Sunday services are looking different under Gov. Jay Inslee’s new four-week COVID-19 restrictions, which lay out specific rules for religious gatherings: houses of worship are now limited to 25 percent capacity, or 200 people (whichever is less), and congregations are prohibited from singing. Bands and choirs are barred from performing, but soloists are allowed, or vocalists with a single accompanist.
For some local churches, the restrictions on music means a major shift in how services run. At the Centralia Church of the Nazarene, Pastor David Bach said a band of sometimes 10 people normally leads the congregation in song. Now, they’ve widdled it down to a singer accompanied by a single acoustic guitar to stay within the new mandate, and they’re asking the congregation to refrain from joining in.
“That’s really the hard thing for us,” he said. “It’s really hard to be a pastor and an enforcer.”
In order to replicate the sort of participation created through group song, Bach said Sunday service will likely involve call and response readings until the restrictions are lifted.
Grace Church in Chehalis usually has a band of four to five people during services. On Friday, administrative assistant Robin Iverson said church leadership wasn’t sure how they would perform music on Sunday.
As far as capacity restrictions, some smaller churches in the area aren’t having to shift all that much. Pastor James Stephens, of the Calvary Assembly of God in Centralia, said the church’s congregation is small enough that social distancing has been doable throughout the pandemic. Much of the congregation has been staying home anyway, since they’re older and more at-risk.
Those folks have easy access to the church’s recorded sermons. On Sunday, Stephens recorded a special Thanksgiving sermon from his home, which was made available on Facebook. The virtual sermons are going so well that the church plans to keep offering them even after the pandemic. Iverson said the same thing.
“There have been a few hiccups, just along the way. There were times when people couldn't hear or stuff like that, but now it’s going great,” she said.
So many people are opting to stay home and view the sermons virtually that Iverson said capacity won’t be an issue for them under Inslee’s new orders either.
Larger churches, however, are working to limit the size of their gatherings. Centralia Christian Church is using a pre-registration system that guests fill out to save a seat during service and ensure capacity is kept low.
For the Centralia Church of the Nazarene, limiting crowds means splitting up Sunday service into two separate events, each capped at 30 to 50 people. Bach described a gym-sized room usually packed with a large crowd, now sparsely populated with masked individuals keeping their distance.
“It absolutely does affect people’s sense of being a church community,” Bach said. “But we’re doing the best that we can and we’re really trying to make a good-faith effort in following along, because we feel like it’s a good witness to our community that we participate in keeping people safe.”
So far, Bach said the church has seen 100 percent participation in mask-wearing. He’s heard a lot of frustration around the mask mandate, and said he tries to communicate a message of sacrifice for a greater good.
“I think sometimes out of sacrifice, you lay your rights aside for something better, and not make a selfish choice,” he said. “So we’ve been doing our best to be good team players. I don’t want people who might have an experience with our church to leave thinking that we don’t care.”
While working to comply with the mandates, some churches are also trying to meet the increased need from community members who have been financially impacted by the pandemic.
“There’s definitely been an influx in people who need assistance, and there’s only so much we can do, because we’re a smaller congregation,” Stephens said.
Getting community members connected to resources is made more difficult when there’s less opportunities for social interaction — that’s the case for several local churches that are canceling events and services to curb the spread of the virus.
Grace Church, for example, canceled their annual Thanksgiving dinner, normally held at W.F. West High School — “that was a pretty big deal,” Iverson said.
The Centralia Church of the Nazarene stopped allowing local scouting groups to use their facilities, their youth group has shifted fully online. Although they’re seeing more donations toward their benevolence system — a fund to help individuals experiencing economic hardship — Bach said some community needs will likely fall through the cracks since face-to-face interaction has been disrupted.
For now, he’s telling the congregation to hold onto hope until the pandemic passes.
“All is not lost, all will be well,” he said. “And if we can keep a positive attitude about it, then that will go a long way out in the world.”