Are you frustrated with the extreme effort it takes to reopen your Sunday morning worship services? You’re not alone! In recent weeks, state and local governments have issued guidelines for how to open businesses, public gatherings, and churches. Many states have taken a multi-phased approach in three or four stages. Each stage has fewer restrictions, depending on the latest public health statistics. Churches have responded by making their own multi-phased plan. We only wish it were only that easy!
Although there is consensus from public health professionals about safety and best practices, information from national and local governments is different and sometimes outright contradictory. Pastors feel on their own to make the best decisions that they can. And every church is different. Smaller and rural churches are better situated to reopen than larger and urban churches. Members are confused why their church is closed and the church down the street is open. In recent days, new infections of the virus are spreading across the country, and the rules may change again. It’s all very frustrating.
Maybe your church has followed all the guidelines to open the doors again on Sunday morning. You have seating arrangements to ensure social distancing. You placed hand-sanitizing stations throughout the building. You practiced nice ways to ask people to wear masks while indoors and even when singing. There are teams of people cleaning and much more. Pastors have gone through all this effort, and they discover that churches are still mostly empty on Sunday. Every church is different, of course. For the most part, many people are still watching worship services online, but they are reluctant to come to large indoor gatherings. …at least for now.
This can be discouraging for many pastors and church leaders who are eager to come together again. That’s when I heard a helpful piece of advice from children’s ministry leaders Frank and Jessica Bealer. In a recent interview, Jessica said one simple phrase that stuck out in my mind. People have phases too.
In the classic book Ministering Cross-Culturally, Sherwood Lingenfelter describes how people respond differently in how they handle crisis. It is one of the core behaviors that distinguishes people and cultures. People who have a crisis orientation are less comfortable with risk. They like to anticipate problems and think about solutions ahead of time. They will take every precaution to ensure safety. On the other hand, people who have a noncrisis orientation more comfortable with risk. They typically downplay potential problems and avoid changing their lifestyle as long as possible. They prefer to handle a crisis after it happens. Of course, people behave along the middle of this spectrum as well.
We’ve seen this play out in the current situation. Some families in your church have a non-crisis orientation. They would have never stopped coming to church despite the spread of the virus. They were the most frustrated by the stay-at-home orders, and they will be the first families to return on Sunday mornings when you reopen. Other families have a high crisis orientation. They are very careful to practice social distancing. They are faithfully watching worship services online, but they may not come back to church until the pandemic is over. Then there are people in the middle who take a “wait and see” approach. They want to watch for a few weeks to see that everything is okay, and they will slowly start coming back to church.
It is important to recognize that people have phases too. The government is opening the economy in phases, and likewise churches are reopening in phases. People will start coming back to church in phases, according to their own timelines as they personally handle the crisis. Whatever decision a family makes for themselves is the right decision for their family. Church leaders should resist the temptation to pressure people to return to church. A better approach is to be patient with families and gently encourage them to the next phase.
The CDC still considers indoor gatherings where it is difficult for people to remain spaced six feet apart to be a high-risk environment for spreading the virus. Despite all the efforts to follow safety guidelines, many people will not feel comfortable returning to in-person Sunday worship until the pandemic is over. In the meantime, church members can stay relationally engaged through online worship, virtual small group meetings and personal phone calls. We pray urgently for the pandemic to end. When the time is right, we will all celebrate together.
Brian Weber, District Executive Minister, Converge MidAtlantic
Brian served as a pastor in the Converge MidAtlantic district for more than 15 years. Originally from the Philadelphia area, he mobilized efforts to start new churches in the Greater Delaware Valley and to send missionaries around the world. Brian is a graduate of Wheaton College and earned his Master of Divinity degree at Bethel Seminary of the East. Before his appointment as district executive minister in 2018, Brian worked for three years with Compassion International.