At the beginning of this pandemic, we were somewhat unified in our needs.  As church leaders, we all needed to figure out how to do church digitally- and we needed to figure it out quickly.  We were facing a common enemy & stood together as we closed our buildings and made the leap to all things digital for our churches.  2+ months later, that clarity of purpose has changed.  Some of us are starting to meet in person again, others have dates on the calendar, and the rest of us are waiting to see what happens.  As you lead your congregation through the days ahead, you’ll probably be asking some of the following questions: 

  • When should you reopen your church’s building?  
  • How should you do it?  
  • What safety protocols should you have in place?
  • What do we do with digital during this time?

The bad news?  There are no easy answers to these questions.  What your church decides to do will depend, in large part, on your local regulations and your church’s culture.

The good news?  We’ve collected some of the best examples out there on making it happen.  

But first, let’s talk about starting this thing right.

Overarching Principles

Start With Prayer

It’s important to gather information to help your decision-making process, but the information isn’t the best place to start.  Prayer is.

If you’ve been part of a church for any length of time, this answer may sound trite, but we mean it.  Prayer is the best place to start when planning anything for your church, and reopening your doors is no exception.

After you’ve prayed, understanding your congregation’s needs is another important piece of the puzzle.  If you’re a CMU member, we’ve created an example survey & collected a few examples inside the Coronavirus Course for you to use with your congregation. 

In this guide, we’ve also gathered some resources available to help your team figure out the best practices for your situation — from our coaching at Church Marketing University, to churches who’ve already resumed operations and expert organizations dedicated to helping churches in all aspects of ministry and thriving in the new normal.

Relaunch Principles from Church Marketing University

The specifics of your church’s relaunch strategy will vary based on local regulations, your culture, and your congregation’s level of comfort with attending in person.  But, no matter where you are or what strategies you use, these principles can help you minister effectively during this time.

  1. Communicate with Clarity amid Uncertainty: People appreciate clarity amid uncertainty. As you phase back into physical gatherings, the more clarity you can provide people amid uncertainty, the easier the transition will be.  People are looking for your leadership and guidance during this time, and you can help reassure them by the clarity of your communication.  Some examples of how to do this include:
    • Communicate often, use multiple channels, and over-communicate.  When the people closest to you are starting to get tired of hearing the same thing, that’s probably when people in your church are starting to pick up on what you’re saying.
    • Be honest about what you do & don’t know.   (i.e., use phrases like “We don’t have all the answers, but here’s what we do know…”)
    • Be consistent.  Create a schedule for communication & stick to it!  
    • Create one page on your website dedicated to all communications about the relaunch.  Consistently update this page, so that people get used to going there for the most helpful information.
  2. Have a Road Trip Mentality.  Here’s what we mean by that:
    •  Break it into small steps
    • Have fun along the way, and
    • Celebrate minor accomplishments. 
    • The journey should be as enjoyable, or possibly even more enjoyable than arriving at the destination.

Remember that, even if you take a few detours along the way, the mission is still moving forward.  An “Are we there yet?” mentality will make the journey far more painful for your church family.  When you find yourself tempted to complain that you haven’t made it to your destination yet, remember:  you’re still moving forward

  1. Set the Church up to Win Long-Term: Take advantage of the changing landscape and set up systems to improve communication and engagement over time.  For example:
    • Want everyone to be part of a small group?  Assign them to one for social distancing implementation at your in-person services.
    • Want people to Plan a visit or Pre-Register their kids?  Make it a requirement, since you’ll need to plan to allow for social distancing
    • Want to get your databases up-to-date with people’s email addresses and phone numbers?  Implement new communication strategies and make it clear that you’ll be using texts and emails to keep people informed.  That way, they want to make sure you have their up-to-date information.
  2. Don’t Abandon Digital: Digital needs to be fully incorporated into your everyday church operations.  We were teaching this before the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are even more compelling reasons now.  Here are a few:
    • Digital platforms enable you to reach more people in your community than you will ever reach if you’re just hoping they’ll come through your church’s doors.
    • Some of your people will prefer to continue watching online before they’re comfortable coming back. 
    • There’s a strong possibility that you’ll be faced with another situation where you have to shut your doors again.  We’re not trying to be alarmist, but we do want you to be prepared!  As we mention in Communicating When Disaster Strikes, having a plan in place when a natural disaster, another virus, or the 2nd wave hits can make all the difference between whether your church goes into recovery or ministry mode when the next unexpected disaster hits.  And during the majority of catastrophic events, a thriving digital ministry is an essential part of your church’s ability to minister to and communicate with your community.

