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?
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:
Unless they offer an essential service, suddenly everybody has time for a small group. The #1 excuse people give for not joining a group is that they are too busy or they don’t have enough time. Small Group Pastors know what they are really saying is, “Small group is just not a priority.” I get that. But, now the “I don’t have time” excuse has been erased, and small groups should become a greater priority — even if they can’t meet in person.
Why do you need to start new groups during a pandemic?
Whether by choice or by mandate, people are staying away from other people right now. Church services have gone online. School has gone online in many places. While people are making their best attempts to curtail the spread of a disease, isolation and loneliness coupled with a steady intake of cable news and social media is a breeding ground for fear. Isolation and fear come straight from a page in the enemy’s playbook. The devil is having a heyday with this.
People have spiritual and emotional needs. With all of the conflicting information and no one to discuss this with, the monsters in our people’s heads just become bigger and bigger. Last week I wrote about practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible while in quarantine. People need more than worship and a sermon to reassure them and help them deal with what’s going on. Beyond that some people have practical, physical needs. How is your church keeping up with older people or people with medical conditions. We must find a strategic way to care for our members. Here’s a tough thought — your people can find a better online service. How you help them right now will determine where they go and where they give after this is all over. This is fertile ground for the enemy to do his work. This is a tremendous opportunity for the church to do its work.
As a church staff, you are working hard to transition worship and sermons to online services, but what about the social time people spent in the lobby or even in the parking lot. How are you meeting your members’ need for connection? This is the time to launch new groups. Groups could meet on a video platform. Groups could meet on a free conference call line. While many are forced to be apart, there are ways to be together.
How to Start New Groups
Starting new groups online is not so different than starting groups offline, except you have one advantage. People need connection more than ever. Now is the time to get all hands on deck and start as many groups as possible. Churches must mobilize the most people they can for ministry right now. Your people need personal care like never before. You can do this. Here’s what you need to get started:
A willing, caring person to initiate.
If there was ever a time to bypass bulky requirements for group leaders and get all hands on deck, the time is now. Invite every person who will willing and caring to start a group right now. If you are insecure about that method, then review a copy of your church’s membership roster. Who would you feel good about? Call them and invite them right now. Who is willing and caring? Remember, they suddenly have time for a group.
A system to connect.
Once you have invited people to lead these groups, then ask them who they know who would be interested in a group. Take a week and have them invite everyone they know inside the church or outside the church to join their group. Then, invite the rest of your congregation to sign up online or even give out some names for leaders to call and invite to their group. The idea is that everyone in the congregation would have someone to connect with personally every week.
A platform to meet on.
Some localities are still allowing meetings of groups less than 10 people. If people are comfortable meeting in person, then they can. Personally, I would recommend an online option like a teleconference or a conference call. This will prohibit any unnecessary contact and potential spread of disease. Teleconference services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other services offer a stable platform and an easy way to connect online with video. Most services offer a call-in number for those who might be less tech savvy. For a comparison of video platforms, click here. If video is not a good solution because of the internet service in your area, then a free conference line could work as well. Several services are available.
For families with children, encourage them to meet later in the evening when their kids have gone to bed. Wear headphones to eliminate background noise. Mute yourself when you’re not talking. And, do not take your device into the bathroom with you!
Curriculum to guide.
Your groups could start with just a weekly check in to see how everybody is doing. Start the meetings by allowing people to debrief what’s going on in their lives and in their minds. Another great way to start a new group is to ask people to tell their stories or at least the part of the stories that they’re willing to tell. This is an important way for the group to begin to understand each other and have context for what they share in the group.
For new leaders I have discovered that it’s best to use some sort of video-based curriculum that contains the teaching on the video. This makes things safe for both the new leader as well as the pastors. The new leader doesn’t have to be the Bible expert, and the pastors don’t want the new leader to teach or be the Bible expert anyway. By giving them a curriculum that you’ve created or a curriculum that you trust, you could assure that the group will follow the topic that you’ve given them and have a great meeting to encourage each other, build up their faith, and grow spiritually in an unusual time.
Just-in-time training and coaching. Don’t skip this step!
There won’t be a lot of time to train these leaders at first. I have discovered that if you recruit an established leader to follow up with new leaders, you create a win-win situation. The new leaders get help and support right when they need it, and the experience leader gets a trial run at being a coach. Once the trial is over, you can determine whether the new leaders will want to continue and whether the coaches should continue.
Just like groups can meet over a teleconference or conference call, training can also happen in the same way. In the last church I served we had an immediate need for coaches. I knew it would be difficult to add another meeting to an already busy schedule which included all of the coaches leading their own small group, so we met together on a conference line at about 8:30 at night for 30 minutes and did this for about six weeks in a row. Why did we meet so late? Well everybody was home from work, finished with dinner, and their kids were hopefully in bed. With all of these distractions removed, I was able to conduct the training and get these new coaches started. The same can be true for leader training, but I would recommend letting the coaches do the work for at least the first six weeks, then offer more formal training when the leaders are ready to move forward and when the leaders feel like they actually need the training.
