Back Without a Bang: Returning to Church Won’t Be the Celebration We Once Imagined

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Instead of a big party, reopenings bring mixed emotions and a call to everyday faithfulness.

When COVID-19 shutdowns began in 2020, many pastors thought it would mean missing out on a couple of Sundays. Even in those early weeks of the pandemic, we longed to be off our couches and back in our familiar sanctuaries for worship. We imagined hugging everyone, worshiping shoulder to shoulder, walking forward for Communion, and lingering for small talk.

We know how the rest of this story goes. The pandemic extended month after month. By 2021, most Protestant churches in the United States were meeting either at a significantly reduced capacity or not at all.

Thanks to vaccines and falling infection rates, things are changing. This spring and summer, more churches will move from meeting virtually to meeting in person, from outside to inside, from sparse gatherings to fuller ones. God willing, we’ll get to a place where we can meet on Sunday mornings without the risk of spreading the virus that has dominated our lives.

But the odds are that our return won’t look like the crowded reunions we once imagined. When churches reopen, there will still be precautions, and families will come back gradually, depending on their own health concerns and consciences.

We’ll also be faced with our own mixed emotions. When my church started offering small, adapted worship gatherings last year, the first song we sang together was “Joy to the World.” I couldn’t hear anyone else, our voices muffled by masks and distance, but I felt the Spirit among us. I cried immediately. I’ve never felt anything like it. It was triumph and heartache at once.

Returning to the rhythms of worship prompts us to remember the Sundays and holidays we missed. Part of celebrating finally being together is grieving the time we spent …

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