When churches should regather for worship is one question, but an equally challenging question is when groups should meet in person. The issue of COVID-19 has not been solved. In fact, several states are now reporting more cases of Coronavirus than ever before. Just when you thought it was safe for groups to meet in person, the pandemic seems to be flaring up again in many places.
As people are becoming weary of quarantine and some despair of another online meeting, directing groups to meet too soon could only add to the problem. But, eventually groups will meet. When they do, how should you guide them? Here are some things to consider as you direct your groups:
1. What are the restrictions or recommendations of your local government?
State and local governments all have common, yet unique challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic seems to have no rhyme or reason. At first, the pandemic seemed more of a big city problem, but over time it has shown up in more rural areas. It’s hard to predict. While guidance and restrictions related to COVID-19 have unfortunately become politicized in some areas, this is a time to heed the counsel of government in directing your groups and especially observe restrictions on meetings and meeting sizes.
2. What are the recommendations from medical authorities?
While opinions vary among medical experts (and I’m not talking about your Facebook friends), there is some common agreement regarding the spread of disease. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so breathing it out while talking, singing, shouting, coughing, sneezing, or breathing spreads the disease. It seems to enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It would make sense to cover the body parts that spread the disease as well as those that serve in contracting the disease. Here is a description of how viruses spread from an immunologist.
There is debate over other issues. Can the virus be spread on surfaces? Clean them. Can the virus be spread through food? Avoid refreshments for now. Can the virus be spread through human contact? Maybe go “touchless” for a while in the group, even though group members will be desperate to give and receive hugs. Here are the guidelines from the CDC.
3. What should groups do over the summer?
Summer tends to be a challenge for groups anyway. People plan vacations or weekends at the lake. The rhythm of the public school calendar comes into play. Even though people are still working (hopefully), alarm clocks don’t ring. Longer evenings lead to more leisure. Warmer weather calls people outdoors. For places with long winters and/or long quarantines, once people can get out, my sense is that they will be gone. Don’t fight that.
In a normal year, I usually advise groups to meet as often as they would like, but at least once per month. They can meet socially. They could serve together. Some might want to meet for a Bible study. The bottom line here is that a group is not just a meeting just like a family is not just dinner. Groups also need group life together.
Summer is not the time to launch a new study or a new series. Churches that do a big push in the summer usually lose momentum when it comes to the fall launch. It’s better to embrace the typical rhythm of summer and gear up for a big fall. Even if the fall may bring a resurgence of Coronavirus and a second quarantine, people need a break in the summer. We will talk about fall planning in another post.
4. What do the groups want to do?
Even if the church gives groups the blessing to meet in person again, some people will be reluctant to meet for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Others will differ on what precautions to take. I’ve already heard of churches dealing with mask wearers and non-mask wearers. It hasn’t quite taken on the proportions of the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the book of Galatians, but the spirit is there.
With any small group dilemma, groups need to form their own group agreements going into this next season of meeting (or not meeting). A discussion of the group agreement will help everyone to feel heard and hopefully will lead to agreement on how the group will proceed in the summer or fall semester. For more information on forming a group agreement, click here.
While the church can offer some overall guidelines for groups, it’s really the decision of each group. Encourage your coaches to engage with the group leaders to help them navigate this issue. If you don’t have coaches, first, you need to think about starting your coaching structure. Second, if you don’t have coaches, then you need to talk to your leaders individually and help them.
5. Create Some Group Guidelines.
Groups will need some overall guidance from the church. These should be general guidelines based on the best medical and governmental information you can access with the understanding that groups and their members will have different opinions and feelings about this. Personally, I would avoid making the guidelines too directive, in that, you don’t want to put the church in a place where they might be liable for a group’s actions.
Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, CA published guidelines for groups at one of their campuses in Minnesota. Bear in mind as you read their guidelines that to date this county in Minnesota has had no reported cases of Coronavirus.
Group Grand Opening Guidelines by Will Johnston and Cheri Liefeld
We recognize that some of you may be nervous about meeting at all—and that’s okay, you don’t have to—and others of you may feel like any sort of meeting restrictions are unnecessary. We’ve adopted these guidelines because we want to preserve our witness for Jesus to our communities by following our local, state, and national leaders, and because we don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak that could devastate lives.
Illness – Group members should stay home if they or anyone in their household is sick.