CMU churches- Be sure to check out our Coronavirus Course for more tips on relaunching!

Two Quick Tips from Carey Nieuwhof:

In his article, Avoid Past Mistakes When Reopening Your Building, Carey Nieuwhof gives two major pieces of advice to church leaders who are considering their relaunch strategies:

 

  1. Embrace the “New Normal”  You might be tired of hearing the phrase “new normal,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  To quote Carey, “Even as the world slowly reopens, you’re not re-opening to normal, but to a new normal. And a highly unpredictable one at that. Don’t look for stability but keep your agility and ability to pivot when needed, often at a moment’s notice.
  2. Don’t Stop Innovating – You might think that reopening your building will mean that you can stop trying new things, but that is the surest way to become irrelevant.  As Carey says, “Crisis is the cradle for innovation. You adapted when the virus hit because you had to. Don’t get ‘comfortable’ once you’re back in your building, keep pushing the envelope to expand your horizons to reach more people. Embrace online services as an important part of that innovation and growth.”

You can read the full article here.

Church Fuel’s “The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Reopening”

Responding to the initial coronavirus crisis was all about the response, and Phase Two is all about when to reopen. Church Fuel poses 10 questions to consider to help you determine a reopen date — questions you should ask, best practices to consider, and ideas to explore. Those questions cover the gambit of considerations churches need to incorporate, including how to reopen, communications (internal and external), the structure of weekly services, and safety and sanitation. Their overall advice? “Gather a few wise and trustworthy people and decide together — a close, trusted community of leaders who love you, Jesus, and the church will be one of your greatest sources of help during this time.” 

 

Cautioning against exhausting church resources trying to fix a temporary problem, Church Fuel also advises churches to:

  • Continue to build digital momentum.
  • Build skills for the long haul.
  • View the “pause” the virus caused in weekly gatherings as an opportunity to reset, rest, reevaluate, refocus, and come back better.
  • Plan for multiple scenarios.
  • Consider a tiered approach.
  • Brace yourself for when changes happen, they’re likely to occur again.

 

Their ultimate advice? Don’t rush back to meeting in person. Consider what’s best for your church and how you can use resources wisely. Embrace the season, plan strategically, and take a safe, wise path to reopening. 

Get Church Fuel’s Senior Pastor’s Guide to Reopening & prepare your church by working through their 10 questions here: Church Fuel Free Resources.

Tactics

Prayer, listening to your people, and other principles are key parts of your reopening strategy, but by now you’re probably wondering, “How do I put all of this into practice?”  In this section, we’ll take an in-depth look at how other churches are navigating these same challenges.

Case Study in Communication: Mariners Church’s “Four Plays”

When will Mariners Church Reopen?

When will Mariners Church Reopen?It's the question we have been asking these past few months. We realize that people in our faith community will have varying levels of comfort in returning to gatherings, so at some point we will be running all four plays to serve people at their comfort level.Our 4 Reopening "Plays" are:1. Mariners at home2. Mariners with your life group3. Mariners in the neighborhood 4. Gatherings at MarinersLearn more about our plans to reopen by visiting https://bit.ly/2WRK1aB and be sure to sign up for the Weekly to stay up to date with all that is happening at Mariners. You can sign up here https://marinerschurch.info/2T0NVwN.

Posted by Mariners Church on Tuesday, May 12, 2020

As a front-line communication strategy,  Eric Geiger, the lead pastor of Mariners Church, took some time to explain the four “Plays,” or strategies they’ll use to reopen on their Facebook page.  The term “Plays” is very intentional because it helps them communicate that they’ll be responding to current events, not tied to a timeline that might be out-of-date.  Here are 5 things we love about this video:

  1. It’s the lead pastor.  Leaders, you cannot delegate communication and leading the way in these discussions!  Your people are looking to you for leadership and clarity during this time, and they’ll value your honesty as you share with them what you DO know, even if you don’t have all the answers.
  2. He starts with encouragement and praise.  There have been bright spots during this pandemic, and it’s right to praise God for how He’s worked during this time!  It’s also good to encourage His people and thank them for their generosity in the middle of great uncertainty.
  3. Even though he doesn’t give a date for reopening, he’s clear about what they’re planning.  For Mariners, they’re planning four “Plays,” which are:
    1. Mariners at Home.  This play consists of online-only services & community-building activities.
    2. Mariners with your Life Group.  When possible, they’ll start facilitating small groups meeting together in homes.  Life groups will watch the service together, and work through discussion prompts provided by the church so that they can go deeper with the message.  The church will also be facilitating outreach opportunities so that life groups can serve together.  They’re also hoping to open their facilities so that new life groups (as well as small groups of teens and kids) can gather together.
    3. Mariners in the Neighborhood.  Mariners is hoping to use smaller venues throughout their area to create safe worship experiences where people can gather.  They’ll use a reservation system in order to stay in line with current restrictions and broadcast their services to each location.
    4. Gatherings at Mariners.  In this play, they’ll have weekend worship services at Mariners.  They’ll make use of the multiple venues at both of their campuses to create areas where people can safely gather.  This will include live worship in each venue, and broadcasted preaching to each area.
  4. He’s clear that they will continue to run previous plays as they add new ones, so that people can worship according to their level of comfort.
  5. He ends by reassuring his congregation that they want to use wisdom as they reopen their buildings.  He’s clear that their goal is safety & serving people well, not being the first church to reopen.

Tips from the Church Marketers Facebook Group (Relaunch Discussion) 🚀

In our Church Marketer’s Facebook Group, we have a discussion thread dedicated to relaunching your in-person services!  Here are some of the best insights shared from church leaders around the globe:

  1. Work at over-communicating ahead of time so everyone knows what to expect of the church and what’s expected of them as well – communicate often, through all channels, many times with the details (i.e., bring a mask, we’ll have hand sanitizers, sit 6-feet apart, etc.).  This is especially important if you were a “high touch” church before the pandemic.  
  2. Many people pointed out that it seemed best to start with just adult services, then reengaging kids’ ministry later.  For many, it just isn’t possible to expect kids to properly social distance or adhere to “touchless” requirements.  If you’re also thinking along these lines, in-person kids’ ministry is probably a Phase 2 or 3 consideration.
  3. Extra signage can be helpful to communicate your new safety procedures – at all doors, in the welcome areas, in the classrooms, on the floors, by the bathrooms, in the auditoriums, etc. Again, OVER-communicating through signage can be just as important as providing hand sanitizers and masks.
  4. Think about creating separate environments for before & after service fellowship to make sanitation easier.  Move people outside if possible.  If you have multiple services to allow for proper social distancing, you may find that you have to limit fellowship time to 10 minutes or so, to allow the church to be sanitized and prepared for another service.
  5. Consider having your first in-person service be the worship team/pastors only in your sanctuary/auditorium that is still live-streamed, followed by a limited capacity gathering in a second service (no online live stream).  This is the template they’re using at Faith4Life Church, along with the following guidelines:
    • No kids services (families sit together, with part of the service engaging to young ones)
    • No physical contact outside of families
    • Chairs 6-feet apart (except for family groupings)
    • Pre-register to save a seat (You can use Eventbrite, Google forms, or another service)
    • Sanctuary/auditorium at 25% capacity limitation
    • Overflow room set up with stream in case they reach capacity

