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How Hall County churches are gathering as fall approaches and COVID-19 lingers
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Free Chapel's Gainesville campus held its first in-person outdoor service on Sunday, Aug. 30. Photo courtesy Free Chapel.

Little by little, churches in Hall County are beginning to reopen their doors. 

Although the reunion isn’t quite what people envisioned because of social distancing measures and mandated face coverings, many pastors and members have expressed gratitude and excitement to be worshipping together again.  

Though many have returned to some kind of limited in-person services, several local churches have also provided an option for their congregations to tune in online.

The Times reached out to a variety of area congregations to learn more about how services are being conducted as activity picks up with the start of school. 

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We know credible local information is crucial now more than ever. Reporter Kelsey Podo reached out to several area churches for this article and has included information from all of those who responded to our requests. If you'd like to see additional churches included, please reach out to us at life@gainesvilletimes.com so we can better serve you. To our subscribers, thank you for your support; it helps us provide the journalism you've come to trust. For those interested in becoming part of our mission to provide fair, unbiased coverage of our community, please consider these two options.

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First Presbyterian Church Gainesville 

The Rev. Lee Koontz of First Presbyterian Church Gainesville said, since they’ve not seen each other for months now, it’s been nice for his congregation to greet each other again, even if it has to be from a distance. He described the physical gathering of other believers for worship as something that’s important for Christians. 

The church began offering in-person outdoor services a couple of weeks ago in its parking lot. Koontz said members are required to wear masks and distance themselves from others. Instead of singing during the service, he said people listen to the worship leaders, who are also masked.  

“We’re modeling the behavior that I think all of us need to participate in responsibly,” Koontz said. “I think it has been nice when people come to worship and see the worship leaders wearing masks. They’re setting an example.” 

For those unable to attend the 8:30 a.m. Sunday services, parishioners can tune in to watch it via livestream. Koontz said all the church’s other offerings like small groups are facilitated over Zoom. 

Gainesville First United Methodist Church 

At Gainesville First United Methodist Church, the congregation has been able to take advantage of its lakeside outdoor venue for its 8:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday services.  

The Rev. Mike Morgan, who recently became the pastor of the church, said everyone is asked to wear masks and socially distance themselves. The 7 p.m. service is now moving to 5 p.m. as fall approaches. 

The church’s 10 a.m. modern worship service, meanwhile, is streamed online on the Gainesville First UMC website each Sunday.  

Morgan, as new senior pastor, debuted his first lakeside sermon Sunday, Sept. 6. 

Morgan said the church intends to restart small group studies this fall, which will allow people to meet in person while socially distanced or tune in via Zoom. 

First Baptist Church of Gainesville 

First Baptist Church of Gainesville has recently started holding both outdoor services at 8 a.m. and indoor services with limited seating at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Children’s church also takes place outside. Those wanting to stay at home can watch the gatherings over a livestream.  

C.J. Wehmiller, administrative assistant at the church, said members who attend the sanctuary gatherings must make a reservation, as only 90 people are allowed inside at a time. She said those who attend the services are also asked to not sing during worship. But, she said, they're free to hum along. 

Wehmiller said she has yet to return for an in-person service but is looking to try it out soon. 

“I did have COVID, so getting out in big crowds again, I’ve been reluctant,” she said. “But I’m ready.” 

The church is starting to slowly reintroduce its programs, including prayer group meetings. Wehmiller said those small gatherings take place in several places around the church where people can safely spread out.  

Oakwood Baptist Church 

Brian Evans, pastor of Oakwood Baptist Church, said his church holds in-person services inside its auditorium, while also allowing people to watch from a live video feed.  

“We are encouraging safety guidelines as recommended by the CDC with social distancing and so on,” Evans said. “We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t had any health issues. We’re thankful for that.” 

He said every other pew is blocked off, forcing people to sit at proper distance. The church also offers an online service for kids to tune into each Sunday on its website

Grace Episcopal Church 

Despite most churches restarting in-person services around Hall, Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville has kept to online streaming and only opened its doors for small funerals, weddings and baptisms, the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham said.  

“We just did a very small funeral for eight people,” he said. “It was good to have something to do in person. People miss physical contact with other people.” 

Higginbotham said the decision to reopen is ultimately up to the church’s bishop.  

Starting Sept. 15, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Grace Episcopal will allow people to visit for private prayer time in the main worship space. Higginbotham said people will have to register on the church’s website, and only nine people will be allowed inside for 30 minutes at a time. Over the course of a week, he said around 40 people out of the church’s active 900 members will be able to enter the building. 

“We’re trying to do what we can,” he said. “They’ll have to wear masks and space themselves out. We’ll have candles there and things for people to have personal devotion.” 

Free Chapel Gainesville 

After five months of closing to the public, Free Chapel’s Gainesville campus, along with its other Georgia locations, held its first in-person service outdoors on Aug. 30. 

According to a press release from Free Chapel, the church’s staff and volunteers operated by COVID-safe guidelines with first-come, first-serve seating and requiring people to wear masks. 

“Efforts were made to create a touchless experience as guest services tents were available with sanitation stations and extra face masks on hand,” the release stated. “Registrations were taken online but not required to help prepare for attendance and to social distance the seating.” 

Savanna Colwell, marketing director for Free Chapel, said the church’s staff planned the gathering for weeks to “make it a safe environment for not only the attendees, but for the community.” 

She said the outdoor function was conducted in preparation for the congregation’s first indoor service, which is planned for Sunday, Sept. 13. 

 Jentezen Frankli, senior pastor of Free Chapel, described the reunion in Gainesville as an “amazing day.” 

“My heart is so moved today to see this beautiful turnout,” he said. “I am so thankful to all of our volunteers and staff who helped make this day happen.” 

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Free Chapel's Gainesville campus held its first in-person service outside on Sunday, Aug. 30, with social distancing measures. Photo courtesy Free Chapel.
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