By Frank Barry
There are many obvious statements when it comes to this pandemic. Statements like:
These are unprecedented times.
Things are really weird now.
What day is it again?
Here’s another obvious statement specifically for church leaders: Deciding whether or not to reopen for in-person worship is a difficult choice.
On one hand, we all want to get back to church. Everyone wants a sense of normalcy. We miss seeing our church friends every Sunday. We could all use the pick-me-up of a live worship service. But on the other hand, it still may not be safe enough to get together yet—at least not in the way we’re used to.
I’ve spoken to quite a few church leaders on our podcast and, as you can imagine, the subject of whether or not to reopen comes up frequently. Through those conversations, I’ve learned a few things about what churches should consider when thinking about reopening their doors. Some of this may be obvious, but it’s helpful to know where to look in these obviously unprecedented times.
Every church is different.
It’s important to remember that the decision of whether or not to reopen is largely dependent upon your specific church—your congregation size, your resources, your location, and your congregation demographics. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this challenge.
Ironically, many megachurches around the nation are among the least able to reopen during this time. Despite their greater resources, it can be too difficult for these larger congregations to manage all of the factors—especially with a much higher risk of infection.
In this way, some smaller churches and churches in rural areas may be equipped to open earlier with the right precautions. Smaller congregations and those outside major cities can have more flexibility to respond to sudden changes and face lower risks with fewer people.
Listen everywhere for advice.
Decisions this difficult cannot be made in a vacuum. Leaders like you owe it to yourself and to your congregation to take all information and perspectives into account. Seek out the most recent data you can find and ask for the advice of those you trust.
Look up the current outbreak numbers in your area. Review health guidelines from organizations like the CDC. Understand the regulations put in place by your local and state governments. Talk to other churches, businesses, and schools in your area to see what they’re doing. Remember, you’re not alone.
What we don’t want to happen is for any church to be the epicenter of an outbreak. Like it or not, that can be a disaster for public perception—primarily because it runs counter to our mission of being a positive force in the community and being a light for Jesus. It’s in everyone’s best interests for us to be a part of the solution, not the problem. And the best way to do that is to listen carefully before acting.
Stay in constant communication.
As you think through this decision, keep your people informed. Open communication is more important than ever. You can’t factor in everyone’s opinion, but you can update your church regularly and let them know what factors are being considered.
Use every outlet you can to over-communicate with your community. Add the latest plans and details to your church website. Send out emails on a regular basis. Post to social media with videos explaining what’s going on. Reach out to individual church members to see how they’re doing.
It’s not always easy to communicate when you don’t have all of the answers. It’s certainly not easy to communicate when we’re physically separated. But your church is looking to you for guidance and clarity. Make them feel part of the decision-making process by being transparent and connected.
Find creative solutions.
Most of the debate around whether or not to reopen church focuses on Sunday morning worship inside a building. But the church shouldn’t be limited to a building or a single gathering. Perhaps this is an opportunity to stretch ourselves and find more creative solutions.
Streaming online services is just the beginning. Some churches have done drive-in or outdoor worship—allowing people to gather from their cars or while spaced out in parks and fields. Even if you’re not able to meet as an entire congregation, small groups can still be a source of fellowship. Encourage families to meet in limited groups with appropriate precautions. Backyard BBQ’s for the win!
Remember, the first century church didn’t have buildings either. They met in homes or outdoors. These are the gatherings that set the foundations of our faith.
Whether online, in smaller groups, or six-feet apart, it all counts as fellowship.
Can you maintain excellence?
There’s one more factor your church should consider when thinking about reopening your doors. Given all of the precautions and planning, will you still be able to maintain a level of excellence? Are you still able to give God your best under the circumstances?
From ticketing attendees, reopening kids’ environments, and possibly requiring masks, there are countless factors to consider. Planning everything out while communicating updates and remaining flexible to changes will likely take up most of your time—time that used to be spent each week planning for service, writing a sermon and practicing worship songs.
Many churches choose to remain online-only to give their best to that form of worship. They identified that planning in-person worship under the circumstances is unrealistic. Every church has to make this decision for themselves, but be sure to ask yourself if it will still be safe while continuing to meet your church’s expectations.
There is no right or wrong decision when it comes to reopening your church during this pandemic. And there are some who might criticize your decision either way. The best you can do is take steps to make a wise decision, be prepared for whatever happens, focus on serving your people, and trust that God has it under control.
Frank Barry is a founding executive team member and COO at Tithe.ly, www.tithe.ly. Prior to being at Tithe.ly, Frank spent nearly 15 years helping churches, charities, and nonprofit organizations leverage technology to advance their mission.