Tip: some churches have discussed splitting congregational gatherings into smaller groups and/or hosting in various meeting locations. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Have groups meet to stream and discuss the service (or do their own Bible studies)
  • Have smaller service sizes meet in your church
  • Host everyone at the same time in the same location, but assign people to watch the service from different rooms in your church (streaming to TV’s in those rooms)

Keep track of additional advice on our ongoing Relaunch Discussion.

Case Study:  Life.Church

Image Courtesy of Life.Church

With 34 campuses, Life Church is facing different requirements/needs across multiple states. The first weekend some of those campuses were allowed to open (May 10, 2020), Lead Pastor Craig Groschel had the following encouragement for his congregation: 

“There is nothing that is going to stop the love of God through His church. His church always prevails, His word is always true, His presence never leaves us. He never, ever forsakes us.” (Craig Groschel)

Here are some of their decisions that led to the staggered re-opening of some of their campuses:

  1. Life.Church decided to wait to reopen each facility until it was fully prepared to reopen, even if they were “allowed” to beforehand. Be prudent and take the advice of any governing and health officials in your region/area/state; don’t go against what they say but follow their criteria.
  2. They made it a completely “touchless” experience.  People never touch anything other than the seat they sit in.  Nothing goes into anyone’s hands.  For example:
    • Doors are held open by staff & volunteers wearing masks/gloves.
    • They’ve removed seats out of the auditorium to reduce the seating capacity.
    • They’ve created social distancing by making sure there are at least 2 chairs between people.
    • They’ve removed all drinks and food- even pre-packaged mints!
    • They’ve eliminated all paper passing, which means there are no offering plates, no sermon notes, no bulletins, etc.

The goal is to create an environment where every concern, fear, and anxiety is removed.  If everyone feels safe, their guard can be let down so they are open to the message of Christ. 

    • All staff & volunteers required to wear masks.  It gives the impression that Life.Church is being prudent and thoughtful.  The masks aren’t trying to make any type of statement, aside from reassuring everyone that they’re doing all they can to protect people’s safety.
    • The church is a spiritual hospital in the community: a place not necessarily for physical healing, but a place for spiritual and emotional healing.  Life.Church asked, “What do we need to do to be able to stay open and offer that healing to our community?”

Limited seating (25% capacity in any one location), requires people to RSVP (a new form of Planning Your Visit) for the campus and service time of choice. Their online form starts with the following questions:

  • Be sure to ask the following questions on behalf of your entire group before saving seats for this weekend:
    • Am I showing any flu-like symptoms?
    • Have I had a fever of 100.4 or higher in the past 14 days?
    • Have I had prolonged exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?
    • Is there any medical reason why I believe I shouldn’t be around others?
    • If you answered yes to any of these questions, we strongly encourage you to attend Life.Church Online this weekend. (link to their online service). All good? Let’s go ahead and save your seat.

Want to learn more?  Check out the Life.Church Resources Library and their Plan A Visit — Coronavirus Style page!

Case Study: Fellowship Church

image courtesy of Fellowship Church

The staff at Fellowship Church sat down for a conversation about reopening, the importance of systems, and what they’re changing after their first weekend back.  We’re including some highlights below, but you can watch the entire discussion and find links to their resources here.

