4 questions leaders must ask before reopening the church
Former Converge President
Several states have now opened the door for churches to begin to meet. When Wisconsin declared stay-at-home orders unconstitutional, its churches were surprised by the new freedom and permission to meet. Many churches wrestled with the wisdom of the opportunity, trying to discern the difference between what they could do and what they should do.
Since then, a number of states have lowered restrictions on churches and opened the possibility of groups of 10, 50, 100 and 250 (at the time of this writing) to meet with proper protocols. My prayer is for local church leadership to have both the wisdom to know the right thing to do and the courage to do it.
Regardless of the decision you make, there will be some who think it is too little and others who think it is too much. Some will think it is too late and others will think it is too soon. I warn you: Don’t moralize your decision! Your decision as a church is not more God-honoring than another church’s decision, nor is one person’s choice more God-honoring than another person’s decision.
Church leaders are tasked with the decision, but also with hearing the voice of God over the voice of the crowd. Let’s not have an argument over who is honoring God more by their actions. Let’s just honor God.
My hope is that this discussion will help you in that process.
Wisdom from God’s word
Your church situation is unique. No one has the same context as you. As a result, it is impossible for an outsider like me to give the same advice to churches in different contexts. So instead, let’s go to God’s word for wisdom.
Here are a few questions to bring to your leadership team to discern your decision of how to meet in the coming weeks.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. 1 Cor. 10:23-24
As you think about reopening your church, consider these questions from this passage:
1. Is it permissible?
“I have the right to do anything,”
Our leading question should be, Is it honoring to God and aligning with local authority?
As to the “honoring God” part of this question, as Christian leaders we are tasked with ensuring that our actions are in line with scripture. In a country that is becoming more and more suspicious of Christians, the last thing we need is for a watching world to be able to pinpoint with clarity where a local congregation’s actions are inconsistent with the word of God. Our actions are our greatest witness in this time.
In addition to honoring God, we need to align with local authority. This addresses the expectation of cooperation between civil and church authority. Part of the reason God places a congregation in a community is to both reach and bless that community. We’ve already seen examples of churches that have ignored local guidelines and restrictions, not only resulting in the spread of COVID-19, but also ruining the church’s reputation in the community. The best route for church leaders to take is to contact local authorities and find out their interpretation of the present guidelines and their intentions of enforcing those guidelines.
EXTRA: The one “authority” that most churches are not thinking about is their insurance company. Have a conversation with your agent and make sure that you know the extent of coverage for the actions you plan to take. Any action that a church takes that is outside the guidelines of the local civil authority guidelines will be under the scrutiny of your insurance company. Taking actions that are outside their advice may result in lack of coverage from your insurance company and significant loss of income from lawsuits.
2. Is it beneficial?
“but not everything is beneficial.”
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This question is not asking, Do I have the right? but, Is it the right thing to do?
Church leadership teams should prayerfully consider the pros and cons of staying online versus opening up to physical gatherings. The following framework of Tone/Timing/Tools/Team/Tracks may help you.
A. Is my tone right?
What motivation is driving this need to open the facility? Is it my impatience with this season? Is it a concern for income? Could it be I feel the need to model a “righteous rebellion” to my congregation? Whatever it is, we need to think through the long-term impact of our tone. Impatience breeds impatience. Making decision from fear never leads to faith. Acting from generosity and humility breed joy and gratefulness. If the leader is not ready, the church is not ready. Ask God for wisdom, unity and courage. Demonstrate the fruit of the spirit, which includes peace, patience and self control.
B. Is the timing right?
This question has three levels:
1) Is the timing right for staff and volunteers? Let’s face it, many of us are exhausted from the lack of rhythm and have yet to catch our breath in the new normal. The efforts to re-launch will take significant energy. We need to address questions like:
Do we have the leadership in place to begin the journey back to physical gatherings?
What was their experience during the pandemic?
How are their family, finances and faith?
2) Is the timing right for our people? The churches that opened have all been surprised by who came and who didn’t. Most are seeing less than half of pre-pandemic numbers — with a significant reduction in families with children. Is it worth opening yet if they don’t plan to come? It may be wise to survey the congregation to see what their plans are and what it will take for them to be ready to come back. As leadership we will also have to decide to accept them at the place in their lives and faith journeys and nurture them through the transition.
