By Nick Burt
As COVID-19 began to spread in early March, many churches across the state of Arkansas postponed in-person gatherings and moved their services online or to alternative formats. On May 4th, Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a set of guidelines for houses of worship that explain best practices and safety precautions for resuming in-person gatherings.With the new guidance released by Gov. Hutchinson, churches are beginning to return to their in-person services to varying degrees and timelines. A number of churches chose Mother’s Day, May 10th as their date to resume. Included in those congregations starting back were Crossroads New Baptist in Little Rock and First Baptist in Greenwood. Other churches, like First Baptist West Memphis are continuing with a drive in service or other alternative measures while planning a future reopening. As these churches met in person on Sunday, a common thread for both was that a set of guidelines were put in place to keep their members safe. Through a variety of methods, those in attendance were able to maintain a social distance of at least six feet. Also, masks were required or strongly encouraged and provided if those attending did not have one. Additionally, careful attention was placed on sanitizing the facility and limiting “high touch” areas. While these churches were able to gather, things were not simply back to normal. Despite the changes put in place, these churches expressed those in attendance where cautious but excited to be back in church. Ronnie Deal, pastor of First Baptist Greenwood remarked, “the atmosphere was really exciting, it was like a joyous welcome, a welcome back celebration.” Mike Smith, pastor of Crossroads added that their church members were excited to be back, but it didn’t quite feel the same with limitations in place. He said, “Overall, we are thankful to be able to have church.” Each pastor remarked that those in attendance were very compliant with the guidelines presented to them. In an effort to plan and make seating arrangements that meet social distancing standards, First Baptist Greenwood offered an online and telephone sign up option so that members could identify which service they would attend. Pastor Deal said, “around 70 people attended each of our four services and that’s about 25 to 30 percent of our normal attendance.” He also remarked that those who attended were a very blended group and made up a diverse cross section of their normal attendance.
Crossroads also made several adjustments to components of their service that have always been considered normal. At the conclusion of the message, Pastor Smith offered an invitation, but instead of inviting people forward, he simply asked them to connect with him at the conclusion of the service. Also, instead of passing an offering plate there was a box placed at the exit of the worship center for those in attendance to drop their offering. Additionally, as they dismissed, an usher dismissed attendees by every other row as they were seated. Despite all these measures, the church was able to honor mothers in a fitting manner. As attendees left, mothers were given a rose and a gift wrapped roll of toilet paper. Pastor Smith said it was a real hit with the church.Each pastor urged that churches must consider the desires and apprehensions of their congregation and make the best decision for their church. First Baptist of West Memphis initially made the adjustment to begin a drive-in service as the virus spread. They plan to continue this method for the month of May as a result of the tremendous response they’ve seen from these services. As part of their evaluation of the reopening process they conducted a church wide survey to hear from their congregation. It revealed their congregation also desired to continue drive-in services out of an abundance of caution, considering the close proximity to Memphis, Tennessee which has seen a larger number of positive cases. Pastor Josh Hall said, “throughout this time, our people have been so patient, flexible and understanding.” Despite the circumstances and changes, each pastor emphasized how thankful they were to be able to connect with their congregations. Pastor Deal said, “You need to do it right, you need to do it safe, but we need to get our people back for church.”