In-Person Church: An Update

by Rev. Kelly Colwell

While the pandemic continues and beyond it, First Church is committed to creating, curating, and offering a high-quality, personal, participatory, inspiring, and communal virtual worship service each week.  We will continue to offer this on platforms that encourage commenting.  Have multiple leaders, live components to give it zest, beautiful music, and creative elements.  

However, we’re realizing that there are some folks in our community who are really isolated and yearning to make in-person eye contact with other church folks.  We don’t know when it will be possible for us to gather as a whole church in person, but it may be quite a while, and we need to make sure we are taking care of each other for the long haul.  With this in mind, the church staff, worship team, and Church Council have begun having discussions about what possibilities we might explore for some supplementary in-person experiences that would be safe enough for a limited number of people.  

Our framework for COVID decisions has to do with a ratio of benefit:risk.  We are seeking the significant benefit of reducing isolation for folks while keeping the additional risk as low as possible.  We definitely acknowledge that there some people in the congregation will decide not to attend anything in person during the pandemic–for some people, the benefit seems too small, while for others, the risk seems too high. 

We are already making different decisions about risks and benefits all the time–some of us are members of pods, or doing distanced visits with friends, or visiting grocery stores, hair salons, or gyms, or even traveling on planes, while others are strictly isolating at home.  We will need to continue to extend each other grace as we each weigh risks and benefits for ourselves.

We also want to note that while it may be tempting to imagine a past when we were all safe to gather, that past was never as safe as we thought.  There was always a risk of spreading some contagion–not COVID, but colds, flu, or more serious illness.  Some members of our community were always more at risk than others, and those more vulnerable folks have been making safety calculations since much earlier than the current pandemic. One of the “silver linings” of the pandemic is our raised awareness of this inequality and our increased focus on making sure we’re not leaving people behind.

Before we would offer anything in person, we would first need to reach some COVID milestones in our area.  We’ve decided to use the Alameda County numbers as our benchmark, looking at two different metrics.  We are watching the seven-day average new case number to see if cases are increasing or decreasing, and we are watching the test positivity rate, which helps us know whether enough is being done to understand the population infection rate.  The good news is that Alameda County’s positive testing rate is very good: 2% as of September 20, which means that we’re testing enough people.  The bad news is that after a month of decline in August, September brought an uptick in case numbers, so we’re waiting for that to reverse before thinking about gathering.  

When the numbers seem right, we have two events we will likely try.  First, after three weeks of sustained decline, we may try “Porch Church,” small gatherings of folks in neighborhood groups on porches/sidewalks or in yards.  People would sign up in advance and would need to commit to distancing throughout, wearing masks over nose and mouth throughout, and staying only with family groups, and hosts would decide the number of participants they could accommodate (maybe six or eight).  We’d avoid any singing and offer a simple liturgy where people could have a physical participation experience.  We are thinking about offering this on a Sunday afternoon, and pastoral staff would make a “circuit” to several neighborhoods for these small gatherings.

The second idea, which we might offer after four or more weeks of sustained decline in cases, would be “Lawn Church” or “(Astro)Turf Church,” which would  take place on the church’s astroturf lawn.  We thought we’d cap the numbers at 25 participants or 10 family groups, whichever we reached first in registration.  Similar to Porch Church, we’d do a simple liturgy, no singing, and maintain the same distancing and masking requirements.  For either of these, we’d make sure that if anyone was experiencing COVID symptoms, they would commit to staying home!

Our thinking is that neither of these would have significant additional risk factors–risk of transmission outdoors in distanced spaces is vanishingly small.  And the potential benefit for those who are very isolated would be large.  There’s a lot of social science research lately about how much it matters to mental health to see other people in person, even if we can’t touch each other.

We’ll keep you posted as plans shape up and as we keep an eye on the numbers.  And if you’re isolated and needing additional support in the meantime, please reach out!  We can set up a Zoom “coffee date” or help you connect to other systems of community.  Let’s pray that we can find ways to meet each other’s needs and share each other’s burdens through this strange and challenging season of our church life!