Rev. David Devereaux is used to conducting services in front of large crowds, which has made the past seven months seem very strange.
Devereaux, senior pastor of Desert Spring United Methodist Church, believes that all services he has led since March 8, except for one memorial service, were “online only”.
But that ends this weekend when Devereaux leads live church services at Desert Spring. And even if they aren’t the kind of church services parishioners are used to – they will be outdoors, socially distant, shorter, and accompanied by followers in masks – they will at least signal a small step towards what once was and what come back.
At the suggestion of Governor Steve Sisolak, who is increasing the allowable public gatherings from 50 to 250, several houses of worship are planning to return to live services this weekend while others who have offered services below the previous maximum of 50 people prepare to to get closer participation before COVID.
However, potential worshipers this weekend can expect registration requirements, smaller crowds, and strict adherence to safety protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as temperature controls in some places of worship.
And for those unwilling to return to worship in the midst of large gatherings, everyone will likely resume online services that have become a spiritual staple amid the pandemic.
Devereaux said planning for a return to live services began a few weeks ago. Three Sunday services are held outdoors on the church lawn. Each will be limited to 70 people to allow for adequate social distancing.
In contrast, the church hosts about 900 services on an average weekend, he said.
Masks must be worn and maintenance is cut to 40 minutes to allow time for disinfection. But despite the challenges that public worship now brings, it is important, Devereaux said.
Community worship ”is fundamental to who we are as a people. It’s not that we just worship God, but we worship God together. This sense of community is important and it is difficult to maintain with the online service. “
People are “hungry to be together,” said Devereaux, “even when it’s six feet apart.”
Canyon Ridge Christian Church has also only offered online services since March. This weekend the church will have four services for 250 people in its 3,200-seat auditorium and two services for 70 people in its chapel.
The increase from 50 to 250 “is encouraging,” said Rev. Drew Moore, senior pastor. “As a larger church, it is difficult to hold meetings with fewer than 50 people.”
As with other district churches, registration is required to participate in Canyon Ridge. Registration opened on Wednesday at 10 a.m. and all seats were taken by Friday morning.
“It is what it is,” said Moore. “Since this is an auditorium with fixed seats, we could probably put 600 here if we distanced ourselves.”
“We have been planning a reopening for several months – safety logs, signage, entry and exit,” said Moore.
Even with all of the places taken into account, attending this weekend doesn’t come close to a typical church weekend. “Before COVID, there were around 5,300 or 5,400 people (total) present,” said Moore.
He’s not sure how many would come back now if the attendance restrictions were lifted. While the Church has not interviewed members, Moore suspects that “about a third cannot imagine coming back (now), a third are ready to come, and a third (will) wait and see”.
A new beginning
Henderson’s New Song Church has been serving services of 50 or less since Labor Day weekend. Senior pastor, Rev. Paul Block, said the new 250 person limit will allow a return to more familiar elements of worship.
“The big innovation will be ranks,” he said. With the smaller number of participants, the seats were grouped together so that the families could sit in their own groups. This weekend the seats will be rearranged in more traditional rows, although the spacing between them is still wider than usual.
So far, the services have drawn between 30 and 45 people each, he said. Before COVID, the church had an average of 300 members every weekend, and Block anticipates some members will still choose to watch streamed services now.
Security measures – including ministers wearing gloves and masks when distributing communion – continue. But he said, “I think this is the restart. This is the beginning of the new church. I think it’s kind of a turning point in terms of starting construction. “
On Thursday the social hall in Masjid Ibrahim was converted into an additional prayer room for Friday prayer. Imam Shamsuddin Waheed expected that increasing the number of admissible worshipers from 50 to 250 “would bring an increase in numbers and … more opportunity to serve them”.
The mosque has had prayer services with no more than 50 people in recent months. However, Waheed said, “There would always be people waiting” to enter. A second Friday prayer service was set up.
Now the participants can take part in the main prayer room or watch on a monitor in the newly carpeted social hall. In both cases, markings on the floor provide social distancing, which is “a significant limit on numbers”.
The practice of Islam is rooted in the practice of community prayer, Waheed said, and “from a practical point of view, watching a sermon and watching the prayer on video is not the same.”
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen of the Sinai Temple said members began meeting for church services a few weeks ago and “we will expand them as long as we have social distance and people are wearing masks.”
Informal gatherings are also held in the synagogue courtyard, he said, and “we will look for more people to come as we look into the future,” Cohen said
Meanwhile, Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Diocese of Las Vegas said this week that Catholic churches across the valley may be holding in-person masses below the 250-person standard this weekend. However, he recommends that parishioners register through the parishes’ telephone or online systems and that existing health protocols continue.
Contact John Przybys at [email protected] Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.