LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On a Sunday morning when churches around Kentucky began to open their doors as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, the state’s largest church remained closed to in-person services, and senior pastor Kyle Idleman, speaking on behalf of church leadership, isn’t yet saying when those might resume.
Speaking by video – as he has done since the lockdowns began – Idleman said he wanted to make one thing clear: “We are deciding when to regather, not when to reopen. … You can’t reopen something that was never closed. If you think Southeast has been closed the past couple of months, you have not been paying attention.”
The church has seen unprecedented levels of viewership for its four live streaming services on Sundays, and has seen some of its highest giving levels from membership during the coronavirus crisis.
As one of the five largest churches in the nation, what it does in terms of in-person services could be influential – but it also is logistically daunting. Especially at its main campus on Blankenbaker Parkway, which has a 5-story sanctuary that seats 9,100, the church faces some challenges more akin to large concerns or sporting events than worship services – with the added question of how to handle childcare. Its size means that Southeast not only would need to adhere to CDC guidelines on faith communities but its guidance on childcare centers and schools.
Last week, the church sent out an online survey for its membership. Idleman told worshippers Sunday that the informal poll showed three distinct viewpoints.
“About a third of you think we should’ve started meeting several weeks ago,” he said. “About a third of you think we need to just monitor the situation and continue to take precautions. And about a third of you think we probably shouldn’t regather until there’s some kind of vaccine or proven treatment. And I’d say most of you, on a scale of 1 to 10, felt pretty ten-ish about your perspective.”
Idleman seemed to indicate that church leadership did not want to open some campuses while leaving others closed. Clearly, leaders of larger congregations are faced with finding a balance between member satisfaction and safety and community responsibility.
“When we regather is a decision that is made out of love and compassion,” he said. “The decision to not gather together, when we made that decision a couple of months ago, was not a decision that was made out of fear or frustration -- it was a decision made out of love and compassion. Because Jesus said that part of the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. As a church, we want our decisions to be motivated by the greatest commandment. So in this season, the decisions we’ve made have been not so much motivated by the First Amendment, but about the Greatest Commandment. We want to be careful in this season to love well and to care for our communities well. So that means when demanding our rights jeopardizes our witness, we will humbly sacrifice our rights for the sake of the Gospel. We are glad to do that.”
Idleman said that members would be updated over the next couple of weeks about plans to resume in-person services, but did not suggest a date by which that might happen. He said church leaders are studying matters from capacity restrictions to social distancing measures. In the meantime, he asked members to begin the “regathering” process by watching next week’s services with small groups in homes – with at risk members continuing to take all proper sheltering precautions.
Idleman also took a moment to address a question he is getting often from members and non-members alike – did the church receive money from the federal government’s recent stimulus package?
“I just want to make sure to communicate to you that we prayerfully decided to not even apply for that money,” he said. “Now look, we know that there are many churches and non-profits and certainly small business that desperately need that money to keep afloat and keep going, but we felt convicted that it would not be right for us, essentially, to stand in line at a soup kitchen when God has already provided a pantry of food. We understand that not every church and organization is able to be in that position. In fact, we are thankful to be able to help some of those churches and organizations. But we are moving forward with faith that God is the God who provides, and God is the God who rescues, and that he does that through his people. There’s a lot to be thankful for.”
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