Calvary Chapel Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain Reunited

Calvary Chapel Stone Mountain Begins In-Person Services

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Mary Lou Lawson

The reunion was joyful as believers returned to worship at Calvary Chapel Stone Mountain, GA, on Sunday, May 3. The church opened its doors for in-person services after Georgia’s governor recently revoked shelter-in-place orders in response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Inside services around the world have been cancelled for weeks as churches sacrifice to honor the efforts of their governments to protect public health.

For the first time in six weeks, Senior Pastor Sandy Adams preached to a live audience, and the worship team led live voices—and hearts—in praise. Chairs were rearranged to accommodate social distancing guidelines as attendees sat in groups of various sizes, each at least six feet away from another. Ushers opened doors and offered masks to any who wanted them. Hand sanitizer stations were readily available. While the setting was different than the last service they’d attended, people grateful for the renewed face-to-face fellowship relished every moment and lingered long past the closing of the service.

“For where two or three are gathered together in My name [Jesus], I am there in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

church service with social distancing

Calvary Chapel Stone Mountain recently began an in-person church service, in addition to their online services, maintaining social distancing while obeying the biblical call to assembly.

A Joyful Reunion

“I cannot tell you how much I cried during the service and during worship. It was so beautiful,” said Amanda Ghali. “Being there made me realize how I had taken for granted that time of fellowship in person and how thankful I am to have it.” Amanda had missed being able to see and touch her church family and the children she serves in ministry. “It was definitely different because I love hugging people. But at the same time, it’s what we have to do for now. It’s for the best, for our safety and the safety of others. Just the fact that we’re here in person and seeing each other rather than being on social media—we’ll take it,” she cheerfully affirmed.

Elder Geoff Peyton laughed as he compared worship inside the church with online services at his home. “Nothing against just my wife and I singing in the house. As Pastor Sandy would say, ‘We’re just making a joyful noise.’ The worship in person was totally different, just awesome. To have fellowship and teaching in person was a joy. We hung out for 30 to 45 minutes after the service ended.”

Geoff’s wife Gina praised the safety measures put in place. “The church had really thought out well how they set up the chairs to make it a safe environment, doing anything they thought we might need. It was wonderful to go back. Our God was there, just like He is with us always.”

believers worship

Families are free to worship the Lord together while maintaining a safe distance from others in the congregation.

“Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, … to give drink to My people, My chosen. This people I have formed for Myself; they shall declare My praise.” Isaiah 43:19-21

The service was a reunion for Darrell David, a member of the church for more than 25 years. “This is home, and these are my brothers and sisters. It was like seeing family members you haven’t seen in such a long time, ones you miss so much. My heart overflowed to be able to worship together once again,” he recalled. Although he appreciates the technology and online services the church has provided, he reflected, “We’re human beings, and we don’t like to be in [what feels like] exile, only connected by an electronic device. Nothing takes the place of human touch [and presence].” Darrell admitted, though, that it was hard not to shake hands or hug people.

pastor and wife with masks

Pastor Sandy Adams and his wife Kathy enjoy gathering with fellow believers while taking responsible measures to protect others.

A Partial Re-Opening

CC Stone Mountain went to online-only services in March. “We saw this as public health crisis and chose to cooperate with our state and local governments. The Lord wants us to be a responsible member of our community and to help our government officials look out for the well-being of our fellow citizens,” Sandy explained. “But after six weeks we were aware that some members of our church had struggled spiritually during the quarantine. There were fellow believers who wanted and needed the fellowship and accountability that comes with in-person church. We felt the Lord wanted us to move forward and get back to meeting. There’s no substitute for real fellowship.”

Sandy hesitated to call this “a re-opening” when services aren’t currently available to two-thirds of the congregation—those who are older and at a higher risk of illness. Sandy’s team also realized that social distancing in the children’s ministry would be challenging, making it difficult for families with younger children to attend. He emphasized, “We encouraged parents with children and older members to continue to join us online. But for everyone else, we were confident we could rearrange our sanctuary to meet social distancing guidelines issued by the government. We concluded that the spiritual care we give justifies the minimal risk we are accepting with an in-person service.” To reserve a seat for a service, people are asked to sign up in advance on the church’s website.

attendance is low

Even with reduced capacity, there were still plenty of empty seats, as the church cautiously eases back into corporate worship.

The sanctuary holds more than 500 chairs; social distancing guidelines reduced that number to 130. However, Sandy observed, only about half the chairs were filled on Sunday. “We opened very early in this process, and it was obvious that people are still cautious. It’s going to take time before they feel comfortable enough to join a large group gathering, especially in a large metropolitan area. The road back may take longer than we thought,” he said.

Church leadership has made it clear they respect those who are not yet ready to return to the in-person service. Sandy expounded, “We’ve tried to be very careful to let them know: You don’t need to give us an explanation. We’ll continue to provide a great livestream experience.”

Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Psalm 133:1

Elder Geoff Peyton stressed that the church is reopening in phases, just as the states are doing; in fact, he added, Sandy waited for a full week after the governor allowed churches to open to implement this move. “There are definitely challenges, but the Lord has opened the door for us to learn to be obedient yet flexible,” Geoff related. “Pastor Sandy and the leadership of the church prayed about it and sought the Lord about the best scenario to allow members to come back. We’re trusting in the Lord as we do these things. We’re doing this in a wise, responsible, compassionate, understanding, and loving way for the entire church body.”

Balancing Priorities and Managing Risk

The decision to return to inside services was harder than the decision to close them down, Sandy admitted. “There’s just no game plan for this,” he noted. He advised other pastors considering their own re-openings to prepare in such a way that they can defend their decisions. “This is a balancing act of a lot of different priorities. You have to make choices and judgments. You want to do it as safely as you can because this is a public health issue. People could come to your church and get the virus. You cannot eliminate all the risk, but you need to be able to say you did everything you could to provide a safe environment for your worshippers.”

pastor with mask talks to congregent

Pastor Sandy fellowships with a congregant after service.

A church’s job is to prepare Christians to be strong, healthy disciples of Jesus Christ who can withstand weeks of not meeting, especially in a pandemic like this, Sandy firmly stated. “Our folks don’t need me to spoon feed them God’s Word. If that’s the case, then I haven’t done my job. However, having said that, there comes a point where online church is not acceptable [for most people],” he admonished. “Biblically speaking, [when possible] we’re not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. There’s something special that happens with flesh-and-blood fellowship, people eyeball to eyeball interacting with each other. [It’s hard to] fulfill the one-another commands in Scripture online. We cannot take the posture that this is non-essential.”

And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some. Hebrews 10:24-25a

Every church will have to make this decision to come back together, Sandy believes. “In order to do so, they’re going to need courage to accept some element of risk. That’s what pastors are facing—drawing their own conclusions about how and when to do it. For all of us, it’s going to take a step of faith.”

In the meantime, his church body eagerly awaits the time when they will all be able to gather again. In the words of Amanda Ghali, “I can’t imagine how sweet that day is going to be.” For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in house of my God (Psalm 84:10).

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.