  1. They strategically trained volunteers.
    1. Fellowship Church used hospitality/guest experience volunteers throughout their entire service experience, from holding signs, conducting screenings, and directing cars and foot traffic in the parking lot, greeting and providing guidance and access to protective equipment inside the building, seating and dismissing people inside your worship center, attending the restrooms, and cleaning and sanitizing throughout the facility. 
    2. Side note to CMU churches- if you’ve been wanting to build your hospitality volunteer base to match our coaching on thoughtfulness and hospitality inside the Guest Experience Course, now is the time!  People are more open to change, and once they’ve served as greeters, parking lot attendants, and service hosts, you can start coaching them on the importance of hospitality in the life of the church!  
    3. The Fellowship Church staff created training videos walking their volunteers through the entire process, from where to park & how to get their protective equipment, to how to communicate with people as they showed up.
    4. Fellowship Church was super intentional about messaging, giving their volunteers phrases to use when communicating, and coaching them on smiling with their eyes behind their masks and leading by example.  This is important because it’s reassuring to guests when your entire team is reinforcing what they’ve already seen communicated online.
  2. They created a parking lot screening process.
    1. Fellowship Church created signs explaining the criteria for attending.  (See photo)  You can order signs like theirs by checking out the links on their page.
    2. During their screening process, they are very intentional about their wording- saying, “Please Join Us Online” instead of “Please Stay Home” or “Watch Online If…”  This makes people who cannot meet in person feel more like they’re a part of things.
    3. To that end, they also trained volunteers to understand that the social distancing guidelines they were following are per the CDC, and not something the church has made up.  They found this to be especially important for volunteers to communicate with people who were in contact with COVID-19 patients or who had been experiencing symptoms.
  3. They created clear paths for people to follow.  They used cones and other items to create visually clear walkways for people to enter the building and sanctuary, and they stationed greeters along the paths to help guide people.  Their goal was to have zero doubt in people’s minds about where they should go to get to church and to eliminate cross traffic.
  4. They learned from their online-only services.  As people were waiting for others to be seated, they provided opportunities for levity and engagement through videos and in-person emcees.  They also trimmed their pre-service announcements to better keep people’s attention.
  5. They planned a touchless experience, requiring people to RSVP on the website, creating a text follow-up system for new people, and encouraging people to give online or use drop boxes at the door.
  6. They used consistent messaging.  Fellowship Church chose three words to communicate their plan for reopening their facilities:  Safe, spacious and sanitized.  They made sure that their in-person volunteers were on board, knew what to do, and used the same language that they’d been using to communicate with people online.
  7. They made sanitization a priority.  They sanitized their bathrooms twice per service- once at the beginning of the service, and again at the end.  They also sanitized their chairs using a ration of 3:1 water to bleach and one-gallon sprayers on a mist setting.  Volunteers were instructed to refrain from using the chairs in between services since they needed to keep them sanitized.
  8. They practiced systems and products in advance & planned for contingencies.  They practiced sanitizing chairs and bathrooms in advance and worked through countless “what if” scenarios beforehand so they could equip their volunteers.
  9. They will continue to provide digital experiences to facilitate kids’ lessons, minister to those at risk, and provide growth & outreach opportunities.

Case Study: Generation Church

If you’re like most churches, right now you’re struggling with reopening for in-person gatherings, frustrated because it’s a process full of unknowns, trial and error, and a lot of planning. Because this is new for all of us, it’s helpful to learn from those who go before, finding best practices for what works and perhaps avoiding mistakes from what didn’t. In this short 15-minute interview, Lead Pastor Ryan Visconti of Generation Church in Mesa, Arizona talked to our friends at Leaders.Church about their experience after they reopened church on May 17, 2020. In it, he covers:

  • Visiting churches that went before him to witness & learn from the experiences
  • Why they decided to include kids’ ministry in the reopening
  • How they handled the “face mask” issue with staff, volunteers and congregants
  • The administrative side to opening – auditorium set up, bathroom use and cleaning, etc.

In deciding to reopen, Generation Church understood they couldn’t be the safest place on earth, but they wanted to show they could reopen and be reasonably safe – safer than Wal-Mart or Home Depot where many people in their community frequent often. They wanted to signal that they have a plan, are thinking about public safety, and not throwing caution to the wind. Their 650-seat auditorium was pared down to 225-250, and they managed the capacity through online preregistration. During the first two weeks of reopening, they experienced 60-65% of what would be regular attendance, surpassing their goal and expectations.

