BIXBY, Okla. (BP) – As churches begin to plan to return to physical gatherings, many are taking extra – and innovative – steps to protect high-risk individuals.
Evergreen Baptist Church in Bixby, Okla., plans to reopen its building May 17 for an in-person worship service – but only for those age 55 and older.
Michael Gabbert, Evergreen’s senior pastor, said the primary goal was to honor older members of the congregation by bringing them back into the community they’ve so deeply longed for during the COVID-19 pandemic, but to do so safely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults and people with underlying medical conditions “seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications” from the coronavirus.
Gabbert noted that, at least anecdotally, it seems Evergreen’s senior adults have experienced great levels of stress and loneliness while remaining at home and social distancing.
“As we were contemplating how to begin reopening, we decided that it was important to get our seniors out of the house and back into some level of human interaction first,” he said.
Another factor in the decision was Evergreen’s building capacity. Evergreen’s average Sunday attendance in two services is about 850, according to Gabbert. But the building’s seating capacity is only 800, which meant even with two services, there would not be enough space to maintain social distancing protocols.
Jerry Boyd, Evergreen’s pastor to adults, said while members have a deep longing to be together again, the church needs to provide a safe environment for that to happen.
“We’re going to take it one step at a time,” Boyd said. “We just felt like starting with our senior adults is the most logical place because those folks have been the most isolated, even though we see across the board that people are ready to get back to church. We felt like starting with our senior adults would honor them and let them know that they’re important to us, an important part of this body.”
The service, which will simply consist of musical worship and the sermon, will also be broadcast online for those who don’t attend. At least initially, in-person Sunday School classes won’t be held, although the church’s small groups had the option of meeting in person beginning Sunday (May 3).
Gabbert said limiting the in-person gathering to those in the older demographic might still draw more people than could be safely accommodated while social distancing. Therefore, Gabbert asked that senior adults who are actively involved in a small group meet with that group rather than attend the service.
Sylvia Fletcher, 73, a small group leader, said she is excited to resume in-person worship services, but also enjoyed meeting with her small group again Sunday.
“It was just glorious being together,” Fletcher said.
Evergreen has not yet finalized its planning for in-person gatherings beyond May 17. Gabbert said church leaders would consider several factors in determining how to move forward, including changes in local conditions related to the pandemic.
“You have to plan and have something out there, and if that isn’t going to come about, you plan for something else,” Fletcher said, adding:
“As long as we keep the mind of Christ and are going to be the hands and feet of Him, we’ve got to measure our steps; we can’t be inactive. We’ve got to keep going and sharing. That’s what Evergreen is trying to enable us to do, to continue on and not dry up. To not get discouraged, but to keep on [going].”