In light of revised guidance issued by the state of Texas on April 21 and the subsequent rollout of Gov. Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas’ economy, churches that have been operating almost exclusively long distance—through such creative avenues as livestreamed worship services, drive-through communion and Zoom Bible studies—are now reckoning with an unprecedented question: Once we decide to begin gathering in person again, how will we do so safely?
As the pastor of a mid-sized congregation, this has been the preeminent question on my mind for the last couple of weeks.
There is a spiritual need for fellowship in our churches and communities, but that need must be balanced with regard for public safety. The return to in-person gatherings will not be the “back to normal” so many are longing for, and churches will need to reconfigure things from top to bottom in order to practice social distancing.
Every church is different, so every church’s plan for resuming in-person gatherings will be unique. Nevertheless, here are some things worth considering as churches prepare to forge ahead.
Sunday morning worship
Church leaders will need to think through how many people the worship space can accommodate while practicing social distancing. Depending on the degree to which a church normally packs the pews, this could necessitate adding services and then assigning certain members to certain services, encouraging members to continue worshiping from home via a livestreaming option, and/or opening up overflow spaces normally used for other purposes.
Some churches may choose to block off pews to force social distancing, others may ask ushers to seat families, others may trust congregants to do so themselves. The important thing is to have some plan in place to ensure everyone attending is able to worship without fear of getting sick.
Sunday school and small groups
Bible study groups are often the most powerful source of fellowship for churches, but social distancing requirements make even the smallest group gathering more complicated. Churches may consider asking their groups to continue meeting online if they have been doing so or may consider combining classes for the time being and moving those larger groups into a larger meeting space.
Churches that pride themselves on friendliness often have greeters stationed at the front doors ready to open the door for people, shake hands, give hugs and hand out bulletins. Unfortunately, even these basic acts of hospitality need to be rethought. For now, church greeters may need to follow the example of their counterparts at Walmart by welcoming people from a safe distance with a smile and a verbal greeting, but without any physical contact.
Furthermore, since church lobbies tend to act as gathering spaces for casual conversation in normal times, greeters may need to serve as crowd control by politely encouraging loiterers to take their conversations to another area where there are fewer people.
Chances are, social distancing requirements have rendered most classroom spaces useless for the time being. For the time being, the most valuable real estate a church has is its large gathering spaces—the sanctuary, fellowship hall, parking lot and any other outdoor space. How will churches wisely and creatively make use of these spaces until it becomes safe to meet in smaller spaces again?
Baptists like to eat together; that’s no secret. But the threat of COVID-19 means the church potluck is going to need some reconfiguring. Is the church kitchen a large enough space to use while social distancing? Will members be comfortable letting other people prepare their food? Should there be a designated serving team rather than allowing people to fill their own plates? Should churches punt altogether and ask folks to brown-bag it for a while or even abstain from fellowship meals until further notice? These are questions that need to be answered before anyone starts lining up for their fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
Church members likely have never been so concerned with how the building is cleaned than they will be the day the doors reopen. Before that day, it will be important for church leaders to clean and disinfect the building from top to bottom, as well as to decide what additional measures need to be taken in light of COVID-19, such as wiping down ‘touchpoints’ like door handles, faucet handles, etc. after every use.
Tithes and offerings
Most churches’ giving has declined since closing their doors, so leaders will be eager to start passing the offering plate again. However, even this time-honored tradition will need to be rethought for the sake of social distancing. Congregations which have been encouraging members to give online or mail their checks should continue doing so. Churches also might consider setting up a collection box or basket for those who want to give their offering in person.
Music and performing arts ministries
Depending on the size of a church’s stage, it may need to rethink the size of its choir and/or praise team in order to keep everyone socially distant while onstage. Many churches have done a brilliant job leading powerful, intimate worship services with a small handful of musicians the past month. Churches may consider sticking with that model for the time being.
The summer is a boom time for family ministries. Unfortunately, traditional summer activities tend to revolve around large group gatherings. Can weeklong Vacation Bible School programs attended by hundreds of kids be transformed into a summer-long activity for specific age groups—and therefore smaller groups? Instead of attending a youth camp hosting thousands of students every week, can churches host scaled-back camps just for their youth groups and local communities?
Youth, children and family ministers will need to decide which activities can be reconfigured and which will need to be scrapped altogether.
These are just a few of the things churches need to be thinking about as they prepare to reopen their doors and resume in-person gatherings. But most important is that all considerations be made prayerfully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, balancing physical and spiritual needs. The church has endured while sheltered in place, and by faith it will persevere through this next challenge, too.
Daniel Camp is pastor of South Garland Baptist Church. The views expressed are those solely of the author.