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Fellowship Church ‘blown away’ by response to on-site worship

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) — They wore masks. They maintained plenty of distance. They worshiped. They … cried.

Despite planning for weeks, leaders of Fellowship Church weren’t quite sure what to expect when they resumed in-person worship services last weekend (May 2-3). Ed Young Jr., senior pastor of the multisite church, knew people wanted to get back to church after weeks isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The response, he said, “blew me away.”

Fellowship Church held one service Saturday evening and two Sunday morning at its Grapevine campus. Four other campus sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area held only one Sunday morning service (campus sites in South Florida and Norman, Okla., did not meet last weekend because of continuing local restrictions).

Still, he wondered if the crowd would be “like BBs in a boxcar.” The combined attendance of around 2,500 was much smaller than usual. But it was clear:

“People desire this,” Young said. “It’s the physicality of the church. We love online church. We’ve been online for a long time. The numbers are ridiculously big, and that’s great. But there’s nothing like the physicality (of gathering).”

And the depth of emotion of those who gathered was surprising, according to John Cross, president of C3 Global and C3 Conferences, a ministry of Fellowship Church designed to equip and encourage pastors to grow the local church.

“There were people weeping with joy because, ‘We get to worship in person,'” Cross said. “Albeit with social distancing and (adhering to) CDC guidelines, there’s still something so special and exciting about being together as God’s people. That totally was amazing to me.”

Even amid a “new normal” — which was the title of Young’s message — with continued social distancing and other safety measures, he is encouraging other churches to resume in-person worship services as soon as possible. Young said Fellowship Church’s plan, from the beginning of the pandemic, had been to reopen as soon as possible. Fellowship’s leadership team began working through how to resume in-person services soon after the initial stay-at-home directives were issued, wanting to be ready.

“We’re not going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs or anything,” Young said, adding: “We wanted to be aggressive and do this just to make a statement to the culture about God, that the church is not a noun, it’s a verb.”

Fellowship Church has created resources to help other churches in planning to resume in-person gatherings. Available at MyC3Global.com, they include logistics documents, possible signage and guidance for volunteers and two webinars.

Young said while it was clear people wanted to return, “You could feel the angst and the fear in people. You could see how pandemic fear is.” But he and Cross said extensive safety protocols in place helped make people more comfortable and confident.

With each campus site limiting attendance to 25 percent capacity — which was not a requirement imposed on churches under Texas guidelines — the church requested those who wanted to attend to make reservations.

Once in the parking lot, volunteers — wearing masks with the message “GREAT 2 C U” — directed cars to park in every other spot.

People were greeted outside, rather than in the atrium, and used only designated entrances. They were provided with face coverings and escorted to seats by ushers, beginning in the front of the auditorium and working toward the back. Every other row was vacant; people were seated with at least six feet between family units. After each service, attendees were dismissed row by row.

The sanctuary underwent thorough cleaning before the services and again between each service. The process required more time between services. Restroom use, monitored by volunteers, was limited to one-half the number of sinks.

“People understood the process,” Cross said, “and they celebrated and appreciated the attention to detail.”

One surprising — and very encouraging — thing, according to Young: Among those who gathered were several first-time visitors.

“How crazy is that?” Young said. “I did not expect that at all.”

In the days after the services, leaders from Fellowship and C3 Global worked through a review of the initial return. They produced a webinar May 4 with the big-picture review of the first weekend’s services. Designed to accompany an earlier ‘how-to’ webinar posted April 28, it’s available at MyC3Global.com — as are many other resources for churches planning to resume in-person services.

Among the impressions, which Young said will prompt changes this weekend and thereafter: They recognized how important it was to “keep services tight.”

“We all have a tendency sometimes to go long,” Young said. “Brevity is big.”

Additionally, knowing that many continue to watch the services online rather than attend, Young said he will attempt to speak directly to those still at home, even as he speaks to the physical audience.

“I’m trying — we’re also trying — to treat that camera as a person,” he said.

Young also suggested church leaders should “really work at keeping an attitude of joy and excitement. When you have face coverings, it really takes away from the experience. So maybe, go overboard in (being demonstrative).”

Not all of the emotion was joyous.

Fellowship Church’s safety protocols included signs held by volunteers in the parking lot with the message: “Please join us online if you’ve had these symptoms this week,” and a list including fever over 100 degrees, cough or sore throat, shortness of breath or contact with anyone confirmed to have COVID-19 (in the last 14 days).

One woman who had planned to visit Fellowship Church for the first time read the sign and informed a volunteer she worked with COVID-19 patients. Cross said a female staff member spoke with the woman, saying: “We appreciate so much what you’re doing in serving others, and the difference you’re making. Thank you for fighting this virus. But for the safety of all who attend, we’d like to welcome you to join us online.”

Although the would-be visitor said she understood, she began to cry — and the staff member cried, too. Cross said the staff member provided the woman with a visitors’ gift bag and planned to follow up with her during the week.

It was a difficult moment. But thankfully, according to Young and Cross, it didn’t have to be repeated during Fellowship Church’s initial return to in-person services in a new normal that felt odd, but also like a reunion.

“It was amazing,” Cross said. “Truly a homecoming, which was really how we tried to encourage our church to be looking forward to it.”

And Young said his overarching message to other pastors and churches who are considering how to relaunch is simple.

“I would just encourage them to open,” Young said. “There’s gonna be a lot of uncertainty but it’s been worth it. I’m thrilled that we did it. It’s something we can build on. I’m looking for great things in the future for our churches, and for all churches.”