Senior adults ‘understandably cautious’ about return to church

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – With lockdown restrictions being loosened, Kentucky Baptist churches are beginning to reopen and with that becomes difficult decisions when it comes to senior members.

For older people, or those with underlying health conditions, there is a scary reality when it comes to the coronavirus and most are being cautious about returning.

Pastors and church leaders have to weigh how they will keep them safe because of the uncertainty of the virus spread. It could mean masks, deep cleaning or even asking them to stay home for their own safety.

Mounting evidence suggests churches are a risky place for senior adults because the virus transmission is more likely indoors where lots of people come into close contact and where droplets with viral particles might linger longer in the air.

Older Americans are among the most likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19. Eight of 10 coronavirus deaths reported in the U.S. have been among adults 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Jason Lowe, the associational missions strategist for the Pike County Association of Southern Baptists, said senior adults have been “cautious and understandably so.”

While many Kentucky Baptist churches have opened the door to in-person services, some arranged for their older members with separate services or even moving them to a room with closed circuit viewing of the worship service. Other senior adults have chosen to stay home, choosing to worship via online services, and some churches are doing outside and drive-in services as a way to protect the older congregation and others.

“When churches regather, older people may be the last to go back,” Amy Hansan, an instructor in the gerontology department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has a consulting ministry to help churches engage older adults, told Baptist Press. “Some will want to return. But it will be hard for those who do go back.”

Church is different post-coronavirus with no more handshaking or hugs, previously a standard with older adults. The idea of a firm handshake may soon be forgotten completely.

“I encouraged our senior adults when it first started to stay home and watch the service online,” said Pastor Tommy Reed of Fitzpatrick First Baptist in Prestonsburg. “If they needed any help getting technology set up, we’d go to their home and do it.”

Fitzpatrick has a senior adult Sunday School class online and the church has two morning services on Sundays at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. The early service is for 55 years and older and the second service for 54 years and younger. Reed and his wife, Dawn, recently drove their Jeep to the homes of senior adults and greeted them from a good social distance.

“A shepherd called by God is going to do what’s best for his sheep,” Reed said. “As far as me the pastor, it has made me think outside the box as far as ministry. It also made me calm down and spend time with the Lord, my wife and my family.”

Lowe, who attends First Baptist Church in Pikeville, said they have a service on Friday night and two on Sundays and they’re starting to see more senior adults start to attend.

“We are trying to reach out to the senior adults and serve them,” Lowe said. “Churches are still being creative. Our senior adults are so important. They’ve seen the church through a lot of ups and downs. They have been the backbone financially and very faithful in Sunday School attendance, worship attendance and faithful in serving.”

Before the shutdowns, older Americans were nearly twice as likely as younger Americans to attend church, synagogue or a mosque, according to Pew Research. A study found that 61% of those born before 1945 attended religious services monthly or more, compared with 35% of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996).

Erlanger Baptist has a service for the 65 and over only and require masks for everyone, said Jim Woolums, the associational ministries strategist for the Northern Kentucky Baptist Association. “More have come back as a result of that,” he said

Hebron Baptist Church has a separate room with closed circuit viewing for senior adults, Woolum said. “That way they’re away from everybody meeting in the sanctuary and may feel a little safer because of it.”

Woolums said only about one-third of the Kentucky Baptist churches in the northern Kentucky area have reopened but more are scheduled for Sunday and the following Sunday. The biggest target date to reopen appears to be July 5, he said.

“The senior adult age is the core of our congregations across Baptist life,” he said.

Kentucky is one of 18 states that have seen a downward trend in the last few weeks. However, churches are often hot spots and when the virus spikes and, if that happens, they become lightning rods for criticism from government and health officials.

“You should be cautious, or you’ll make the national news,” Woolums said.

Several independent Baptist churches in Kentucky have had spikes directly related to services that faced some public scrutiny. Gov. Andy Beshear hasn’t been shy about calling out churches by name where the coronavirus is believed to have spread.

Watching services through online technology has become popular among the senior adults who may not have heard of Facebook three months ago. But now they are regulars – some after training through grandchildren – and tune in to worship from their living rooms. It has opened up a whole new world, some say.

“They’ve responded well,” Lowe said. “They know the situation and have been very supportive of church leadership. They have a lot of wisdom.”

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