By Jamie Aten and Kent Annan
With COVID-19 rates spiking in communities across the country, many churches are wondering what this means for their reopening plans.
Some churches have decided not to reopen until 2021, but others have already met inside or outdoors, have a return date set in the near future, or are still in the process of determining when and how to gather in person again.
No matter where your church falls along this continuum, it’s important to continually seek out up-to-date data and research and to humbly integrate this information into an ongoing decision-making process.
Here are three ideas to consider as you and other leaders prayerfully make decisions regarding your church.
1. Approach reopening as a marathon, not a sprint.
Recent research shows that “over half of U.S. churches (54%) are open for normal use—52% with precautions in place and 2% without,” which leaves 46% still waiting to meet for in-person worship.
It’s important to approach the reopening process with a commitment to persistence, grounded in the reminder in 2 Timothy 4:7 that we’re called to finish the race; not to win the first lap.
This means mentally approaching the process of reopening and helping your church navigate COVID-19 as a “marathon”—not a “sprint”—by keeping a long-term view in mind.
This kind of “marathon” mindset realizes that church members will have different viewpoints on what the right timing is, what risk level is or isn’t acceptable, and how this should be done.
This mindset also realizes your ultimate calling isn’t to please everyone today—you can’t—but to remain faithful to your call to love your neighbors as yourself and serve your congregation and community both today, next month, next year, and for years to come.
2. Be willing to take a step back.
The Washington Post reports that “Sunday marked the 41st straight day that the seven-day average for new daily coronavirus infections in the United States trended upward.”
Many of the states now experiencing spikes are those that reopened first—meaning that churches in those communities may have made their reopening decisions in a very different reality.
In addition, we continue to learn new information about the virus and how it works. Emerging evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of cloth masks and continues to shape Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines about mask use.
In fact, CDC Director Robert Redfield said last week that the United States could get the coronavirus outbreak “under control” in just a few weeks if every person wore a mask.
Reopening should not be viewed as a purely linear process in which you only progress forward, like in a video game. It’s okay to take steps back when you receive new information about coronavirus or when the infection rates in your community change.
Taking a step-by-step approach allows you to adapt to changing needs by dialing up or dialing down depending on the level of infection in the community.
For an example of what this looks like, see page nine of our Guide to Reopening Church Services.
An important part of this approach is communicating with your congregation clearly and regularly—establishing from the start that you’ll continue to monitor local trends and guidelines and adjust your plans accordingly.
One of the best ways we can be a witness in our communities is not by holding tightly to our own reopening plans, but by demonstrating humility and a willingness to do what is best for those around us—this is what it looks like to love our neighbor in a pandemic.
3. Embrace your strengths.
There is good news: As the church, we are uniquely prepared for this challenging season. We know our identity isn’t in the walls that surround us but in our fellowship with Christ and our mission in sharing his saving love with those around us.
Over the past four months, we’ve seen churches around the country and around the world demonstrate incredible creativity in finding new ways to fulfill our calling to gather as a body of believers and to be gospel witnesses in our communities.
As the church, we have an opportunity to focus not on what we lack in this moment, but on what we uniquely bring to it. We can bring food to those who are hungry. We can bring spiritual and emotional support to those who feel alone.
We can bring meaning to what feels like chaos. We can bring a message of hope to those who feel hopeless.
JAMIE ATEN, Ph.D. (@drjamieaten), is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His most recent book is A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press).
KENT ANNAN (@kentannan) is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership. He is author of You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us (2018), Slow Kingdom Coming (2016), After Shock (2011), and Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle (2009).