If they could go back and change anything, what would they do differently? Pastor Ryan Visconti said they’d communicate more.  This means communicating ore often and in more detail, leading with the “why” and the “what” behind all the new procedures, and speaking directly to the people most likely to be ready to come back- in many cases, the type of people who don’t like being told what to do. Recognizing those frustrations and addressing them upfront could have helped avoid any negative reactions when they reopened their building.

What they discovered is that they have a group of people who are hungry, passionate, and ready to get back to in-person church. Ryan’s biggest piece of advice for other pastors? Be bold and lead the way. In scripture, you’ll find very few examples of God’s people playing it safe, and when they did it turned out poorly. Yes, we want to be wise, be cautious, and understand wisdom comes from God. But be bold and confident as you go forward.

Listen to the complete interview here: Reopening Churches: A Case Study

Equipment Recommendations for Relaunch

If you’re looking for masks, touchless hand sanitizer stations, or other pieces of safety equipment for your church, Outreach is selling discounted COVID-19 supplies for churches.

Additional Tools

As we’re talking about reopening our churches in the midst of social distancing, a big question keeps coming up – how do we make sure we don’t have too many people in one space? One solution is asking people to register for your church services. Even though church registration might seem counterintuitive, it provides a way for you to reopen with a safe amount of people at each service (or in each room, or at each campus or meeting location). 

Here are some registration systems we’ve found to facilitate attendance numbers:

Brushfire

Starting at $79 per month, Brushfire can help you provide professional-level registration for your services, giving you flexibility on how you set up your events, providing a mobile experience for your users through their app, and letting you create tickets that run out when your registration is full!  You can ask for varying levels of personal information depending on your church’s needs, and even assign seats using their platform.

Eventbrite

Another digital signup form option is Eventbrite. You can create events, specify the location, date and time, and any other event details. Eventbrite allows you to customize your registration form a bit more than reopen.church, including the option to add custom registration questions. You can also limit the registration period. Eventbrite offers a free pricing tier as well as a paid premium tier.

Reopen.Church

Breeze CHMS, a church database management system, created reopen.churches to allow people to register for your services at multiple times and in multiple rooms. As a church, all you have to do is create a form indicating your number of services, service time(s), and service capacity. The system will create a registration form for you where your members can specify which service they’re planning on attending. You can manage and view responses, as well as specify meeting location/room if you’re breaking into smaller meeting groups. The best part? The registration system is totally FREE. Breeze just wants to “Help the Church help people find and follow Jesus.”  We love that mindset!

Text In Church

If you’ve been around Church Marketing University at all, you know that we love Text In Church (and if you haven’t been around yet, make sure you read about 14 reasons we love it so much). Text In Church offers a Smart Connect Card that you can use to let people plan their visit to your church. It’s already set up to ask people for their name, contact info, planned attendance date, and kids’ information. You can also use TIC for general church communication!

Further Resources/Examples

Church Fuel:

Senior Pastor’s Guide to Reopening

TCalf’s Comeback Theme (Images also):

https://tcalf.com/comeback

CDC Guidelines:

For Childcare

For Faith-Based Organizations

The church at Lake Forest:

4-Phase Reopening Plan

In-Person Landing Page from First NLR

https://firstnlr.com/register/#inperson

Church Leaders:

How to Avoid Bad Press When You Reopen

Malphurs Group:

Ultimate Reopening Resource Bundle

Outreach COVID-19 Supplies:

https://bit.ly/outreachcovid 

Reunion Sunday:

Phased Reopening Plan for Churches

Christian Reformed Church:

Guidelines for West Michigan Places of Worship 

Vanderbloemen

Reopening Church Webinars & Facebook Live Interviews

What Covid-19 Means for Singing In Church (from the Orthodox Church in America)

https://www.oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/what-covid-19-means-for-singing-in-church

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