3) Is it the right time for your community? Again, cooperation with local authorities is wise. There are also other factors to consider, like significant outbreaks of COVID-19 in or near your community. On the other hand, some communities are desperately seeking the hope of Christ that they will never find in the economy, government or medicine. Show care and concern for the community you were called to reach.
C. Do I have the right tools?
We all need to look at our resources — like the limitation of our facilities, size, entrance/exits, classrooms, etc. — to discern the right time to open. For example, an auditorium that seats 1000 in a community that has restricted gatherings to 100 may not be a better experience for those visiting than the online experience you have already. The same may be true of an auditorium of 100 in a community that has restricted gathering of more than 10. If you cannot articulate how/why your physical gatherings would be a better experience than your online gatherings, it may not be time to gather yet.
D. Do I have a ready team?
This could be a part of the “tools” conversation, but I think it is especially important to recognize that the jobs of volunteers have changed significantly due to the health protocols in place under present circumstances. The cleaning crew may be your most important group! Ushers and greeters will need to approach their responsibilities differently (maybe smiling under a mask with no handshakes or hugs!). Ministries to children may not have large group interactions, and singing has its challenges. Have you trained your volunteer team for the new normal?
E. Do I have the right tracks?
Even though online church has served us well in this pandemic, there are still some who question its value and validity over the long term and are itching to get back to “normal.” However, the attendance patterns of churches around the country are showing that people — even church people — are hesitant to return to “normal” quickly. We may have to have two tracks — online and live — moving forward. Are you ready for that reality? I will say it again: If you plan to do live-only, If what you are doing live is not as good as what you did online, it is not time to go back.
3. Is it constructive?
“I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.”
When it comes to our decision to open up again, we need to ask, What does reopening build? The building of unity, trust, friendship and disciples are all kingdom-building values. Building momentum toward accomplishing the work of God is a high purpose. However, opening too soon may build suspicion about your motives. It may build mistrust of your character. Reopening church too early may build a bad reputation in your community.
We want to discern how to best build a culture of contribution and not consumerism in our congregations. We want to build a discipleship and evangelism mindset in our people. We want to build a heart for our community and world. We must answer Will this decision do that? as well as How?
4. Is it others-centered?
“No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”
This question goes back to motive. The reason that I bring this up again is that, as leaders, we are under the microscope. Whatever decision we make will be questioned, challenged and ridiculed by some, and we need to have the emotional fortitude to be able to say we made this decision from conviction. Paul was on trial in Acts 24:16 when he said, “I have strived to live with a blameless conscience before God and before men.” We need to have that sense about this decision. It would be helpful to answer the following questions in this process:
Do I want something from people for for people?
Am I flexing my rights or my fulfilling my responsibilities?
How is this best thing for the congregation and the community?
Is this what God is calling us to do or what the congregation is clamoring for us to do?
Once leadership makes its decision, the leaders need to agree that, regardless of the arguments and disagreements behind closed doors, they will approach the public with a single collective voice. Divided leadership leads to divided hearts. Unified leadership leads to a unified church. Clarity with unity leads to confidence in the congregation.
Divided leadership leads to divided hearts. Unified leadership leads to a unified church. Clarity with unity leads to confidence in the congregation.
I hope this process will help you and your leadership team discern the next steps in the process of reopening your church. I pray you will be “united in spirit, intent on one purpose” as you help people meet, know and follow Jesus!
Scott Ridout, Former Converge President
Scott served as president of Converge from November 2014 through August 2022. Prior to that he was the director of generosity for Converge from 2007-2014, concurrently with his time pastoring at Sun Valley in Gilbert, Arizona, for 22 years. He serves on the boards of Axelerate, Bethel University and The Timothy Initiative. Scott also serves the Finish the Task initiative working with denominations worldwide. He and his wife, Lisa, have been married since 1988 and have three adult children, Jon, Ashlyn and David. He loves God, the local church and simply wants to help people meet, know and follow Jesus.