There’s a pep in everyone’s step as they make their way through the parking lot, past the trees that line the side of the road and finally to the stairs of the Rock Church’s Point Loma campus. It’s April 18, 2021 and it’s been 13 months since any of the mega church’s attendees have been inside the building for a Sunday service. You can tell those who came are glad to be back.
At the steps leading to the building, the church-goers are greeted by volunteers wearing masks and signs that encourage everyone to love their neighbor by keeping 6 feet of social distance. Pastor Miles McPherson, the head of all Rock Church campuses, appears in the lobby maskless and looking like he’s in the kind of hurry a child would be to get to a candy store.
Inside the sanctuary, the attendees beam with a shared excitement. A countdown plays on the screen as everyone settles in their seats and the worship band takes their place on the stage. The lights dim and soon nearly everyone is standing and singing with the band. The screen behind the worship team displays one word: relaunch.
Since March 2020, the Rock Church has held traditional Sunday services online or outside at Liberty Station in order to comply with local coronavirus safety regulations. If not for a recent Supreme Court ruling in February 2021, which barred the state of California from putting blanket bans on indoor worship services, Rock Church would have likely continued outdoor services. In fact, the Supreme Court revisited the case several times between the initial ruling in February and Rock Church’s first indoor service in April. At first, the court upheld the capacity limits in places of worship as it related to the spread of the coronavirus within the local community. But after revisiting the case again, the court decided there should be no capacity limits forced upon places of worship, even amid the pandemic.
In accordance with this ruling, the Rock Church allowed people to sit wherever they wanted in the main sanctuary. The front sections filled up in the first few minutes before the service began. Even the middle section was nearly full, but at the very top balcony section, a lot of space and empty seats remained. All church attendees were encouraged to wear masks inside but were allowed to take them off after finding a seat. Some attendees took their masks off as the worship band started playing at 10 a.m., but many kept their masks on.
One Point Loma Rock Church attendee, Eva Sanders, said she intentionally found a seat in the corner of the sanctuary where there would be less people in case other attendees decided to take their masks off around her.
“Some things you can’t control,” Sanders said. “Life is going to go on and I try not to live in fear.”
Prior to the mandatory capacity limits being lifted, Rock Church planned to stick to the 50% limit coinciding with San Diego’s orange tier classification.
“We want to honor everyone, including the government,” said Pastor Jason Mayer, the campus pastor of the Rock Church’s San Marcos location.
According to California’s department of health, the orange tier means that a region within the state has moderate spread of the coronavirus, resulting in looser regulations compared to the purple and red tiers. The Rock Church’s Point Loma campus pastor, Travis Gibson, said the church’s leadership spent a lot of time planning for the first indoor service by trying to account for the capacity limits they thought they would have to adhere to.
“We’ve been planning for over two months,” Gibson said. “Looking at drawings, looking at seating charts, different cleaning solutions and making sure we have them.”
Despite not needing the seating charts in the end, Gibson encouraged church-goers to promptly leave after the first service ended so the sanctuary could be sanitized before the 12 p.m. service started. While extra work went into holding indoor services, Gibson said he was excited to be back in the building because it meant no more planes flying overhead from the San Diego International Airport during outdoor sermons. However, he also noted there was something special about getting to do something different than regular church for a year.
“We are not a single faceted church,” Gibson said. “Meaning, if we don’t do Sundays, we have many other avenues to be a church.”
Gibson said this allowed the Rock Church to always feel purposeful even when normal Sunday services weren’t an option. Instead, they focused on community outreach. The associate pastor of the Rock Church’s San Marcos campus, Becky Aniversario, wrote in an email that the church’s volunteers helped assemble 307,000 masks for the county of San Diego, coordinated 15,000 meals for frontline workers and collected 207,000 pieces of PPE. Since the Red Cross could no longer social distance while using trucks to do blood drives, certain Rock Church campuses opened their empty buildings and parking lots to help the Red Cross facilitate blood donations.
In addition to community outreach, virtual and online ministry became a way for the Rock Church pastors to connect with members of the congregation throughout 2020. At the start of the lockdowns, the leaders and pastors across all the Rock Church’s campuses called each member of the congregation to check in and see how they were doing. Gibson said some conversations lasted 10 minutes while some lasted an hour.
Mayer, the San Marcos campus pastor, said the goal was to have a “ministry of presence,” or minister to people in a way that helped them feel connected despite not being able to gather normally. He also said they did more online ministry through Facebook by holding livestream prayer meetings. While acknowledging that less people participated, Mayer also said he was surprised how vulnerable people were online.
“There may be less people willing to stay online after a day of Zoom fatigue, but those who did show up were authentic,” he said.
One member of the Rock Church congregation, Jon, who requested to go by his first name because he has a ministry role at the church, said he stopped going to the Rock Church over the summer of 2020 because Zoom didn’t provide enough human connection.
“I couldn’t do the Zoom thing,” Jon said. “I still needed in-person connection to people.”
His small group through Rock Church still met face-to-face, but for Sundays he started attending a different church that held indoor services despite the pandemic restrictions. Now that Rock Church is resuming indoor services, Jon said he once again attends on Sunday mornings. Jon noted he appreciates how Pastor Miles McPherson encourages everyone in attendance to do what’s comfortable for them during the service, whether that’s social distancing in the balconies or taking their mask off the entire time.
Jon also acknowledged that throughout the pandemic, smaller churches may have had an easier time catering to their demographic compared to larger congregations like Rock Church.
“The leadership [at Rock Church] did the best they could and handled the situation well,” Jon said. “If they had gone against the regulations, it would have probably divided the congregation.”
Mayer said the hardest part of the last year — before resuming in-person services — was not knowing how every member of his congregation was doing without getting to see their faces on a weekly basis.
“There are some people who I haven’t seen in a year,” Mayer said. “Unless they reach out, it’s hard to know [how they’re doing].”
Still, Mayer said some good things came out of the pandemic.
“Most people were able to slow down and rest,” he said. “People have been forced to address issues and reprioritize their lives.”
Gibson, the Point Loma campus pastor, noted the pandemic opened up new opportunities for ministry.
“Anytime you have limited resources of something, but you have increasing passion to keep producing something, you will become innovative,” Gibson said. “That’s where outdoor church happens. That’s where people go online because they have to.”
As the church relaunches indoor services, Gibson noted the last year would be a waste of an experience if the Rock Church functions exactly the same as before the pandemic. He hopes as the doors reopen, the culture of grace and ability to be flexible in an ever-changing world will continue into the church’s future. Gibson said he is excited for new people to join the church and add a kind of “wind in the sails” as the congregation moves forward.
By: Jen Pfeiler