The past seven weeks have been tough on local churches, but with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive that churches could return to holding normal services, Sunday, May 10, was their first opportunity to gather in person again.
Pastor Jeff Langley of First Baptist Church in Gainesville said it has been really difficult not being around the church members the past two months.
“One of the most amazing is having people together in the community,” Langley said. “To not be able to see everybody is difficult. Not being able to enjoy the friendships face to face, serve everybody and enjoy the community together and study God’s word together was tough. I haven’t been able to visit any hospitals and funerals were delayed.”
First Baptist, 308 E. Broadway, broadcast its services on TV locally and online and that will continue, according to Langley, who said they have brought new viewers to the church.
“It has been fantastic and interesting because the things we’re finding that we have people watching us from other places and countries watch us,” Langley said. “We’re connecting with people in new ways for sure. While that’s great, it doesn’t replace getting together. It’s just nice to be able to do something during this interim.”
While services have been online, members have shown their appreciation, Langley said.
“Everybody has been really, really encouraging,” Langley said. “People have been happy that we’ve been doing all we can do. People have sent emails and texts letting us know that they appreciate what we’ve been trying to do for them.”
As the weeks went on, Langley said the church has been learning how to make its service better, including adding live chats to the online services.
“We change stuff every week like upgrading cameras and we’ve been adding more video content to the service and one of the things we’ve been doing is incorporating people from our congregation into the service,” Langley said. “Graphics have improved significantly from where we were two months ago and even when we’re singing, we had the lyrics on there.”
Abbott issued a minimum set of standard protocols for the return to in-person services starting with social distancing rules for members as well as requirements for employees and volunteers such as screening regulations and mandatory masks.
“Part of the reason we closed is we want to be good neighbors and when the city decided to shut things down, we wanted to comply and as soon as we could open up to 50% last week, it was really an easy decision for us,” Langley said. “We want to be careful. We put in a lot of guidelines. All volunteers and staff get their temperature checking when they come in and everyone into the building has to use hand sanitizer. We encourage members to wear masks, but we required staff to wear some.”
First Baptist Church also disinfected all the seats and had ushers seat the members as well as dismissing them row by row.
As for how the first services this past Sunday, Langley said it was a great experience.
“We probably had about a quarter of our church there on Sunday,” Langley said. “A lot of people aren’t coming back just yet because they want to give it a few weeks, especially our high-risk people. We had a lot of people still connecting with us online but it was great to have people in our room and be able to talk to them live. As things keep progressing, we’ll see more and more each week.”
Worship services will be at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on future Sundays. Langley said the members were excited to be back.
“It was just a blessing to get to talk face to face with people I hadn’t seen for almost two months,” Langley said. “That was the biggest thing for me. There were people that were just so happy to be together. Online communities are great, but it’s just not the same as face to face.”
Langley expects the numbers to rise as the weeks pass and that he expects them to continue to attend Wednesday night Bible study as well as children’s services.
“I think we’ll see a significant number more than last week,” Langley said. “I think we’ll still have a lot online for a while. We’re going to keep doing all the things online and we want to be clear that it’s OK to not come back. We’ll see a slow return to our community, but I’m very excited about getting back to normal. I do think it’s going to be a relatively slow process. As soon as we can do more, we will. We just want to go along with the guidelines of the city and our governor.”
Faith Lutheran Church also returned to its Sunday service and while the church also instituted health protocols, Pastor Paul Terral said its smaller number — it has 40-plus members — wasn’t as complicated to deal with.
“We’re pretty small, so as we follow the governor’s guidelines for places of worship, it’s pretty much our church’s size,” Terral said. “It went fine and how it used to go and we spaced out. Everybody was super excited. Faith and warship are a big part of Christians’ lives so it was really great to be at church again.”
Returning to in-person services was a welcome sight, Terral said, and the time away from that physical gathering was tough.
“Our church believes that to be a church that you gather in person around God’s word, so it was very difficult to withhold that for the time being,” Terral said. “It was almost as if we weren’t our usual self. It was very difficult for me. It’s a big part of any pastor’s job is to talk and meet and pray with and encourage and when you can’t, it’s very difficult.”
As the weeks go on, Terral said he hopes things can get more and more back to normal.
”Some people worry less than others or have different circumstances and some will jump right back into it whenever they can and some will be more hesitant,” Terral said. “I think that’s normal.”
Faith Lutheran Church’s services are at 10:15 a.m. Sundays at the church, 1823 Luther Lane.