LAUREL — Social-distancing couldn't be found inside the walls of The Rock Church in Laurel Sunday, so for the church's first in-person service in weeks Lead Pastor Greg Payton decided to move the congregation outside.
“We talked about, do we have six or seven services? Do we allow 50 people in and sanitize in between? Then we looked at the news and saw 70 degrees and sunny. So we thought to go outside where we can provide plenty of space between people," Payton said.
Phase one of Governor Steve Bullock's plan to reopen Montana allowed for places of worship to open for in-person service starting Sunday. Although social distancing guidelines still had to be followed. Some larger area churches made the decision to remain virtual over the weekend.
At The Rock, the decision to move outdoors was made "minute by Minute," Payton said. There wasn't a plan B if the weather turned for the worse.
"We talked about what would happen if it started raining. We would have just gone back in and have to send everyone home," Payton said.
Church staff put guidelines in place to help keep people healthy, Payton said. To help facilitate social-distancing, circles were painted on the grass to help families find an appropriate spot to place their lawn chair. Families residing in the same household were allowed to sit closer than six feet.
“We take this seriously. We wanted people to stay apart," Payton said.
The circles were eight feet in diameter and spaced six feet apart, Payton said.
Hand sanitizer stations were placed throughout the grass field for people to use at their leisure. Church social media messages ahead of the service encouraged staff and the congregation to stay home if they weren't feeling well.
The Rock Church staff are watching news from health officials, looking to them for guidance on future in-person services as the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold across the country.
“As far as our church is concerned, if the numbers take a different route than what the health officials want them to take, we’ll just totally stop. We’ll go back to go online like we’ve been doing. But if the numbers continue to get better we’ll adapt and make a fluid decision week by week," Payton said.
Payton said he's heard from some church attendees that they've really been longing to hear a sermon after being cooped up inside for weeks.
“You can get restless. Not stir crazy, but close to it because you just need people. And so we felt that there were those in our faith family that needed if nothing else just to see someone. Even if it’s from six feet away, just to see a familiar face," Payton said.
Church security is normally present during a Sunday service at The Rock Church. Payton said six security personnel were keeping watch for people who may have been more apt to give a hug or shake hands.
"So if we saw that happening we could walk up in a nice way and say ‘hey, I know you’re comfortable talking to that person, but in the spirit of keeping everyone safe, back up just a little bit and now allow that to spread to the best that we can,'" Payton said.
No social-distancing altercations were seen at The Rock Church service.
The initial switch to online video sermons was relatively easy for the church. It had set up the capability two years ago. The Rock Church helped 23 other Montana churches set up some sort of live-streaming capability, Payton said.
"That was really fortunate when this happened because we didn’t need to make too many changes other than bringing the cameras closer ... My heart just went out to these pastors that were like ‘we’ve never done live streaming and we have to. Can you help? Our tech guys worked tirelessly from showing them how to set up a simple iPhone to a really huge system," Payton said.
As for future Sunday services at The Rock Church, a lot is unknown. Payton said decisions will be made as new information comes out about COVID-19 and what the weather will look like next weekend.
“I would like to think if the weather is like this we will do the same thing again outside. A lot may transpire this week," Payton said.