The last two years have been unprecedented, unbelievable, devastating, incredible. (Pretend this is the Amplified version of this blog. You pick the word!) Now, as the last holdouts for Coronavirus mandates, Oregon, Washington, and others, are planning to reduce their restrictions, it’s time to put COVID behind us and move forward as a church. But, moving forward is not the same as returning to life as it was in 2019. Here are some things you should expect.
Don’t Expect Everyone to Rush Back.
Churches that’ve been fully open for more than a year are seeing 50% in in-person worship. Your people fall into one of three categories: Cautious, Comfortable, or Curious. The cautious are still not sure they want to take the risk. While COVID numbers are falling, new variants are lurking around the globe. Maybe they’re concerned about their health or a loved one’s health. They will probably continue to stay away for a while. Many comparisons have been made between this pandemic and the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919. Do you know when the Spanish Influenza completely disappeared? It lasted until 1951 when it was replaced by Bird Flu. (Sorry for that bit of bad news).
Some of your people are comfortable. It’s just more convenient to stay home in their pajamas to watch the worship service while they’re eating brunch. Bad habits have formed. Think of a health club membership. Health clubs survive on people paying their monthly dues but never showing up. They intend to show up, but they just have trouble getting there. The same is true for your congregation.
If your weekend service is largely built on programming, here’s the rub – people can equally access programming at home. So, why don’t you just cancel your online stream? Because they will switch over to someone else’s online stream. Your weekend service has to be more than programming. They might have come for programming initially, but they will come back for community. It’s time to rethink your Sunday morning. No one is going to start attending in-person again just because they are “supposed to.” Those folks are already attending in person.
The third group who’ve been watching online are the curious. They’ve enjoyed watching the service without anyone watching them. This is the group to pay attention to when they show up in-person. They aren’t a “first time guest.” They’ve been watching online for weeks to months. When they show up, they are ready for next steps. A pastor told me recently that someone showed up for the first time in-person, made a profession of faith, attended their Growth Track, and joined a small group – all in one day! When they show up, be ready to engage with them.
Don’t Expect Volunteer Roles to Fill Immediately.
During the pandemic, people divested themselves of everything – going to the office, attending worship services, going to school, volunteering their time, shopping for groceries, going out to dinner, and everything else. Why go somewhere when it can be brought to you? Why live in San Francisco with its high taxes, when you can telecommute from Miami and pay no state income tax at all? Why go out to a movie, when you can Netflix and chill at home? The world has changed.
Many churches who have been open for a while have struggled to offer additional worship services because they just don’t have the help they need in children’s ministry. Some of the workers left. Some of the workers continue to stay home. Some went somewhere else. Others were just burned out. Much energy and effort will be required to rebuild this. You should count on those who are already gathered in-person to help before you expect folks to show up and reengage immediately. Lead the folks you have.
Expect People to be Gone.
The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 was followed by the Roaring 20’s. (Hey, we’re in the 20’s). Two significant things happened after 1919. First, the Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again. People put it completely behind them and didn’t talk about it anymore. Second, people were gone. They traveled extensively both nationally and internationally. They had been cooped up for too long. They had been limited for too long. Now, they were gone.
The Gauge Group, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicted during the fourth quarter of 2021 that people were planning for Spring travel at the end of 2021. If you don’t believe me, just check the prices of an AirBNB in the hot vacation spots!
What does this mean for you and your church? Don’t make big plans following Easter 2022. While every church is different based on its region of the country, many people will be gone and you won’t see them much until fall 2022. One exception: I am working with a church in Gresham, Oregon, whose school year extends into June, so their people typically stay engaged until then, but people aren’t officially back in their church until mid-October! Follow the patterns of your community, but if you’re launching groups after Easter plan for a smaller launch. In these COVID times, any gain is significant!
Expect a Small Group Boom in the Fall.
Barring a fourth major COVID variant in North America, fall 2022 should be prime for a small group boom. Honestly, I thought this would come a lot sooner. I hadn’t anticipated the Delta and Omicron variants. But, if things continue as they currently are, then fall 2022 should be huge for small groups.
Begin planning for a major fall small group launch. Create your own curriculum or purchase a great published curriculum. Open things up so as many of your people: in-person and online can start a group with their friends. Remember what Jesus said: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37, NIV). Look for “workers” not “leaders.” There’s a difference!
Think About This
As much as you are weary of pivoting in the new normal, things have changed. In a recent webinar, Jeff Vanderstelt said, “The Reformation brought the Bible back to the people. [This disruption] brought the mission back to the people.” How can you empower and equip your people to fulfill the mission? How can you decentralize ministry in your church? How can you give your people ministry responsibilities and not just ministry tasks?
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: