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The Rock Church of Bangor was set to hold its first service in its new 550-seat sanctuary on March 22 when the coronavirus hit Maine and the governor ordered all nonessential businesses, including churches, to shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then, Pastor Kirk Winters has been preaching online Sunday mornings via the nondenominational church’s Facebook page. The church, located at the intersection of Ohio Street and Finson Road, recently began holding a drive-in service as well.
Maine is one of the least religious states in the nation, but Winters and his congregation, like clergy and worshippers all over Maine, are anxious to gather together again. The more than 1,000 members of the Rock Church are impatient to settle into their new 13,600-foot building but have been waiting for guidelines from the state on how to assemble beginning next weekend, May 30 and 31, when gatherings of 50 people in houses of worship will be permitted. Masses at Catholic churches will resume June 1.
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Those guidelines were released Friday after a two-day delay. They would allow people sharing the same household to sit together but say there must be 6 feet between groups and encourage seating worshippers in every other row or pew. Attendees are to wear masks and the passing of collections plates, shaking hands and hugging are discouraged. Singing and fellowship after services are not allowed. Worship areas are to be disinfected between services.
Also on Friday, President Donald Trump announced that he has deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential” and called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend. Gov. Janet Mills said she was unaware of the president’s remarks at a press conference in Augusta later in the day. She also said that her office had been working with the Maine Council of Churches, made up of mainline Protestant denominations, the Christian Civic League of Maine, composed of evangelical churches, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and other religious groups to craft the guidelines so houses of worship could reopen.
At least two churches, one in Houston and another in Georgia, have discontinued in-person services after members tested positive for COVID-19 following their reopenings.
Winters’ congregation and the broader evangelical community in Maine are divided on whether to wait for permission from Mills to hold in-person worship services or to defy her executive orders.
Calvary Chapel earlier this month sued the governor in federal court over the prohibition of in-person worship, arguing that it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen ruled May 9 that Mills’ executive order is lawful, although the church has appealed the decision.
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Ken Graves, the pastor of Calvary Chapel, has moved chairs outside the church building for two Sunday services. He also conducts a drive-in service in the parking lot and streams all of these services online.
Winters understands Calvary Chapel’s stance, but his congregation wanted to wait for guidance from the state and for the number of new COVID-19 cases to plateau before taking a step that could lead to a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
“We have to balance the tension between following the rules and doing what’s best for people in the congregation,” Winters said. “Some of our people are languishing during this crisis. They need church.”
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In a May 17 sermon titled “Submission or Rebellion? A Biblical Perspective on Today’s Most Divisive Issue,” Winters laid out the biblical arguments for supporting the governor’s gathering restrictions and for engaging in civil disobedience. There is scripture to support both sides, the pastor said.
“I’ve never seen the church so divided over an issue,” he said Wednesday, inside the new building. “There’s fear on both sides. People are afraid of getting the virus. People are afraid of losing their freedoms, their jobs and their businesses. But we try not to let fear dominate our thinking, which is kind of what faith is all about.”
If they are able to gather and follow social distancing guidelines on June 7, it will have been 12 weeks since the congregation has worshipped together and three years since they started planning the new building.
In 2017, the church began clearing the woods where the new building is located. Over the next two years, the congregation worked to raise funds for the new building. Ground was broken in June 2019.
The combined cost of the new building, the parking lot and the renovations to convert the former sanctuary into the children’s building is close to $4 million. Once those projects are complete, the original brick building will be demolished.
It is the second time in eight years the church has expanded. A 300-seat building was completed in 2012 after the congregation outgrew its 170-seat sanctuary at a church they purchased in 2006.
Winters attributes his church’s rapid growth to “the grace of God.”
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“New people feel comfortable here,” Winters said. “We are committed to preaching the truth of God’s word in a loving and kind way. So, I think the way we come across is not as condemning or judgmental, even if we don’t agree with you.”
Winters said that once they are in the new sanctuary he will continue streaming services online on Facebook because it has been so successful in reaching new people during the pandemic.
“Prior to this, we might have 1,000 Facebook views per week,” he said. “Now, it’s been close to 10,000. People from 35 different states and seven countries have come to our Facebook page.
The first few weeks, donations were down substantially, but over the past eight weeks they are back to where they were before the shutdown.
By Maine standards, the Rock Church and Calvary Chapel are megachurches. A majority of mainline denominational churches in the state have fewer than 25 worshippers on Sundays. These congregations most likely won’t have trouble social distancing. But most larger Maine Protestant churches will have trouble fitting 50 people in the pews while social distancing especially those with fixed pews rather than movable chairs.
A United Methodist pastor in rural West Virginia made a video in one of her churches to show how difficult it is to seat worshippers and follow social distancing guidelines. The Rev. Stephanie Bennett used pool doodles to create a 6-foot long visual aid rather than a tape measure.
Using that, she discovered that she could only seat 28 people in the sanctuary that normally holds 120 shoulder-to-shoulder, in part, because the pews are 4 feet apart and the aisles are less than 6 feet wide. Bennett’s congregation decided to continue holding parking lot services that have been drawing about 90 worshippers on Sundays rather than gather inside. Faith Temple Church in Belfast recently made the same decision for similar reasons.
Like the Rock Church, Crosspoint Church on Broadway in Bangor can accommodate 50 worshippers with social distancing in its 800-seat auditorium, according to Pastor Jerry Mick. But if the guidelines allowed for a percentage of the capacity, rather than a fixed number of people, as those in other states do, the church would not need to add services.
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The guidelines most likely will be difficult to implement for the nearly 280,000 Mainers who identify as Catholics. Those who regularly attend Mass are anxious to receive Communion again. But the gathering limit of just 50 people, including a priest, lector, cantor, deacon, organist and other church personnel, and the requirement that pews, knobs, door handles, bathrooms, altars, musical equipment and touched surfaces be cleaned between services will make it difficult to accommodate the 75,000 or so Catholics who attend Mass in Maine each weekend.
The limitation on the number of Masses each priest may celebrate a weekend will prevent parishes from holding extra services.
Bishop Robert Deeley, head of the Catholic church in Maine, is continuing the dispensation from the obligation to attend weekend Mass for the time being. The live-streaming of Masses will continue throughout the state and those who are most at risk for the coronavirus will be encouraged to watch online rather than attend in person.
Some churches, including St. John’s Episcopal Church on French Street in Bangor, will continue online services only in June and July while congregations determine what to do next.
“For summer, we will continue with Sunday morning on-ine as that can reach many more people and it allows for singing and seeing each other up close and without masks, none of which can occur right now in person,” said the Rev. Marguerite Steadman, rector of St. John’s. “In August, we will take all that we’ve learned and whatever new information, circumstances, or guidelines are then available to make determinations for the fall and for utilizing our buildings in worship.”
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