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Church plants that meet in school buildings face reopening challenges

ATLANTA, Ga. (BP) — As the state of Georgia continues on a path to reopening, Christ Covenant Church is cautiously planning to resume in-person gatherings. But decisions about when and how to return are complicated by where.

Christ Covenant has called Sutton Middle School its Sunday home for 2 1/2 years. The church, which averaged about 500 in attendance before the COVID-19 pandemic, will be ready to reopen before the school does — which has Jason Dees, Christ Covenant’s pastor, searching for options that might even include a local synagogue on a temporary basis.

The church plans to begin Sunday (May 17) holding small gatherings of perhaps 30-40 people at a venue known as The Collective, while continuing to livestream the services. Meetings of the full congregation likely wouldn’t resume until August, but securing a larger venue for later in the summer hasn’t been simple.

“A lot of them are saying, ‘well you can’t meet here until we meet here,’ so whenever they’re comfortable having people in their building is a factor also,” Dees explained.

Christ Covenant’s quandary isn’t unusual. Although numbers weren’t readily available, Travis Smalley, Send City missionary with the North American Mission Board and pastor of Lakota Hills Baptist Church in West Chester, Ohio, said the practice of church plants holding services in schools has become “a large part of church planting.”

“There’s a lot of renting and leasing agreements,” he said.

For those church plants, the ability to reopen is tied not only to general guidelines and safety protocols, but to school district policies.

Smalley noted that in Ohio, for example, where some school districts are contemplating alternate scheduling for the fall semester in order to protect students from the coronavirus, some school officials are newly hesitant about renting their facilities to outside groups. Some church plants might have to find new venues to meet.

“What I’ve been really praying for is the strengthening of relationships between [church plants and] some of the established churches that are here,” Smalley said. “Maybe they could provide space and alternative times to some of our church plants to meet.”

He suggested those relationships might grow beyond agreements for use of facilities and create partnerships for prayer, encouragement and help with scheduling.

Some decisions will depend on relationships already built between church plants and the schools they’ve been using to meet. Mark Ford, pastor of Go Church in Ridgefield, Wash., said during the plant’s 18 months meeting at Sunset Ridge Intermediate School, a friendship has grown with the school district’s superintendent.

The reopening plan set out by the state of Washington would allow Go Church to resume regular in-person meetings in Phase 4, likely in mid-July. Ford said the superintendent had assured him that the church would be able to host services at Sunset Ridge even if the school is not yet in session.

“We’re gonna do everything we can with each phase,” Ford said. “There’s a lot up in the air.”

Ford said Go Church members, like so many others, are realizing that even as the pandemic has pushed and stretched them to the edge of what they’re able to handle, they’ve also been growing in unexpected ways.

“That’s the nature of testing. You’ve got to go past the point of where you think you can’t handle it anymore to grow,” Ford said. “God isn’t finished yet. Even though we want it to be over, He’s just not quite finished yet. There’s another mile or two in the race.”