I don’t think “When Should Churches Reopen?” is the correct title. After all, the church is a body of believers, not merely a building or a worship service. The church never closed, but the building and the gatherings did. But, when and how should the church start gathering again?

Borrowed from every pastor on Facebook.

This is THE big question. Trying to plan during a continually ambiguous crisis with conflicting information and political agendas is nearly impossible. While churches in some parts of the U.S. have begun meeting on-campus with certain guidelines in place, churches in other states cannot open their doors for the foreseeable future. Some are hesitant even when restrictions are lifted. And, a few churches never actually closed. The best that any pastor and church can do is to make the best decision based on the available information. That might not seem very reassuring.

What Will State Governments Allow?

It would be easy to launch into a standup comedy routine about all of the conflicting regulations and guidelines across the great U.S. of A. It would be TOO easy (not to mention unhelpful). But, here is what I am seeing. Churches in states that are currently allowing worship services are proceeding with caution. Even in states that are wide open to shopping, dining, recreation, and worship, not every church is meeting onsite and in-person. Some states limit gatherings of more than 100. Other states restrict gatherings of more than 10. The decision is easy if the state says “No” — you don’t meet. But, when the decision is up to the church’s leadership, there are many factors to consider.

What Precautions Will Your Church Take?

Most churches anticipate using social distancing in their seating and common areas or what Life.Church calls a Touchless Service. Other precautions mentioned in a recent survey conducted by this blog include requiring congregants to wear face masks, not offering nursery care, encouraging older members to stay home, and waiting to reopen their children’s ministries. A handful is planning drive-in or outdoor worship services.

Several churches will start offering additional worship services in order to provide more space for social distancing. Additional cleaning can also add to preparation. One pastor mentioned moving the singing to end of the service, so those who didn’t wish to participate and broadcast germs could leave. There are many factors to consider in fighting the spread of disease. Read the post listed below by Erin Bromage, an immunologist, for a scientific explanation.

Can you kill every germ? Can you prevent every asymptomatic carrier from spreading the disease? How much preparation and prevention is sufficient? This are big questions to weigh.

Should You Just Wait to Open Everything All at Once?

A third set of churches don’t see in-person services happening for a while still. Similar to North Point Ministries in Atlanta, these churches want to wait until they can offer everything to everyone, so in the meantime they will stay with online services only.

I just found out that this is also the case for our church in South Carolina, NewSpring, who plans to open all campuses and all ministries on Sunday, July 12, 2020. NewSpring is going with a strategy of opening up everything — Worship Services, nursery, Kidspring, and Fuse (student ministry) all at once. Notice the timing here. The state of South Carolina has gradually been opening up week by week for the last six weeks or so: Retail stores, then Outdoor Dining, then Indoor Dining, and this past week: personal contact (haircuts, nails salons, etc). But, NewSpring won’t open for another two months. This is not a criticism, but a case in point.

Rick Warren says that Saddleback will reopen when Disneyland reopens. If your church opens with missing pieces like no nursery or children’s ministry, then your young families will stay at home. If your church discourages those who are vulnerable from attending, then your older people and others will stay home. Who will attend if you partially reopen? What will you have accomplished?

Create a Hybrid Small Group – Online Service

Awaken Church, San Diego is combining their small groups with their online services to create watch parties for their weekend worship services. If you think about this, most people only connect with a handful of other people on Sunday anyway. They don’t have to meet in a large worship center to participate in the service and engage in personal interaction with other members. For more information on what Awaken Church is doing, click here.

Now, to pull this off, you need more small groups ASAP. If you’ve ever wanted to experiment with a new group’s strategy, this is the time for experimentation. The Leading an Exponential Groups Launch course can help you quickly create new small groups, recruit the leaders you need, supervise the new leaders, and train them for success.

The Biggest Fear in Reopening

Some people bristle when fear is addressed. After all, we are a people of faith, not a people of fear. But, we feel fear. Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid of the Coronavirus, because if that’s what might take us from this life to the next, then we receive our reward in Heaven. But, there are other fears to consider.

The fear of reopening in the extreme is exposure to liability. What if someone gets sick at your church? Could your church be sued? Will your church be held liable? Granted people were invited and were never forced to attend. They may not have a case. But, this is not the true fear.

The underlying fear for most churches is the fear of blame and losing trust. If the church opens too early, even if their state allows, but they are unprepared and people get sick, how do you live that down? This is already happening. How soon will that congregation return? How likely will a new family visit that church where a bunch of people got sick? If a church executes a careful plan of cleaning, social distancing, mask wearing with no touching whatsoever, can they say they took every precaution? Can they say they did everything humanly possible? Will that response be good enough?

I hate to disappoint you. I’m not saying whether or not your church should reopen its building, but this has been on my mind like it’s been on yours. I have four children at home. I am weighing out when to take them back. (Our family has lived in quarantine for 73 days. We haven’t been outside of the house except for trips to the grocery store and a very few other places. One of our children especially would be drastically impacted by COVID-19, so we’re staying in). Going out and going back to church services is not an easy decision.

Overall, the country still has more questions than answers. Good answers are harder to come by especially now that things are so politically entrenched. But, reopening the church building is not the most important mission today. It’s time to rethink how the church is doing church. There are things to start doing and keep doing digitally. There are things to stop doing and leave behind. How has this season helped to redefine the ministry of your church?

The decision to open for worship services is met with overwhelming uncertainty. Once churches reopen their buildings for worship will they have to close them again in 2020? A church in South Carolina has already re-closed. What can you do now to prepare for the next crisis? What does your church need to know before you reopen your worship services? What can you do without a worship service to serve your people in the meantime?

For further insights on preventing the spread of the disease from surfaces or singing, please consult these posts by an immunologist, the CDC, and a DJ/Pastor from Minneapolis:

The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them by Erin Bromage, Comparative Immunologist and Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith from the CDC

The Joys and Germs of Singing in Church: The Fascinating Science Behind Reopening Churches by Peter Haas, Lead Pastor, Substance Church, Minneapolis, MN

A few other leading voices on reopening the church building:

Please Don’t Kill Me with Your Church by Ralph Moore

180 Churchgoers Exposed to COVID-19 by Asymptomatic Member by Stephanie Martin

9 Concerns Pastors Have About Their Church Gathering Again by Aaron Earls

Reopened SC church closes again after members exposed to coronavirus at services – 5/27/2020

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