ASHLAND, Ky. (BP) – Ninety-year-old Fred Boggs stepped into the church sanctuary for the first time in almost a year last Wednesday night (Feb. 24).
There was no masking his excitement or hiding the smile behind the mask he was wearing. He was back and loving it.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling. I felt like I was floating,” he said. “It was good to get together to see the faces of people. I could identify most of them even though they wore masks.”
Senior adults just like him are starting to come back to Kentucky Baptist churches after receiving their second dose of vaccine for the coronavirus. Many have been waiting for nearly a full year.
“In my lifetime, since becoming a Christian as a boy at Pollard Baptist Church, this is the longest time I have ever gone without being in church,” said Boggs, a longtime member of Unity Baptist Church in Ashland.
With vaccines readily available and declining cases of coronavirus statewide, more senior adults and others are considering a return to their favorite pews. The virus will be around longer, but the vaccines have given seniors – the most vulnerable to the virus – a shot of confidence.
Kentucky Baptist pastors have led churches well through the pandemic, enacting extra precautions like blocking off every other pew and making sure social distancing and masks are a part of services. Few churches are back to pre-pandemic numbers, however, with the one-year anniversary approaching.
Pastors have walked gingerly in the past year, providing a safe environment for their flocks to return. Senior adults have been isolated and stayed away from attending for fear they would pick up the virus that has proven deadly for their age categories. They have learned to use technology to watch the services, but it’s not the same.
“When all this started, I had a lot of pressure from a very small group of people who said, ‘We need to leave the senior adults behind and bring together those who can,’” said Matt Shamblin, senior pastor of Rose Hill Baptist Church, also in Ashland. “I think that’s ridiculous because our church, the biblical model of the church, is of all ages. And we want our church to be safe for everyone and not be segregated. Our goal and our motive have always been, let’s move together. We’re going to move together as a church and we’re going to make it safe for everyone.”
Rose Hill has been meeting inside for only about a month but successfully held parking lot services for several months. Safety was always paramount to church leadership, the pastor said.
“It was pretty heart-wrenching to see senior adults who came back sitting in their cars crying because they finally got to see someone, that they’re finally around someone,” he said.
Senior adults are often the lifeblood of the church. They are in many cases the church leaders, the first to volunteer for duties nobody else wants and often are the biggest and most consistent givers. Their absence has been felt.
Tommy Reed, pastor of Fitzpatrick Baptist Church in Prestonsburg, Ky., said senior adults “will lead the way” on the church comeback.
“I have great confidence that the older generations are going to lead the way,” he said. “It’s made up of the Greatest Generation of America. They are fearless and they are overcomers. They will lead the way.”
Reed said he is pushing his members to get the vaccine shots and “start living again.”
“Our church as a whole felt very vulnerable and took it seriously for the most part,” he said. “We started an 8 o’clock service for 55 and up and they felt comfortable coming back to that. They helped lead the way about returning to normal.”
Nick Sandefur, senior pastor at Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, said churches should open as they can in accordance with their communities and their spaces.
“I would encourage us to lead with love and patience and, as we encourage people to come back, to contextualize your approach to be part of your community,” he said.
Churches have mostly stayed in contact with senior adults throughout the pandemic with phone calls and even limited visits. Some provided extra love and care with gifts of fruit boxes and candy around Christmas.
Boggs said the fellowship with church family was what he and his wife Alva have missed the most.
“We have our own family but our church family, people who have been with us down through the years and done things with us, that’s who I missed,” he said. “They are an extended family. I think people, once they come back, they will continue. I felt like I was floating last night.”
Reed said each week he is beginning to see more of that age group get reengaged in church.
“We’re seeing more of them coming,” he said. “They’re tired of being cooped up. … They’re saying, ‘We can’t stay cooped up forever, and I need that in my life. I’m ready to wear a mask, social distance in church and be available to God.’’’