My experience of going 'Back to Church'
It was just coming up for 10 o clock on Sunday morning as I and the family got ready to leave the house. For the first time since March, we were preparing to physically go to church rather than participate online. What would it be like?
Although churches are now allowed to meet, the guidelines on how to do so safely are challenging to follow. A number of churches are looking at how many people can be accommodated with social distancing and discovering that it is relatively few. Then there are the lengthy risk assessments and the fact that we can’t do things that we normally take for granted… like sing or enjoy fellowship with one another over tea or coffee afterwards.
As we set off on Sunday morning, having booked our seats in advance, questions were going around in my mind: Will it still feel like church? Will it simply serve to remind me of how much I miss what I used to consider ‘normal’?
The church we were attending had changed venue from their own building to a school hall. As we arrived at the gates of the school we were given a warm, socially distanced greeting, and told which entrance to head towards. There we were met by someone else who directed us to the hand sanitiser at the entrance of the hall. From there we were shown our seats – complete with activity packs for the children and a packet of Haribo for everyone! The chairs had been carefully spaced out in the room with name labels for the family groups.
As the service began, simultaneously being broadcast online, we were reminded that we could not sing, but we could clap, dance, wave flags or hum along quietly to ourselves. The worship leader sang and played his guitar from behind a screen. Later an all-age activity had us doing actions to help remind us of some of the history and geography of Genesis. After another song, the pastor continued the sermon series on James that had been started online. We left via the one-way system, having used hand sanitiser once more, and joined others in the car park for a socially distanced chat.
And after we had left, I reflected on my contrasting feelings from the experience: on the one hand it was different, but yet, somehow, it seemed so normal; I would like to have sung but there was still a great joy in worshipping in the same room as others; online is good and we must look at how we can continue to make more use of technology, but nothing can fully replace being physically present.
Overall, Sunday served to remind me just how much I have missed communal worship where we are physically present.
I know it was a lot of hard work for the church to set things up. I know it won’t be possible for every church to do this and no church or minister should feel pressured to simply because others are. Each circumstance and church is different and each must make a decision about what is right for them. Here I simply reflect that I was worried that the restrictions that need to be followed might make a church service feel so different that my focus was on what was missing rather than God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The first verse of Psalm 122 comes to mind in a fresh way as I contemplate when we might next go:
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’
And next time I go, I will be rejoicing even more!