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OCEAN CITY – “It truly goes without saying that the world we once knew has completely and entirely changed,” Matthew Maher said at the beginning of his sermon June 21. Maher, who serves as teaching pastor at Coastal Christian Church, in Ocean City, is helping to lead the large, multi-faceted ministry and congregation into “the new normal.”

For churches across New Jersey, safety guidelines pose administrative and corporate challenges. How can congregations reconnect while wearing masks and observing social distancing? No one knows how long these safety measures will last, but churches are finding creative ways to reunite and achieve goals.

For large ministries, like Coastal Christian, technology is proving a useful tool. According to Reach Director Dan Noble, members and visitors must pre-register to attend one of three services held each Sunday. Registration is accomplished through an app available in Coastal Christian’s app suite. In-person attendance is encouraged, as long as safety protocols are met; i.e., no symptoms, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

“Once you are seated, you may leave your mask on or take it off, since we are practicing social distancing,” the Coastal Christian guidelines read. Proper sanitation occurs before and after services and hand sanitizer is available at designated stations. 

Gatherings are held at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 11 a.m. on Sunday, and at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. No “walk-ins” are allowed at this time, according to Coastal Christian staff. A video is available on Coastal Christian’s website, along with a PDF download of reopening guidelines. Livestreamed services are ongoing at this time. Church leaders admit that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines do not always coincide with state requirements. Leaders will seek to eliminate confusion by updating church policies as New Jersey transitions through the reopening phases.

Because of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order, limits on church attendance impacts larger ministries more than smaller ones. Variations in service formats vary across denominations. 

Rev. Nicholas Rafael, of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, said the congregation will partake of communion, a vital part of their weekly service. Yet, congregants are not allowed to venerate icons; i.e., kissing, and are practicing social distancing. Pews are roped off, leaving spaces between rows. Located in North Wildwood, St. Demetrios Church has its fair share of summer visitors, but this summer will be anything but normal.

“It’s the way it has to be right now,” Rafael said June 21. He added that living in fear of the virus displays a lack of faith; however, taking precautions, such as wearing masks, is only prudent.  

As churches are allowed to meet in person once more, some are still choosing to gather outdoors.

“We are glad to be together again,” said Rev. Doug Spencer, of the First United Methodist Church of Cape May Court House, during a phone interview June 27. His congregation recently held its first outdoor service in the parking lot.

After three months of having online services only, Spencer said congregants were “glad to see other people,” even from a distance.

“We are taking all the precautions,” Spencer said. Online services are still ongoing, along with the outdoor services. Once again, size restrictions pose a challenge in reopening the building. No decision has been made regarding when services will be held indoors again.

First United Methodist Church of Cape May Court House has a congregation of 200 people. Spencer and the leadership would have to “choose” who could come due to state deadlines requiring 100 persons or 25% of a building’s capacity, whichever number is lower.

Yet, one of the joys of these unsettled times is witnessing church members caring for one another, said Spencer. Thinking of others; i.e. wearing masks, and making a connection demonstrates love in its purest form.

Community outreach has suffered a blow during the pandemic, but Spencer is hopeful to resume full ministry functions when it is safe.  

When asked how the congregation is coping with the guidelines, Spencer said members are glad to reunite, even as life is different.

For some, restrictions clash with their interpretation of religious liberty. Pastor Jeff McLeod, of the Rio Grande Bible Baptist Church, was issued a warning by Middle Township Police Department, in April, when he held a drive-in worship service. The police, acting in accordance with the directives they received at the time concerning Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order banning public gatherings of 10 or more, said the church service would violate the law (https://bit.ly/3eJ8BlL).

Gov. Murphy later removed his restrictions, which allowed the church to continue drive-in services (https://bit.ly/38jp4Li). The church has resumed meeting indoors.

Although the world has changed, the congregations of Cape May County persevere and find alternatives to keep hope and purpose alive.

Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at rrogish@cmcherald.com.