aren’t comfortable with coming out yet,” Helton said.

Brian Correll, pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Conover, is also giving his congregation options when it comes to worshipping. When the COVID-19 pandemic began back in March, he knew he needed to act fast to make sure his congregation was taken care of.

“We originally started with a drive-in church service on Sunday mornings that was also streamed on Facebook Live, and our Sunday and Wednesday night services were online,” Correll explained. This lasted until around May or June.

Next, the congregation was given the option of attending one of three Sunday morning services held inside the sanctuary. “We had three services, we sat people in every other pew, and we had a cleaning service come in before and after all services,” he said.

“And we haven’t had any outbreaks,” Correll added. “I think we’ve had three people total who have had the virus since March.”

About two week ago, the church whittled the three Sunday morning services down to two. “Nothing else has changed; we still clean — every service, every surface — and we also still stream our services online,” Correll said. Services are also broadcast on an FM station for folks who want to come to church but stay in their cars. The church has also opted for no choir, no offering plate, and no handshake greetings. “We don’t pass the offering plate around anymore, and we don’t do the normal handshakes and greetings — it’s just the new normal,” Correll admitted.

Helton’s church is operating similarly. Both pastors and their congregations are willing to sacrifice these small habits.

“(Worshipping together) is an encouragement, and we all need that,” Correll said. “In this world, it’s good to know that people love you, care for you, support you, and are here to help you through hard times.”

Helton agreed. “There is something about our spiritual DNA that longs for that togetherness, and we can trace that all the way back to the early church in the first century, where almost immediately they started to come together,” he said. “Fellowship and worship kind of go hand-in-hand. Those are two central aspects of what it means to be the church.”

Until some sort of resolution arises for the pandemic, Correll says his church will continue their safety precautions. “We don’t have any plans to change our services or the way we are doing things right now,” he said.

For Helton and Correll, keeping their congregations safe is a top priority. “We weighed everything with how we keep our people safe, because the last thing in the world that I want to do is be the pastor where someone comes through our church and contracts the virus,” Helton said. “And I certainly never want to conduct a funeral for someone that got sick due to something that I did or didn’t do.”