Two pastors share how their churches are approaching in-person worship in 2020

Date Posted: 10/22/2020



By Lindsay Peyton
 
While many churches are reopening across the Texas Annual Conference, some are remaining online and exploring best practices in preparation of returning to in-person worship. In this second part of our series on coming back to the building, we spoke to two pastors who started church plants that have now grown by leaps and bounds. The church still has a mission and ministry to do – and these pastors share their insight on communicating the gospel in this season.
 
Jason Burnham, founding pastor at Covenant UMC in The Woodlands
 
Q. When did you reopen in-person worship? And how did you make the decision?
A. We came back on May 24 with a whole set of precautions. Before that, we were live-streaming worship. We wanted it to be live so there was an authentic engagement in that space and time. How we made the decision to return to in-person worship was two-fold. First, in discussions with leaders, staff and our pastoral team, we felt confident that no matter when church reopened, there would be serious precautions taken that would make it feel different. So why wait? You’re going to need hand sanitizer in September or May. You’re going to need to disinfect before and after services, whether it’s May or September. We’re going to need social distancing. We’re going to require masks. We’re going to have to learn how to do all of that – so why should we delay? Secondly, we were aware of the spiritual suffering of our community in isolation -- the devastating effects of job loss, family members lost, loved ones dying from COVID or loved ones who died and families were not able to visit. There was so much pain that the church could address. Jesus is the great comforter and has such a gift to offer. To do that in an incarnational way had a value. At the same time, online continues. We say join us online if you’re not comfortable coming. If your heart is to gather, even though it’s different, we encourage you to come.
 
Q. What modifications helped make the building safer for your congregation?
A. We put a return to worship plan in place. We looked at Klein, Conroe and Tomball school districts, which all resumed in person school after Labor Day. We mirrored their precautions. We looked at Houston Methodist, the CDC and state guidelines. We didn’t feel that we needed to be the experts; we followed their lead. I’m in a covenant group with six other pastors. We were meeting every other week on Zoom. We were able to push and challenge one another. We came back at different paces, because our mission fields were different and everyone had to act accordingly. When we came back, the governor had opened at 50 percent capacity. We opened at 25 percent. We decided that we would lag behind the statewide standard. We’re still at 28 percent. We do every other row and multiple seats between each family. They’re seated by ushers. We used an RSVP process in the beginning. When we add back our second English service, we will be able to get rid of the reservations. We’ll be able to meet the need.


Q. How has your attendance been affected? 
A. We’re currently at 40 percent of our pre-COVID attendance, which is high actually. All in all, people are overwhelmed with joy to return.
 
Q. What about giving?
A. Our pledges have been strong. Some have decreased giving, but others have stepped up in that gap. We don’t pass offering plates anymore. The plates are now at the back door, but most of our giving has been online. Our non-pledge giving has hurt from last year. We continue to express gratitude for the continued generosity of our members. The work of the Lord, the ministry of the church, continues. It’s significant that the congregation knows that the work is still being done – and we encourage them to invest in that. It’s evident to everyone that the world needs love, grace and hope in this season. The world needs to hear about Jesus right now.
 
Q. What outreach efforts have been your focus lately? 
A. We increased investment in our emergency assistance and our work with Tomball Emergency Assistance Ministries (TEAM). As needs arise in our community, we can help. Some of our members adopted a Tuesday to offer Taco Tuesdays and a prayer to people waiting for services at TEAM. We have sent teams to the Golden Triangle to help with gutting out homes, particularly helping one family whose roof was destroyed and water leaked into their homes. We learned a lot from Harvey – and we’re using some of those same skills. We did tarp work. We’ve removed ceilings and insulation.
 
Q. What advice would you give to other churches about reopening now that you've experienced it firsthand?  
A. My advice is to return – do it, but do it safely. We want folks to say, after their first Sunday back, that it’s the safest experience I’ve had. I’m checking in with our lay leaders to see how we’re doing – and that’s what we’re hearing. It helps us know that we’re on the right track. Also, your online ministry should continue. You don’t want the message to be that we’re back, and if you don’t want to come, you’re not a part of this. We want to journey with folks on what their next step is forward. If they were entirely connected through the digital community, we wanted to look at ways they could continue digitally or try outdoor worship. If you’re not ready for a sanctuary, but you’re ready for the back porch with three people for prayer and study, we can do that too. For me that’s a lesson. How do we meet people where they are and help them take the next step? Maybe the next step is one-on-one for coffee. Or maybe the next step is introducing someone to a few Christians who watch football together. Maybe the next step is to go to a Bible study or join a men’s Christian group. Acting like there’s a one-size-fits-all step is foolish. And that’s true of evangelism too.
 
Q. Have there been any lessons gained from the pandemic that will carry into the future? 
A. I have a much deeper appreciation for the profound gospel impact that be experienced online. The spirit of God can work and move in digital mediums. We also started community groups during COVID. These are groups of folks who have never been together before. They started meeting online, and now they’ve started meeting in person, in homes or backyards. We brought outdoor furniture for our church so folks can meet here and so we can do porch meet-ups with the pastor. We had to rethink the way we meet in person.
 
Q. Do you have any spiritual advice to give people during this uncertain time?
A. I look at Isaiah: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be anxious, for I am your God. I will fortify you, yes, I will help you, I will really hold on to you with my right hand of righteousness.” I do not believe that we are called to grow content or complacent in our fear. Fear is a dominant force in our world today. Still, fearing not does not mean to be foolish. Proverb 16 talks about how wisdom is greater than gold. For us, it’s about trust in the Lord’s wisdom. We’re learning from each other and we’re willing to ask good and hard questions. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil.” I just want us to trust that God is doing something incredible in this season, but we have to be bold enough to seek out how God is leading us.