Follow up and feedback.
Leading a small group and coaching is important work so you must inspect what you expect. If you’ve asked your coaches to call the new leaders every week, then you need to call the coaches every week and hear what’s going on with the groups. As a pastor, you want to know what’s going on with your people especially during a crisis. Your coaches can give you the needs that you need to address that maybe they cannot. You also get an accurate picture of what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you wait for a report, you are already in the weeds.
Do for your coaches what you expect them to do for your leaders. Just like your people need the care of a leader and your leaders need the care of a coach, your coaches need care from you. Now that your schedule has changed, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up the phone and give each of your coaches a call.
Supervision and accountability.
While you have successfully given away the ministry to new leaders and new coaches, the only thing that you cannot give away is the responsibility for the ministry. The buck still stops with you. I don’t say this to make you nervous, but I do say this so you will avoid an entirely hands off approach. The coaching structure is effective, but it cannot run on auto pilot. While you are not in the day-to-day care of leaders, you cannot be completely out of it either. This is still your baby.
The End Result
In this climate, everything you do is essentially a startup. You cannot call a meeting and gather people on campus. You cannot do on-site training. You can’t even visit your people in their homes. But you can start online groups that will accomplish all of this. This may go against your personality. This may go against everything that you’ve done before. But the message is the same — We are better together even if we are apart.
By starting new small groups right now, your people will feel less lonely, less isolated, and less fearful. These groups can help your people build their faith and experience the care that they deserve. And the hard truth is that you cannot create that with an email.
My hope for you is that the end result of starting online groups will be at the beginning of something new for your ministry and your church. Pastors and staff cannot possibly meet all of the needs of any congregation. And they shouldn’t. Now more than ever, you need to get your people to engage their gifts and serve others in groups like never before. Don’t waste this moment. Suddenly, everybody has time for a small group!
If you’re ready to start groups, I want to share this webinar with you:
By Allen White People typically don’t find a lot of success in promoting something they fear. They can actually be relieved when they have a poor result. There is less to be afraid of. On pastor admitted to me, “What if I put myself out there and no one responds? I would be embarrassed.” That is definitely true. The answer is don’t invite people to something you don’t believe in. But, what do you and your church believe in? First, if you’re a small group pastor or director, ask yourself where does your pastor want to start? If your pastor is more risk averse like I used to be, then ask for your pastor’s help to handpick solid citizens who could lead groups, then promote those groups. You won’t get as far as you would if you threw down the gauntlet to everyone. But, you will get much farther than if you went beyond where your pastor wants to go. Start where your pastor wants to start, then we will see where it goes from there. Once you have the first success under your belt, then your pastor will be open to try other things. I’ve also seen the reverse. Sometimes the pastor wants to go full bore, but the small group pastor or director are more risk averse. While you definitely don’t want to squander the opportunity, you also have to reach a place where your fear doesn’t impede your success. A few years ago, we were working with a very large church. This is a great church with a great history of biblical teaching and a solid group ministry, but their groups needed to catch up with their attendance. In one teleconference, the small group team reported back that their existing group leaders were fearful of the Gather and Grow strategy. They perceived many problems from letting the uninitiated lead a group. Now, part of their concern related to the fact the experienced leaders had paid their dues in the leadership process, and now “You’re just going to let anybody in?” I said a quick prayer during the teleconference, “God, what do I say to them? This could be dead in the water.” After I finished listening to the concerns, these words came out of my mouth, “This isn’t a call to leadership. This is a call to obedience, because we are all called to go and make disciples.” The room was quiet. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Maybe I killed it. Then someone spoke up and said, “Could you repeat that?” Suddenly, the light came on for them (and for me). The Gather and Grow strategy was the way to go. The Senior Pastor was already there, but it took his team a little more time. When it was all said and done, hundreds of people offered to gather their friends and grow together using video curriculum based on their senior pastor’s teaching. I’ve had staff members freak out when their senior pastors have suddenly taken initiative in the staff member’s area of ministry. They’ve said things like, “Why couldn’t we plan ahead on this? We could be better prepared for the response. We could do this in a better way.” Some folks have become downright angry over their pastors meddling in their area of ministry. If your senior pastor takes an interest in small groups out of the blue, first, thank God your pastor is interested in groups. Then, do whatever you have to do to make it work. After all, you don’t know when this opportunity may come again. Some pastors are strategic and lead with a road map. But, some pastors are more intuitive. Their leadership appears more like a lightning strike. Learn to organize yourself around those lightning strikes and make the most of it. Excerpt from Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potentialby Allen White. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright (c) 2017 by Allen White Consulting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.