Location – Select a gathering place where you can safely distance. Meeting outside is encouraged when possible.
Masks – We are asking group members to wear masks, especially in the time people are arriving and socializing. Once group members are safely distanced, masks may be removed at the discretion of the leader and participants.
Food – We are big proponents of food at small group gatherings, but during this season we are recommending that groups not eat together. If you do choose to eat, encourage members to bring their own beverage and snack.
Greetings – As much as some will miss hugging or shaking hands with other group members, for now it is wise to avoid physical contact.
Cleaning – The host should be prepared to clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched both before and after group (Door handles, chairs, restrooms, etc.).
Virtual Option – Not everyone will feel comfortable attending in person at first. Consider setting up a computer in your meeting area so group members can join in via video conference.
Childcare – Due to the challenge of having young children practice distancing, at this time we are asking groups not bring children to meetings at this time.
High Risk Individuals – Those who are 65+ or who have serious underlying health conditions are strongly encouraged to join an online small group rather than an in-person one. Groups comprised largely of high risk individuals are encouraged to continue meeting virtually.
Group Size – Groups of more than 10 people that choose to meet in person should divide the group up and meet in different places or at different times.
Guidance for groups regathering is not a simple cut and paste. While I feel that the guidelines from Eastside are thorough, you need to come up with what’s right for your small groups. And, then encourage each group to determine what’s right for them. Online groups may not feel perfect to some, but they may need to be an option for a while.
In all of this, don’t forget why we’re doing this. Groups are not for the sake of groups, but for the sake of disciples making disciples and practicing the one another’s (which can be done in ways other than meetings). Groups are one method of making disciples. Group meetings are one component of groups. Don’t limit yourself with in-person meetings.
Join a Conversation about Regathering on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 1 pm Eastern. To register, click here.
The Coronavirus pandemic has created some interesting times for life and ministry. Back in March 2020 toilet paper disappeared from the store shelves along with hand sanitizer. While the second one made sense in combating a virus, the first one was a bit of a puzzle.
What also seemed curious were the items left behind on store shelves. Items that didn’t appear on anyone’s shopping list included things like chickpea-based linguine, chocolate hummus, dryer sheets, obscure canned veggies like artichokes and asparagus spears, plant-based proteins, and oddly enough, Dasani bottled water. “Chocolate hummus is the canary in the coal mine. If you see it selling out, it’s time to start fleeing into the woods,” according to Aaron Mak in a post on Slate.com.
What are Churches Leaving Behind?
Once stay-at-home orders too place, churches went online. Worship services went online. Small groups went online. Giving went online. But, some things got left behind.
In a recent survey of churches across North America, pastors reported not only what they stopped doing, but also what they’re not bringing back. This included things like the church bulletin, working at the church office, tons of physical meetings, large group speaking events, and too much programming.
One shift is to stop gauging the church’s success on Sunday worship attendance. One pastor wrote, “We need a more unified and thoughtful approach going forward.”
Scarcity brings clarity. What will your church leave behind?
What are Churches Starting and Keeping?
Every church represented in the survey reported a much stronger online worship attendance after March 1, 2020 than their average weekend attendance in February 2020. While some churches just expanded the reach of an existing online campus or streaming service, others have discovered that through online services, they are engaging a larger part of their congregations and attracting people outside of their church (often outside of their state!).
Churches are also engaging in an uptick of personal ministry. Pastors are using text messages, phone calls, personal emails, handwritten notes, and of course, Zoom meetings. The overall tone of ministry has become more informal and more experimental. Restrictions have forced churches to rethink the methods in fulfilling their mission.
This is a time of learning. The church is learning what to do and what not to do. The church is discovering what really matters, what doesn’t seem to matter, and what used to matter. And, of course, the church is waiting. Waiting on the Lord is a good thing.
The church is discovering that it’s much more than a Sunday service in a building. We’ve all said that, but now we’ve lived it. As Alan Hirsch says the church is playing chess without the queen. With the queen of the worship service gone, it’s a chance for the church to see what all of the other chess pieces can do without her. That’s not saying the on-campus worship service shouldn’t come back. But, it is causing everyone to look at what is working during a crisis.
A while back someone said, “Right now everything is a startup.” How is your church a startup? How are you innovating? What have you discovered?
