By Steven Blake
It’s another week since we have suspended services, and this question comes from the members of our church at least several times a week: “Pastor, when do you think we’ll be able to enter the church building again for services?”
I’m sure you’ve also heard that question asked more times than you can count.
There’s a word many of us in the ministry have used to describe our pandemic situation: unprecedented.
This is an accurate description, unless you’ve served in another country where there are viruses or diseases that spread with an alarming rate many of us have never been exposed to.
This ministry challenge begs this question as we begin to surface from the COVID-19 virus in many of our states: How do we safely begin worshipping in our church buildings once again?
I’ve tuned into many webinars and read many articles on this topic, but the majority of them seem to address re-entry from a large church perspective. But as a small church, our situation is different. How can we safely re-enter?
Here are some guidelines I hope will be helpful. Most of these are not original with me but are a gathering of thoughts from webinars and wisdom from other pastors in small church situations like mine.
Spend adequate time in prayer. Praying for God’s wisdom in this scenario is vital (Philippians 4:6-7).
2. Get input
Be sure to involve your leadership in the decision as when to restart worship services.
While discussing the decision with your leadership team, allow feedback from your leaders.
You may need to speak with each of them privately for those who are less vocal during the meeting.
Take steps to communicate clearly and often with the church body about the target date for reopening and the steps leadership will take to ensure a safe restart.
In the same respect, communicate your reopening plans with your community leaders. Share measures your church is taking to ensure less of a chance of spreading the virus.
This will protect your church’s reputation of still being cautious and caring for your community. Remember, perception does matter.
4. Use precaution
Encourage those most vulnerable to the virus or ones not yet comfortable returning to continue worshiping from home.
If you’ve been able to record your services or stream them on a medium like Facebook Live, continue to do so for those who have the capability to participate in online worship until they can return.
5. Be patient
Begin back gradually. Start with worship services only.
As the potential for virus spread lessens and your volunteers are ready to serve, begin your small groups, children worship, and nursery.
Have a plan in place to sanitize before and after the service. Have hand sanitizer available as people enter and exit.
Instruct your greeters to already have the doors open for people to be able to enter and exit without touching door handles.
7. Provide clarity
Give clear instructions on the use of bathrooms and the use of hand sanitizers before leaving.
8. Protect people
Encourage masks to be worn before, during, and after the service. If possible, have extra masks available for those who need one.
Instruct only family groups to sit close but all others to be six feet apart. Try to have seating on every other row. If you have a small sanctuary, you may need to consider having more than one service.
9. Create an alternative greeting time
If your service normally has a time of greeting, encourage a different form during this season.
Be creative, and make it a fun time for your fellowship. For example, guide the congregation to wave to the person on their left, then their right, then in front, then behind, then across the aisle.
The next week you could have them do “the wave” as it’s done at a sporting event. If we can be excited at a football game, our joy at being back together should be experienced and expressed.
10. Disseminate information carefully
Avoid using printed bulletins until they can be distributed with confidence of not being a vessel for spreading the virus.
For congregations that use a hymnal instead of a projection system either be sure to wipe them clean after use or simply remove them—completely singing familiar hymns and praise choruses.
If you need words but don’t feel comfortable using hymnals or don’t have a projection system, here’s an old-school idea.
Find an overhead projector that you could project on a screen or wall. Place the words on a transparency to project.
Many churches have such projectors tucked away in a closet. Perhaps you can borrow one from your local county library or school system.
11. Maintain order
Leave the church building in an orderly fashion. This is common in weddings and funerals, so most people should be familiar with how it can be done without much coaching.
Once people get outside the building continue to encourage the six-feet rule and to not congregate long in the parking lot.
12. Expect complaints
Not all the decisions we make will please everyone. Our response should be to listen, listen, and listen. Be patient.
Even though complaints can be hard to hear, they can reveal to us a need to communicate clearer. The individual could be expressing their own fears. Or perhaps they’re communicating better ideas we haven’t yet considered.
As we make the decision on when to re-enter our church buildings each of us will have decisions to make that will be different based on where we live and how widespread the virus is in our communities.
I recently heard someone give the best piece of advice in reopening. Be able to defend what you do in your decision to reopen. Of course, we desire to be together again in our facilities, yet let’s not risk sullying the name of Jesus in our respective communities.
We always need to shine the light of Christ in care, love, and deep compassion for those we minister to in His name.
STEVEN BLAKE (@stevenblake) is the Pastor at First Baptist Church in Bloomingdale, Georgia. He is married to DeLynn, and they are the proud parents of three daughters and 11 grandchildren.