At Champion Church in Yuma, Arizona, congregants and leaders donned a variety of face masks as they celebrated being back together inside their sanctuary for the first time in six weeks on Sunday.
“I don’t know about you, I can’t speak for you but I can speak for myself. I appreciate the church,” Lead Pastor Stephen Bloomfield told attendees in his sermon. "If you want to find out the value of something, just have it taken away. You know, you’re just tired of your marriage, well let’s see how you do without it for six weeks.”
Champion Church’s reopening coincided with a national Reopen Church effort being spearheaded by Christian advocacy organization Liberty Counsel. The group called on churches to open and urged Christians to start meeting again on Sunday, May 3, which is also the beginning of the National Day of Prayer week, which culminates on Thursday. And many churches across the country resumed in-person services on Sunday with precautions.
Arizona residents had been ordered to shelter in place beginning March 31. Gov. Doug Ducey announced last week that he would extend the state's stay-at-home order to May 15 with some changes aimed at slowly reopening Arizona's economy. Churches, however, got some relief when the office of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich advised that “attendance at a church service is an ‘essential activity,’" under an executive order put into place by Ducey.
“When we got the word that we could actually come back inside … Everybody was jumping up and down, we were so incredibly thankful,” Polly Aitken, who has attended Champion Church for 10 years, told Fox 9.
Bloomfield and his congregants had been conducting drive-thru and online services in the church’s parking lot since the shelter in place order became effective so returning to their sanctuary for worship was a major milestone. And at the 10 a.m. service on Sunday, there weren’t many empty seats, Fox 9 reported.
“We’re just really, really, blessed that we have this opportunity to open back up to the community and be everything God has called us to be, to just really uplift people's spirits, to bring hope — that’s what it’s truly all about,” LaCinda Bloomfield, the pastor's wife and also lead pastor, said.
During the service, Stephen Bloomfield reflected on the 6-week quarantine, telling congregants, "If you … look at it from God’s perspective, there has been a 40-day pause on the planet. What was that about? What was God saying?"
The pastor called it a time of "purification."
"In the Bible 40 days, …. 40 years … is often a time of judgment but it’s also often a time of testing," he preached.
He encouraged the congregation to think about what God has been doing in their lives over the last 40 days in quarantine and stressed that God wants His people to become spiritually strong.
"He wants you to begin to trust Him like never before," Bloomfield said.
While they are not required to follow specific social distancing measures, the church said, they have required that everyone who attends their church wear a mask. The church also provides hand sanitizer at their doors.
“We don’t have to do these things specifically, they weren’t in the rules but we have chosen to do that because in an abundance of caution, we want to be a good example,” Bloomfield told Fox 9.
In Iowa, those who chose to attend in-person services at Trinity Baptist Church, were also happy.
“Being in church felt like coming home,” Fran Lehnhoff noted in a report in the Des Moines Register, which said about 14 people had showed up for church and practiced social distancing.
“Everyone was very mindful, very safe in how they approached today’s service here,” Joe Shaw, who does administrative work for the church, said. “We need to make sure that continues as people return. We want people to go their own pace, to make sure they feel safe and comfortable during this time, but know that they still have a community here that is open and welcoming to them.”
Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and ordained pastor, told Fox News that it was beyond time for churches to “have some form of in-person services."
"Churches have always been essential, now more than ever, whether government recognizes them or not. They've been discriminated against with these orders,” he said.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus and the imposition of social distancing orders that affected the ability of churches to meet in-person, Liberty Counsel has represented churches defying those orders in several states, including Kentucky and Louisiana.
"I don't think any of these restrictions on churches — and we've reviewed thousands — are constitutional," Staver said. "They can't direct them to have online service or prohibit a drive-in service while people are in Walmart ... that kind of unequal treatment is exactly what Attorney General Barr is speaking against."
In their "Plan for Reopening," the Crossroads megachurch in Texas is requiring people to pre-register for services where they can choose a venue and time. Anyone with "concerns or health issues" is advised to stay home and watch online. The church has also suspended nursery service as well as their children’s and youth ministry.