Art by Ashley Mowreader
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Feb. 5 that California could not continue to ban in-person religious services in response to the pandemic, in the case of South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin Newsom, Governor of California. This ruling changed the outlooks of many churches across the state and Malibu area.
While churches can hold in-person services, state guidelines restrict them to 25% capacity and ban singing and chanting, according to the Associated Press. Several churches in the surrounding Malibu area are gradually transitioning back to in-person services, and some were holding in-person services before this ruling.
“The energy has been really great in the room, that people who have come back are people who want to be back and feel safe being back,” said Susanne Walden, director of worship and productions at Shepherd Church.
Shepherd has held in-person services since the fall. With locations in Porter Ranch, Woodland Hills and Agua Dulce, church leaders allowed members into their buildings with a number of safety precautions, Walden said.
With a 3,500 seat auditorium, Shepherd blocked off every other row to ensure everyone in attendance social distancing, Walden said. In addition to the auditorium, Shepherd also streams the service to a gymnasium and an outdoor jumbotron, so church members can choose a location that is safe and distant. There is also an online option, every service is live-streamed and the recording is available afterward for all those who wish to remain home.
The Shepherd leadership team also requires masks for their employees, places hand sanitizer throughout the campus and props open every door to reduce high-touch objects like door handles, Walden said.
“There’s just a great deal of security, I don’t go out nor does our senior pastor go out and shake hands in the lobby,” said Jeff Walling, teaching pastor at Shepherd Church and director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine. “In fact, we encourage folks to go to their cars and there’s not the normal church meet-and-greet kind of thing afterwards.”
Of course, before the Supreme Court ruling, no amount of precautions made in-person services legal, and Shepherd received some criticism from LA County, Walden said.
“They actually did write us up every week, they had to write a report, but it was always very positive,” Walden said. “They saw the social distancing and all of our efforts. That didn’t stop them from fining us. We did get fined.”
Church members have generally responded positively to these services, Walden said.
“Whatever your choice is, it’s your choice, but you can feel safe where you are,” Walden said. “It’s been an amazing experience, everyone is very respectful and very happy to be together.”
Shepherd continues to hold in-person services, and plans to roll back restrictions as cases drop, Walden said.
Meanwhile, Conejo Valley Church of Christ in Thousand Oaks has been hesitant about totally opening up.
“I know there are other churches that are meeting and are just not worrying about it,” said Andy Wall, minister at Conejo Valley Church of Christ. “Our leadership team is not quite there, and so are waiting for word from California that that’s going to be good.”
Conejo Valley Church holds a variety of virtual meetings, including services on YouTube and small groups during the week over Zoom. The church purchased additional equipment to set up a four-camera system for optimized online viewership, Wall said.
While Wall said he is optimistic about the congregation, he expressed disappointment over the loss of some in-person aspects, especially singing.
“I mean, I’ll be honest I’m disappointed, but I’m not mad at anybody, it just is what it is,” Wall said. “It is disappointing. It feels like we’re getting this close. We’re just right there.”
Now that in-person services are allowed by the state, Conejo Valley Church started an outdoor Sunday night devotional in a large backyard space where congregants must wear masks and social distance.
In the meantime, Wall said he and his team are planning for a robust summer program for members when the state deems in-person activities totally safe.
The University Church of Christ will continue to hold virtual services at least until non-student members are allowed to attend services, according to their website.
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