And, most importantly, what is the chocolate hummus in your church? Give your answer in the comments below.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, pastors have become online content machines. Pastors have always been content machines, we’re just seeing more of it. Phil Cooke said that the church is currently producing more media than Hollywood. How about that?
Our faith is multifaceted. God gave us a book and a brain, so there is no coincidence there. We are people of the Book, the Bible. After all, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. But, that transformation involves a few other things like our experiences and our relationships, our attitudes and our actions. While nothing supersedes what the Bible gives us, transformation is not merely a knowledge-based enterprise. As pastors continue to pump out content, we must also realize that people don’t grow by content alone.
People are Inundated with Content.
From newsfeeds to blogs to everyone starting a podcast right now, there is content for days. For a society that was already on information overload, quarantine has caused the overload to level up several times over. In addition to content, people need a place to process all of this content and do life together, even while they’re apart.
New Facebook devotionals and midweek services are great, but how can your people talk back? Actually they can. People can join in Watch Parties and message each other. People can communicate with the presenter. Give people time to interact with you and with the content. Offer a question time, or give a question for the group to discuss. Using these simple tools you can turn your content into a conversation. I watched one group of pastors online last Sunday night reading and answering their congregations questions from the chat. Your people need conversation, not just content.
Smaller Churches have the Advantage.
If you pastor a smaller church, you can actually call every one of your members on a regular basis. You can have an actual conversation with them. While you still have the deadline of the Sunday sermon and Zoom meetings, the schedule has shifted. A pastor serving a regular sized church of 90 people could actually have a personal conversation with every member over a 30 day period by just calling three people per day. Pastors with 1,000 or 10,000 can’t do that. While online services are a necessity these days, personal touches count more than ever.
In larger churches, staff and church leaders should be enlisted to make similar contacts. Call all of your leaders. Call all of your regular givers, if you aren’t already. While you should have started this 60 days ago, you can still start now. There are lots of ways to reach out to folks and even practice the “one anothers” amid social distancing.
Small Group Churches have an Advantage.
Online worship services only go so far. While worship and the Word is vitally important during these days of isolation and fear, the reality is that once people go online, they will find a better online worship service out there. That’s okay. These are unusual times.
Small groups, however, are the glue that holds the church together. Many churches are starting significant numbers of new online groups. Remember, people need conversation and not just content. The format of groups is changing. I’ve done online coaching groups with pastors from across North America for years. My online coaching has changed. Rather than just diving into the topic, we take a little time to debrief our current situation. The pastor in Washington talks about quarantine life and ministry over the last two months. The pastor in Nebraska is just now getting into the thick of it. There is a need to talk about what we’re going through.
There is also much to learn as churches are innovating ministry right now. One church developed an online small group study called Cabin Fever to help people deal with living, working, and schooling in quarantine. Another church developed an online resource for members of their community to post practical needs. They are then matched up with a church member or a group who can meet that need. Another very large church has tasked their staff to call 160 church members per week. They are also making N95 masks for medical personnel. If pastors ever wanted to experiment, this is the time. No one is looking for perfection these days.
New Online Groups are Adding up to 50% More Groups in Some Churches.
Sure there are excuses about Zoom fatigue, but there used to be excuses about not having enough time for a group. Some people will always have reasons why they can’t join a group or just don’t want to. That’s okay. Move with the movers. If you make the offer, there are folks who would love to connect with others. Read more on starting online groups.
What is not working right now is assigning people to groups. Let’s face it this has never worked very well. When starting new groups online or offline, the leaders should start by making a list of people they know. They can invite a couple of people, then ask their new members to invite a few people they know. Before they know it, they have a group.
Now, there may be people who want to be in a group but aren’t invited. Normally, I would recommend creating an environment where prospective members can meet group leaders in person, then decide whose group to join. While you can’t do this at a physical location, you could do this online. Host an online meeting where leaders can introduce themselves and talk a little about their groups. Prospective members can listen, then indicate which group they want to become a part of. Everyone knows what they’re getting into.
Content is great. The Word of God is powerful. But, the reality is that people need each other in addition to needing your teaching. Try different ways to help them connect online and offline during this time. Get on the phone and give your people a call. Send them a handwritten note in the mail. Create new online groups. We don’t know when restrictions will end. Every state has a different opinion. We also don’t know if and when another outbreak may occur. If you learn what to do during this crisis, you will be better prepared for the next one.
How is your church innovating during the COVID-19 pandemic?