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Staged Re-Entry After Shutdown:  Here’s How Churches Will Do It

Since we’re all thinking about emerging from this COVID-19 shutdown, how we re-start church services is foremost on most pastor’s minds. As a result, I’ve been in conversations with pastors and leaders over the past few weeks, discussing strategies for making that happen well. Keep in mind that it’s ultimately not a just legal issue, it will be a behavior issue as well. How soon will people be comfortable being in a room with hundreds of others? That’s a big question.

Tony Miller, senior pastor at The Gate Church in Oklahoma City made a good point last week when he said, “People are comfortable in Wal Mart or Home Depot because in those stores they are moving around. If they get too close to someone, they can always walk away. But in church, where the atmosphere is more confined, the more difficult it will be.”  

 Readers of this blog will be leading churches of all sizes, in states with different regulations and time tables, and congregations with different personalities. But let me share a little about what I’m hearing in the hope that it may give you some ideas that will work in your particular situation.

1.  Many churches are starting outside. An outside service offers a lot of advantages, like multiple exits, easy spacing, the weather is nice, and it’s a more open feeling. People won’t feel hemmed in, and may be more comfortable trying this out before coming into the building. As a result, I’m hearing from a number of churches that are planning their Mother’s Day services outside. It would also be interesting to provide a drive-in area as well along with the sitting area for people who would be more comfortable staying in their cars.

Which brings up the idea that in states where the full shutdown is continuing and you can’t assemble outside, this might be the time to experiment with a drive-in service. It’s a strategy that reflects weather, people’s personalities, and the local vibe, which means it often works in some places (like Southern California) and may not in others. 

2.  Clean the building on overdrive. Virtually every pastor is ready to activate the volunteers to be cleaning, wiping down surfaces, and offering sanitary wipes and masks to members of the congregation. Even during the service, pastors are planning to have teams wiping door handles, spraying disinfectant, and handing out masks. Right now, I would err on the side of cleaning too much rather than not enough. And this would also be an excellent time to install “no touch” water faucets in the restrooms.

3.  Get your overflow rooms in shape.  Depending on the local regulations, it could be a limited number of people in a single room or building, not on the campus. Which means that if you can only have 50 people in the sanctuary, then you might be able to have another 50 in an overflow room, and another 50 in a fellowship hall or other facility.  If that’s the case, then start now making sure you have working audio and video connections to as many overflow rooms and facilities as possible. Double check your local regulations to be sure.

4. Also check the rules for capacity. In some states, it may be a capacity issue, not a numbers issue. This note came in from church media and growth consultant Kirk Cameron: “Texas Gov. Abbott has opened all public spaces up to 25% capacity with 6’ social distancing guidance. However, most of the Texas churches I’ve spoken to are going to wait for the 50% capacity rule which will likely happen in 4-6 weeks and hold for 3-18 months. However, this means that small groups can meet at full capacity on campus in rooms made for 4 times their size. This is significant. And churches that were running at only 50% of their sanctuary before the virus are much closer to normalizing. One large church in my area normally has two thirds of the sanctuary full. So they can add one extra service time and normalize.”

5.   Keep focused on the online service.  Most pastors and communication teams have done a brilliant job of connecting with congregations through live streaming and this isn’t the time to let up. If we can only have limited people in the building, you’ll still be ministering to many more online. So keep that a priority, since you’ll continue have a great impact there throughout the transition back to church and beyond. And for the record, even after this is over, I hope you’ve learned that your online viewers are a legitimate congregation, so please keep being intentional about ministering to them as well as the congregation you can see from the pulpit.  For more ideas on improving your live stream check out this post.

6.  Re-train your greeters. This is a good time to adjust the traditional “meet and greet” time before and after services. Make sure your volunteers give church members plenty of space coming and going, and this might be a time to trade the offering plate for a dropbox in the back or online giving. More than anything, be sure your volunteer team is sensitive to whatever members of the congregation are feeling about coming back.

7.  Don’t forget the young people.  In our efforts to get adult worship back up and running, we should also explore positive options for young people. I’m hoping that church leaders give youth groups priority consideration during the re-start.  Some reports indicate that youth are suffering much more than we may realize.

8. Lastly, this is not the time to embarrass or shame anyone. In our enthusiasm trying to encourage people to come back, let’s remember that some will still feel unsafe for quite some time. This isn’t the time to unintentionally make them feel badly about staying at home longer than others. Being sensitive, means being sensitive to everyone, and if we don’t, we’ll only drive them away.

This is an important time for everyone who is leading churches. Just remember that the ultimate guideline is knowing your congregation and how they’re responding. Outside of God’s leading, having an accurate understanding of how your congregation thinks and feels will be the best barometer of all.  Use that, and you’ll be fine.

POST UPDATE:  Within an hour after posting this, I received a note from a friend who’s a highly respected African-American pastor of about 900 church members in the South. Here’s his comment:  “When this crisis started we only had 80 YouTube subscribers now we have 23,000. Our March 1 sermon has been viewed by almost 1.5 million people. In the last seven weeks we have had about 95,000 views on our seven services. We are actually reaching for more people than we have done in years. I wish I felt bad saying this but I don’t – I’m really not in a hurry to get back…”

Another reason why this isn’t the time to put the brakes on your live stream, and not be in a desperate hurry to get back in the building. Take the time you need based on your congregation.

Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

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  1. Great wisdom Phil. People are hungry. If we throw a hook they will bite. We are reaching more people now than we ever have. Thanks for the insights
    Kyle Searcy

    1. Thanks for the comment Kyle. There’s no question that leaders have finally realized the importance of an online congregation, and you’ve been out there for years…!

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