Westerville church starts first in-person service with safety restrictions

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WESTERVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) – Churchgoers are getting their first taste of in-person worship as faith centers begin to reopen.

Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville welcomed members back inside Sunday for the first time in several months.

“We kiddingly said we’re going to have to blow the dust off the pulpit up here because it’s been 10 weeks since it’s been used,” laughed senior pastor Frank Carl. 

Religious institutions were excluded from state health orders, but the governor strongly encouraged them to limit gatherings and use caution.

“We’re not afraid of the coronavirus, but we do respect it,” said Carl. “And it’s very important that we minister to people.”

Genoa Baptist Church was among the first churches in central Ohio to introduce drive-in services in addition to radio and online streaming options. The pastor estimates close to 85 percent of his congregation has still been attending weekly services and thousands of others are tuning in online.

Even with the variety of options, some members have been anxious to return to in-person worship.

“It’s pretty devastating, honestly. [Losing] that fellowship, that community with those around here that have basically been my second family for a long time has been pretty hard to go through,” explained Alex Vandromme.

Matthew Burleson added, “I’m excited to get back to it. I’ve been praying for it for many weeks now and I’m happy that it’s starting to come back.”

The church rearranged chairs in its three auditoriums to safely accommodate in-person services. The main sanctuary, which typically holds 1,200 people, is now spaced out to seat fewer than 300. With both overflow chapels, capacity for one service will be about 600 people.

A one-way entrance leads members past several hand sanitizer stations, signage with safety reminders and tape at six foot increments in case of a line. Church staff even prepared sanitized and packaged coloring and activity kits for children.

“We have wanted to follow the guidelines of the state and our country. And we’re trying to do that as aggressively as we can to get back in the building,” Carl said.

The pastor explained not everyone is ready to re-enter the building. The church plans to continue offering streaming and drive-in services until there is no longer a demand or safety concerns. Depending on Sunday’s attendance for the first in-person service, a second service could be added in the evenings.

“This is an attempt to minister to everyone at their comfort level,” he said.

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