Churches approaching normalcy

The Rev. Amy Cook, Loudon United Methodist Church pastor, sets up a headset used for livestreaming services.

Area churches are beginning to see a rise in activities and attendance after more than a year of shutdowns and cancellations.

Youth ministries, community service and fellowship opportunities suffered during the pandemic. The Rev. Amy Cook, Loudon United Methodist Church pastor, said the church is finally getting children’s programs “back together.”

“We’re probably going to do a back-to-school bash kind of block party-style, and (July 4) we’re having a pie social in the parking lot. Methodists are nothing if not eating together,” Cook said. “That’s our first foray into food. We’ve been having a meeting with the — a little history class with the Episcopalian church. We meet off campus. We meet at The Café downtown for that, so we’re getting out and about a bit more.

“I’m now able to visit people at hospitals, in some cases, if I promise not to stay long,” she added. “The hospitals are letting us back in. We’re going to have our first congregational singing this weekend, so it will feel a lot more like church.”

Cook said the church resumed in-person services a couple of months ago. She estimates the congregation is at 75% of original capacity.

COVID-19 precautions, though not as tight, are still in place.

“Every week we get a little closer and closer to normal,” Cook said. “Last week, we had ribbons that were roping off some pews to create a little more distance. Those are gone now. … We’re still taking precautions. We’re still distancing. We’re not sitting with people we’re not in the same household with, things like that. But if you don’t have a shot, we ask that you please wear a mask. If you’re fully vaccinated, you can wear a mask or not. And some people who are vaccinated wear a mask. We let that be up to their judgment.”

The church will continue a heavy Facebook presence despite being on track to normalcy.

The Rev. Dustin Cooper, Christian Church of Loudon County pastor, said his church has gradually gone back to normal. Until the first week of June, the church was operating two Sunday morning services. The congregation now is back to the typical single 11 a.m. service.

“It’s a constant looking at the environment around us, and so we saw that Loudon County had the highest percentage of COVID-19 vaccinations per capita in the state and started to introduce things back to normal,” Cooper said. “… We have gotten back into a quarterly fellowship opportunity that we call ‘E3 Together’ where we encourage intergenerational kind of tabletop conversations in our church. … The first one was a catered meal, and the one that’s coming up at the end of July is going to be more of our regular potluck where we just get to share recipes.”

The usual 10 a.m. Sunday Bible study has returned now that the congregation has one worship service.

Cooper and church leadership have set a target to be at 100% capacity with full operations resumed by August. Cooper estimates Sundays have about 85%-100% attendance depending on summer vacation schedules.

For the Rev. John Hunn, First Baptist Church in Lenoir City pastor, a return to normal has offered a unique opportunity to meet new people.

“It’s been really neat for me, because it’s still my first year, to continue to meet people,” Hunn said. “I don’t know if people are new to the town, new to the church or new to anything. It’s been kind of cool on my end.”

While scheduling and ministries have returned to full operations, Hunn said the congregation is still working on resuming full capacity. He estimates services see 80%-85% of pre-COVID-19 attendance. However, FBC is encouraging members to come back at their own pace when they feel comfortable.

“We’ve been pleased. We’re still keeping a pulse on what’s happening out there because we’re hearing of variants and things like that,” Hunn said. “I really, really appreciate my executive staff that (the Rev. Scott Williams, church worship pastor) leads. He does a lot of the leg work on what the governor’s saying, what’s happening in our county, what’s happening in the counties near us.”