Dr. Ken Werlein, founding pastor at Faithbridge in Spring

Q. When did you reopen in-person worship? And how did you make the decision?
A. We have been back since Sept. 20. We just had our fourth Sunday. I made the decision with a lot of advice from the Texas Medical Center. We have one of the finest medical centers in the world. Through good fortune, I was able to talk to Dr. Marc Boom (CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital). He graciously joined with me and a handful of pastors on Zoom in July. I just said, “Dr. Boom, you’re talking to a group of pastors who want to reopen, but we want to do it responsibly as well.” At that point, there were 2,400 hospital beds in use in the Texas Medical Center. He asked us to hold until we were down to 600 beds, to wait until our COVID-19 positive percentages were lower. It would position us to make sure the medical community was not overrun – and that should be everyone’s concern. It would also reduce the number of asymptomatic cases in our congregations. That was guiding us first and foremost. I didn’t want to be an early adopter, but I didn’t think we needed to hold until 2021.
 
Q. What modifications helped make the building safer for your congregation?
A. We had a team that for months worked on what we need to do. It involved getting very expensive new air filtrations. We bought a bunch of germ busters for our maintenance teams to spray between services. Then there was the debate on masks. I based that decision on scriptural teaching. In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 8, you have a bunch of new believers to whom Paul was writing. They also had a controversy – about whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. They explained that they were free by grace and could go ahead and eat the meat. Technically, Paul said, you’re right. We are saved through faith. The idols don’t have any power; they’re just wood and stone. But there are some people, who Paul described as having a weak conscience, who will be confused if they see you eating in an idol’s temple. For the sake of the weaker brother, I’m going to say don’t eat the meat, because it could cause them to stumble. The devil is always trying to drive a wedge in the church. Let’s defer to the weaker brother. We have the strong, the vibrant. We also have people who feel weaker now – and who might be medically more at risk. For their sake, let’s defer to the weak. Jesus said he would leave the 99 to care for the one. The 99 should follow him. We decided that we’re going to wear masks, and we’re enforcing that. We haven’t had any problems. It creates a higher sense of safety.
 
Q. How has your attendance been affected? 
A. Most of our congregation is still online. Our viewership hasn’t diminished. We have about a third of our people back in the church, about 1,000.
 
Q. What about giving?
A. We’ve been clear with our people that just because we’re not on campus doesn’t mean ministry isn’t still happening. We just passed one million pounds of food distributed for Bridging for Tomorrow. We’re still carrying a staff and we need help and generosity as always. We also broke ground on an expansion a month before COVID. We prayed a lot as leaders, and we moved forward. The good news is we’re right on track. People will be coming back to a better building. Our aggregate giving was down about 10 percent, but our spending was down about 10 percent as well. It has all been about even at this point.



Q. Tell me more about your ministry, Bridging for Tomorrow? 
A. We run a ministry called Bridging for Tomorrow, which is about 6 miles to the south of us in a lower income demographic. We have offices down there and staff that leads volunteers in after school mentoring, food pantry distribution and so much more. We operate under a separate 501(c)3, but Faithbridge is the number one donor. A large part of our offering and mission goes straight to them. Our volunteers go there. That’s where we’re doing the most good. Here’s a video about what we’ve been doing since COVID-19, https://vimeo.com/464614520.
 
Q. What advice would you give to other churches about reopening now that you've experienced it firsthand?  
A. You should go as quickly as you can – but as slow as you must. I mentor a lot of church planters, who have 20, 30 or 100 members. I was in a Zoom with them back in May or June. One was telling me that he planned to reopen then. I asked how many members he had, and he replied that there are 30. I said, you could reopen this Sunday, go to a park and bring lawn chairs. It’s easier for him to pivot with 30 than for me with 3,000. You have to give this a lot of intentionality. You can move too quickly and be careless – and you’ll deal with the fallout. Or you can take a more responsible approach. You might move slower, but in the end, you’ll do the most good and the least harm.
 
Q. Have there been any lessons gained from the pandemic that will carry into the future? 
A. One of the things I’ve learned, I’m afraid, is that we Americans do not suffer well. If we had lived from 1915 to 1965, in those 50 years, we would have been through WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and John F. Kennedy getting shot. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated only three years later. You move forward from 1965 to now, we haven’t lived through as much. In the book of James, 1:2-3, we’re told to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds, because the testing of our faith produces perseverance. We need to put our energy into discipleship. Christians have suffered historically, and even in our lifetimes, they have been persecuted for their faith.  Historically, the most recent 50 years have required far less sacrifice, and most Americans have had it comparatively cushy. We have some growing up to do. I wish that we could show more unity in this season. We could have rallied together. The people who get it, whose Gospel is clear, they’re gaining fortitude. They’re keeping cool heads and warm hearts. There are plenty of challenges that will come. Our spiritual muscles may have grown flabby. Hopefully, in this season, we will tone up and our faith will grow stronger.
 
Q. Do you have any spiritual advice to give people during this uncertain time?
A. Jesus said in John 16:33, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” I remind myself that we’re not getting anything Jesus didn’t warn us was going to happen. Life is bumpy. It’s wrought with challenges. But keep your eyes on the end game. That’s where the hope comes for the believer. We don’t come to Christ, because He’s going to give us a better or simpler life. He said, you’re going to suffer. Christians deal with tragedy, with loss and death, like anyone else. The difference is we understand that God loves us, God sent his son to die for us. We too will conquer in the end.
 
For more information about Faithbridge, visit www.faithbridge.org.
To learn more about Covenant, go to www.covenantconnects.org.