Updated October 2, 2020 - 11:47 am
The Rev. David Devereaux is used to leading worship services in front of large crowds, which has made the past seven months seem very odd.
Devereaux, senior pastor of Desert Spring United Methodist Church, figures that, with the exception of one memorial service, the services he has led since March 8 have been “exclusively online.”
But that ends this weekend when Devereaux leads live, in-person worship services at Desert Spring. And even if they won’t be the sort of services congregants are used to — they’ll be outdoors, socially distanced, shorter and attended by worshippers wearing masks — they will at least signal a small step toward what once was and what may again come.
Prompted by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s raising of allowable public gatherings from 50 to 250, several area houses of worship are planning returns to live services this weekend, while others that have been offering services under the previous 50-person maximum are preparing to inch closer to pre-COVID attendance.
However, prospective worshippers this weekend can expect to see registration requirements, smaller crowds and rigid adherence to safety protocols including mask-wearing and social distancing and, at some houses of worship, temperature checks.
And, for those who aren’t quite ready to return to worship amid large gatherings, all likely will continue the online services that have become a spiritual staple amid the pandemic.
Devereaux said planning for a return to live services began a few weeks ago. Three Sunday services will be conducted outdoors on the church’s lawn. Each will be limited to 70 people to allow proper social distancing.
In contrast, on an average weekend, the church hosts about 900 for its services, he said.
Masks must be worn and services will be cut to 40 minutes to allow time for disinfection. But even with the challenges worship in public now brings, it’s important, Devereaux said.
Community worship “is fundamental to who we are as a people. It’s not that we just worship God, but we worship God together. That sense of community is important, and it’s hard to maintain that with online ministry.”
People are “hungry to be together,” Devereaux said, “even if it’s six feet apart.”
Canyon Ridge Christian Church also has been offering only online services since March. This weekend, the church will have four 250-person services in its 3,200-seat auditorium and two 70-person services in its chapel.
The increase from 50 to 250 “is encouraging,”said the Rev. Drew Moore, lead pastor. “Being a larger church, it’s challenging to do gatherings of less than 50.”
As at other area churches, registration will be required to attend at Canyon Ridge. Registration opened at 10 a.m. Wednesday and all seats were taken by Friday morning.
“It is what it is,” Moore said. “Because it’s an auditorium with fixed seats, if we were distancing we could probably put 600 in here.”
“We’ve been planning (a reopening) for several months — safety protocols, signage, ingress and egress,” Moore said.
Even with all seats accounted for, this weekend’s attendance won’t approach a typical weekend at the church. “Pre-COVID, our (total) attendance was around 5,300 or 5,400,” Moore said.
He’s not sure how many would come back right now if attendance limits were lifted. While the church hasn’t polled members, Moore guesses that “about one-third couldn’t imagine coming back (now), a third are eager to come back, and a third (will) wait and see.”
A new beginning
New Song Church in Henderson has been having services with 50-or-fewer since Labor Day weekend. The Rev. Paul Block, lead pastor, said the new 250-person limit will allow a return to more familiar elements of worship.
“The big innovation will be rows,” he said. With the smaller crowd limit, seats were grouped together, allowing families to sit in their own clusters. This weekend, seats will be rearranged in more traditional rows, although they’ll still have greater-than-usual distance between them.
Services so far have been drawing between 30 and 45 people each, he said. Before COVID, the church averaged about 300 each weekend and Block expects that some members will, even now, choose to watch streamed services.
Safety measures — including ministers wearing gloves and masks when distributing communion— will continue. But, he said, “I feel this is the reboot. This is the beginning of the new church. I think it’s sort of a turning point in terms of starting to build.”
On Thursday, the social hall at Masjid Ibrahim was being converted for use as an additional prayer room for Friday prayer. Imam Shamsuddin Waheed expected the increase in allowable worshippers from 50 to 250 would bring “an increase in numbers and … more opportunity to serve them.”
The mosque has been having prayer services for the past few months with no more than 50 people. However, Waheed said, “there always would be people waiting” to enter. So, a second Friday prayer service was created.
Now, attendees can participate in the main prayer room or watch on a monitor in the newly carpeted social hall. In both cases, markings on the floor will ensure social distancing, which represents “a significant limit on the numbers.”
The practice of Islam is rooted in the practice of community prayer, Waheed said, and “from a practical perspective, watching a sermon and following prayer on video is not the same.”
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen of Temple Sinai said members began meeting for services a few weeks ago and “we’ll be expanding those as long as we can social distance and people wear masks.”
Informal gatherings also are being held in the synagogue’s courtyard, he said, and “we’ll be looking for more people to come as we look to the future,” Cohen said
Meanwhile, Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Diocese of Las Vegas said this week that Catholic churches throughout the valley may begin offering in-person Masses under the 250-person standard this weekend. However, he recommends that parishioners register using parishes’ phone or online systems and said existing health protocols will continue.