July 25, 2020

Dear Members and Friends of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem:

I am writing to update you on a decision the Session made this week related to our ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At its meeting on Sunday, July 19, the Session voted unanimously to approve a recommendation, also unanimous, from our Building Reopening Task Force that the Session suspend in-person, indoor worship at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem indefinitely.

I want to now explain what that means, why we came to that conclusion, and how we will proceed from here in terms of our worship life. I will also explain briefly what we are doing to determine the potential for using the building in other activities.

First, the word “indefinitely” is an acknowledgement of our current reality. While we are now in the “green phase” of the governor’s Process to Reopen Pennsylvania, the limit on public assembly that had been raised to 250 people is back down to just 25 people because of the rise in infection rates across the state since entering the green phase.

We do not know when that restriction may be lifted, and we suspect that there will be something of a “see-saw” with it coming and going in the months ahead as the infection rates fluctuate in both the state as a whole and our area in particular.

However, even if/when that assembly restriction goes back up to 250 people at a time, the Session feels that in-person worship would still bear an unacceptable level of risk to participants, while simultaneously excluding many of our members and friends from participating and depriving the rest of much of what people miss the most about in-person worship, anyway. Let me try to describe what an in-person, indoor service would be like, using the physical distancing protocols that are almost universally recommended for congregations.

First, those with conditions that place them in a high-risk category, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would be asked to continue worshipping online rather than in-person. Those risk categories include anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular or respiratory issues, as well as those who are immuno-compromised or simply 65 years old or older.

Given that a significant portion of our regular pre-pandemic worshippers meet one or more of those categories, we would effectively exclude the majority of our congregation from in-person worship in any case. That is inherently problematic in a congregation that names “welcoming to all” as one of its core values.

For those who are not in a high-risk category, the sanctuary would be divided out into “household pods” that maintain a 6’-10’ distance in every direction. Our Facilities Team has already measured this out, and the capacity for either the Kirk Center or the Sanctuary would be limited to only 45-55 people at a time under these conditions. Therefore, you would have to make a reservation to attend a service, possibly several weeks in advance, and/or place yourself on a waiting list for an earlier service if someone with a reservation cancelled.

Masks, of course, would still be required at all times (including for the preacher and other worship leaders) from the moment you got out of your car, as would physical distancing of 6-10 feet (including in the parking lot). Before you entered the building, you would need to register with a volunteer for contact tracing purposes in case an attendee later tests positive, have your temperature taken, and attest that you have exhibited no COVID-19 symptoms nor had a positive COVID-19 test in the previous 14 days.

Once you had done that and made your way to your seat, there would be no physical passing of the peace; no responsive prayers; no congregational or choral singing. In fact, anything other than instrumental music would have to be either pre-recorded or, at best, be sung by a masked soloist maintaining at least a 30’ distance from the congregation (the science on this latter option is still being investigated).

At the Traditional service, there would be no offering plates or friendship pads passed.
The Sacrament of Communion would probably be either bread-only, provided by gloved and masked servers with tongs, or simply “bring your own.”

There would likely be no air-conditioning, as our HVAC systems recycle air too closely to participants and there are multiple reputable studies showing this can spread the virus widely in an enclosed space (again, the science here is still under investigation).

At the end of the service, you would be dismissed by pod by volunteers to maintain distancing; there would be no hospitality hour and no real opportunity for informal conversation. In other words, almost all the things that we are all missing the most about in-person worship as opposed to digital worship (singing together, sitting together, greeting one another, etc.) would not be possible, anyway.

Most sobering, though, is that even among churches that have already been meeting in person and following these kinds of protocols, there have been a number of outbreaks of the virus that have resulted in numerous significant and extended illnesses and even deaths. The reason is simple: the more people that are gathered in an enclosed space, and the longer they are gathered there, the more likely it is that the virus will spread among them.

This is why religious services are generally rated behind only bars, sporting events, concerts, and other large public gatherings in terms of infection risk from “normal” social activities. On such assessment scales, it is far safer to go shopping at Target, for example, than it is to attend worship because of how both people and buildings/airflow are arranged, and the typical length of time that the same people are in the same room.

Given all of the above, both the Building Reopening Task Force and the Session came to unanimous conclusion that for the foreseeable future, in-person, indoor worship is not the most faithful option for us because it would simultaneously exclude much of our congregation while still posing an unacceptable risk to those who could attend (and, by extension, our neighbors across the Lehigh Valley), all while still not providing the kind of community that we are all hungry for and degrading the current quality of our digital worship because of the need for worship leaders to be masked and/or pre-recorded while meeting in person.

So what do we do in the meantime?

Well, for almost three years, we have talked about ourselves as an “experimental church.” By that, we mean a congregation that is striving to be faithful into the future, and to do so by trying new ways of engaging in worship, service, learning, and community. We learn from our failures and build on our successes, pivoting in the most promising directions as we keep moving forward.

And that direction and those commitments have cultivated new vision and energy and impact in every corner of our congregation’s life and ministry together. I submit to you that, unawares, we have been preparing for this moment in our congregation and in our world as an experimental church, because this is a time that is particularly ripe for faithful experimentation, and many people are hungry for it in significant new ways.

This decision of the Session sets us free from the expectation that, if we just hold on a little longer, we can start getting things back to normal. The course of this pandemic, especially in the last month or so, has made it clear that this is not a realistic expectation for us either as a society or a congregation. The question instead should be, as always: “what does it mean for us to be faithfully loving God and our neighbors right here in the midst of where we find ourselves?”

Our Building Reopening Task Force will continue its work to advise the Session on how our facilities can play a role in that ministry, but that only relates to how we can and will respond. Worship will continue to be central to our congregational life; it will simply continue to be in a digital format.

But we will experiment with worshipping outdoors (as we are planning to do on Sunday, Aug. 30 , which still requires many of the protocols described above, but bears a far lower risk than gathering indoors) and in other ways as we discern those opportunities, and we will be doing the same with our ministries with adults, children and youth, and with the most vulnerable members of our congregation, community, and world. 

Some of those experiments will be new versions of what we have done in the past, as our current Sunday morning digital worship services and adult education have been. The experiments in outdoor in-person worship and fellowship that we are doing this summer also fit under that category.

But I am also convinced there are wonderful and as-yet unimagined opportunities for us to live more deeply and fully into our mission “to explore how God’s gracious love gives meaning to our lives and inspires us to address the needs of our world,” not just in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in faithful response to it.

I am immensely grateful for and inspired by the vibrancy and strength of your resilience, courage, love, and hope as a congregation. That, in itself, is a powerful testimony to your faithfulness and God’s grace in these times. I am eager to see the fruit that God continues to bear among and through us during these times, and look forward to cultivating it with you in the days to come. 

Grace and Peace,
The Rev. J.C. Austin
Senior Pastor

PS: Read our plans for the outdoor service we have planned for Sunday, Aug. 30.