A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Exploring and evaluating ‘in person’ options

“Are you open?” This question has been floating around church circles (and, indeed, faith communities beyond Christianity) for several months now, as states began lifting some of the restrictions on public assembly and organizational operations.

When it comes to the church, of course, it’s the wrong question; we have been open throughout the pandemic, not only continuing to fulfill our mission but actually expanding our ministry in many ways through worship, education, community-building, and service. A better way of asking that question would be, “have you re-opened your buildings and begun to use them again?” I thought I would update you a little on how we’re addressing that question.

As we’ve previously shared, the Session created a Building Reopening Task Force several months ago, made up of First Pres members with specific expertise in public health, virology, medical science, and building management. That Task Force focused on the question of indoor worship first and, as we announced in July, the Session unanimously decided on their unanimous recommendation to indefinitely suspend indoor worship because of the significant ongoing risks in gathering, even using protective protocols, and the limitations those protocols would impose on the quality of worship compared to our digital services.

However, the Session also decided that we would be experimenting with new alternatives to indoor worship and ministry. So, we had our first outdoor in-person worship service on August 30, which seemed to go quite well. The Worship Committee has evaluated that experience and recommended to the Session that we continue with monthly outdoor gatherings in September and October, which the Session approved. (See below for details on Sunday, September 27’s combined service at 11 a.m.)

While everyone would love to do this more often, it takes a significantly greater amount of preparation and time to do outdoor services, and monthly opportunities seem to be the best balance of capacity and desire at this time. Meanwhile, the committee is working on ideas for what we might do once the weather turns worse with the onset of winter, and what new opportunities for worship we might explore, as well.

Beyond worship, some small groups and committees, such as the Board of Deacons, have begun meeting in-person outdoors on the church grounds. And the Congregational Life Committee has been hosting monthly “Trivia Nights” in the parking lot, which have been a great way to gather in fun and community. Obviously, great care is taken to maintain physical distance in all these gatherings.

And we’ve been very pleased to safely keep our Preschool’s “Summer Splash” program open over the summer, and we are now beginning the fall session of the Preschool program. As we hope you’ve read, we are also embarking on a new School-Age Program, to meet the needs of families whose children are enrolled in a hybrid program and need supervision on their remote learning days. We are doing all of these programs with a strict adherence to guidelines, and a lot of inspiration and commitment from our faculty and volunteers. (www.fpc-bethlehem.org/preschool)

This fall, we will continue to monitor the pandemic and evaluate how that impacts our activities. But more importantly, we will continue to explore and experiment with how we can thrive in new ways in our current circumstances. We are “always open” in spirit, in mission, and in community; I am proud of how we have done that so faithfully over the last six months, and excited about the possibilities that are with us now!

Grace and peace,


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