Here’s the church, here’s the steeple

Open the door and see a few people

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

A dozen people were part of a dress rehearsal Sunday for in-person, masked and socially-distanced worship beginning May 9 at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by George Street)

LOUISVILLE — John Knox Presbyterian Church in Louisville held a dry run Sunday as it seeks to reopen for in-person worship on Mother’s Day, May 9. A dozen of us — all fully vaccinated — masked up and sat only in the pews marked with green streamers to take in the dry run, worship our risen Savior and make suggestions for next week’s opener.

Next week’s indoor worship can accommodate up to about 40 people, all of whom are being asked to notify the church ahead of time and to follow practices designed to keep everyone safe, including not singing hymns together and not responding aloud even though we’re used to throughout part of the liturgy. We’ll also be asked to take our fellowship time outdoors following worship. Planners hope to keep the worship service at about 40 minutes.

Sunday’s dress rehearsal proved a little strange and yet wonderful all at once.

Before worship began, this extrovert wanted to hug people I’d rarely seen over the past 14 months. But I resisted the urge. My wife Susan is the transitional pastor at John Knox, and I’m learning to behave myself. I mostly just sat in a green pew and smiled beneath my mask at the other 11 gathered in the sanctuary for worship.

John Knox Presbyterian Church Music Director Hannah Gruver disguised the hymns Sunday so people participating in a dry run for in-person worship wouldn’t be tempted to sing them. (Photo by George Street)

The session and a specially created pandemic committee thought of quite a few workarounds with safety in mind during our first forays into in-person worship. In an effort to get us not to sing during worship, Hannah Gruver, the church’s music director, is disguising the hymns by changing a few notes and the meter. She and Susan are also choosing lesser-known hymns for use in worship. An intrepid ruling elder is taking prayer requests by hauling a boom microphone around so worshipers can safely voice their concerns.

As we prepared to take our individually wrapped bread and cup on Sunday, Susan used American Sign Language to teach us some of the verbs that are prominent in the communion liturgy — shares, welcomes, leads, heals, gives new life, and prays. When it was our turn to use the ASL terms, it helped us feel better about not saying our usual part of the well-known liturgy.

After Sunday’s dry run, the 12 of us — funny how that number keeps popping up — discussed what went well, what didn’t, and ideas for welcoming worshipers May 9 while keeping them safe. “Why not lay a pair of worship bulletins on the pews where you want people to sit?” asked one. “How about giving worshipers the hymn number so they can follow the lyrics while Hannah plays,” suggested another, even though in-person singing is still a few months off. And by all means let’s set up some chairs in Fellowship Hall for the people who forget to make a worship “reservation,” said a third worshiper.

Susan came home from the dry run ecstatic. “I’d forgotten,” she said, “how good it feels” to preach and lead worship in person.

Susan and Hannah will continue to meet each Wednesday to record worship for church members and friends who can’t yet worship in person. The two worship leaders are being called to get creative during the next few weeks as George, John Knox’s faithful recording and editing expert, takes a well-deserved break.

As we prepare to join our hearts, if not our voices, next week and beyond, I’m grateful both for ways we can be welcoming and careful. Thanks be to God!

A few resources as churches consider in-person hybrid worship:

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