• Chris Smith

A roadmap for reopening


On June 1, the province of Manitoba will officially enter “Phase 2” of its “Restoring Safe Services” plan. This phase allows for the gradual restoration of many public services and business activities under modified regulations pursuant to the ongoing public health order that we have all been living with. It is understandable with so many things reopening and with the ongoing effects of COVID-19 being so mild in this province that many of you have been asking about what our plans are at The Bridge Church for our return to normal worship and ministry.

While the province’s guidelines do provide the barest of essential guidance for religious houses of worship to follow (gatherings of no more than 25 people indoors/50 outdoors with physical distancing continued to be observed), many of the important details of how such gatherings could happen have been left for churches to infer, or apply from similar industry practices outlined elsewhere. This has made for a confusing and uncertain landscape for churches to navigate and a keen awareness that whatever decision we end up making with regard to our reopening plan will be seen as to reckless for some, and too cautious for others. We recognize that and have nonetheless been working hard to gather information, advice, and to develop a plan that is legal, responsible, safe, and faithful to our mission and reason for existence.

Over the past couple of months, we have actively been consulting with ecclesiastical bodies both local and provincial to discuss what other churches are doing. We have been in dialogue with all the local Alliance Churches, with our district office, and with our National Ministry Centre to ensure that our plans are aligned with our broader movement to which we belong, and we have read a lot of position papers, public health articles, and theological arguments for both reopening and remaining closed by leading Christian scholars and church leaders. All while trying our best to constant improve the online experience that we are offering so that people are not left in the lurch while we deliberate.

Most of all, we have been consulting with you. You should have by now received some communication from your flock elder asking about your level of comfort with the idea of returning to some limited form of worship in small groups. We appreciate your frank and honest answers to the question as well as the enthusiasm that many of you communicated for getting back to what we normally do. We also appreciate that for many of you there is apprehension about reconvening physically and a question of whether we could offer a compelling enough reason to gather considering the limitations that would be placed upon us. To these questions there are no easy answers and perhaps even more frustratingly, no clear biblical mandate upon which we can stake our position.

And so, we are left to apply broader Christian ethics to the situation and try to discern the best we can what love for God and love for neighbour looks like in the context of a modern pandemic. In doing so we are finding that there are a number of sticky questions that resist easy answers. Here are a few of the stickiest:

· How healthy does someone have to be to attend church? Public guidance on the matter encourages public places to ask people to complete a self-health assessment before gathering. To what degree will this exclude people from worshipping?

· With physical distancing guidelines, will people who attend church on their own be further isolated by attending? The safe advice for church gatherings is to keep people clustered in household groups with ample space between them. What do you do with someone who comes on their own? Is this any better than staying at home and watching on the internet?

· What can we do for parents of young children? We have neither the human resources, nor the functional capacity to offer safe children’s programming in this season of church life beyond the online lessons that we have already been producing. Is it fair to expect families with young children to have them come and sit and engage like adults when we have not expected that of them at any point before?

· What about singing? One of the core experiences of public worship is singing together as the Body of Christ and yet almost unanimously public health officials around the world have singled out corporate singing as an especially egregious vector of transmission for the virus. The best advice we have is that for now precautions should be taken to mitigate the risk. The two most discussed options for this are 1.) a ban on congregational singing during public worship, or 2.) mandatory mask wearing for all public worship. We do not anticipate either option being especially popular.

· How do we communicate hospitality when Sunday worship is effectively an exclusive RSVP event? For the present phase (at least) we will need to know exactly who is in attendance and no one who is not ‘on the list’ can be permitted to enter the church building. If one of our core values is indiscriminate hospitality, then how can we do this without violating our values?

· What about communion? When I announced back at the beginning of April that we would not be celebrating communion again until we could gather together as the body, none of us envisioned a season of separation that would go on this long. We long to find ways to do communion well in this season and gathering together provides the best option for doing that.

In light of all of these considerations, we are publishing the following roadmap to reopening the church. It takes into consideration the questions addressed above and as much as possible, complies with the guidance we have been receiving and the public health order that we live under. That being said, this is our best attempt at crafting a plan and things that happen in the coming days and weeks may quickly render it out of date and in need of revision. Notably we are in the place where we could conceivably launch Phase 2, but we have not yet set a hard date for when that would happen as we are looking for more feedback from you on your willingness to engage with the plan as presented.

Please carefully consider these plans and pray about whether you and your family would be willing to return under these guidelines. We want to be sensitive to you and your concerns and if we cannot acquire a critical mass of people who are willing to return under the phase 2 parameters, we will likely slide things back to phase 3 and continue producing public worship under the phase 1 paradigm. But we need you to speak into this process. Please reach out to me, or to your flock elders to let us know how you feel and we will continue to work together to find the best ways to continue to be the church in this unusual and uncertain season.

With blessings on behalf of your Board of Elders,

Pastor Chris

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