Questions for Preparations for Gathering
By Scott Hughes
As different parts of the United States begin to open public gatherings, including churches, we at Discipleship Ministries offer this resource to aid in your church’s planning. In this document, you will find helpful information to safely guide your congregation to open in a way that attempts to mitigate the risks of in-person gatherings and to extend hospitality and compassion. Additionally, our hope is that your church will use this time to reflect and imagine new ways of community engagement and improving your Intentional Discipleship Systems. We recognize that returning to in-person worship will vary across the United States and even from church to church. In this document, you will find information for:
- Service and Community Engagement
- Evangelism and New Faith Communities
- Faith Formation and Small Groups
- Children’s Ministries
- Youth Ministries
- Spiritual Gifts
- New Member/New Disciple Orientation
- Equipping Disciples and Spiritual Leadership
As local churches consider when and what reopening might look like, along with offering the suggestions below, we encourage churches to consult with their annual conference leaders, administrative boards, and local health officials. Church leaders should make it clear that anyone displaying symptoms of illness should stay at home and participate with their church community through online platforms.
Physically distancing in the pews. Consult the trustees and/or other administrative bodies along with annual conference and local health regulations to help reflect on questions, such as: “Should the church block off every other pew or row of chairs? Should we ask people to sit six feet apart if they are sharing a pew or row of chairs (if they are not in the same family)? How will we determine who can come week by week?” (See below for a resource.) Some conferences are extending the quarantine period even beyond the state guidelines because of the difficulties in meeting those recommendations.
Choir and praise band considerations. Decide how many singers you can safely have in your choir loft or stage area, and then develop a singer roster rotation for each week. Allow for fewer singers in the choir loft or stage area with more space between seating. Spread your praise band out as much as possible while still maintaining an ensemble. Consider what instruments are necessary and what instruments can sit out a while longer.
In addition to questions about the choir and other musicians, there is also the whole issue of congregational singing. A church in Germany is banning congregational singing when the church returns from quarantine. Singing projects potentially dangerous amounts of droplets into the air, some argue. Others recommend only instrumental music upon return. Still others recommend social distancing will mitigate the singing concerns. What will work in your space?
Will you continue to collect an offering during worship? A significant part of the worship experience is giving our gifts to God and celebrating the blessing of stewardship. How can you still emphasize the call to give without the physical act of giving? (See below under “Generosity” for more specific questions and recommendations.)
- Pastor’s Toolbox (Save-a-Seat) for pre-registering attendance
- From the CDC, specifically for faith communities
- “When We Return” by John Thornburg helps us navigate those deeper questions and issues about mission, ministry, and identity
- The Worship Team recorded a podcast conversation with Rev. Thornburg to explore what he was seeing and where we might need to go as we come back to in-person worship
Before your church decides to reopen in-person gatherings, bear in mind that the people who get together are not the same people you knew before COVID-19. You will be receiving wiser people and wounded people. They will be wiser because they have lived through one of the worst pandemics in generations. They will expect the church to provide a safe way to assemble with others. They may be wounded as survivors of COVID-19 themselves or because a loved one became very sick or died from the disease; many people have had emotional and/or financial setbacks. They carry the wounds with them. Some will be afraid to gather with others.
Each local expression of church needs to ask questions about how it can provide as safe an environment as possible for attendees and for those extending hospitality. No one can promise a virus-free space. However, we can follow established guidelines to minimize contagion and extend hospitality in a loving way. Some questions to consider include:
- How are you going to communicate beforehand the way your congregants will physically gather and respect the physical distancing guidelines?
- Will you communicate the guidelines using videos, announcements on websites, emails, snail mail, or social media?
- Does your church have “sanitizing stations,” where congregants can find masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, and so on? Or will they receive instructions to bring these items/gear? How will greeters and others who extend hospitality be protected?
- What signage will be needed? What information and instructions will the signs need? Where will the signs need to be placed?
- What will people need to know when they arrive at the parking lot? At the main entrance to the building? In the sanctuary?
- What will the seating arrangements be to adhere to local physical distancing regulations? How will congregants greet one another?
It is likely that once churches are open, people who have been reflecting on this pandemic will be exploring faith and spirituality. They will be looking for a church that is taking the current health concerns seriously and that will help them reflect theologically about their experiences.
Each expression of church would be wise to put together a hospitality team to kindly and firmly guide people through the new (and, hopefully) safer ways to assemble. We recommend the following resource to help the hospitality team: RE-Launch: A Conversation on Embracing the Ministry Possibilities of 2020.
How will your church collect an offering? Is your church prepared to receive an offering that does not require handling/passing a plate or basket and does not involve anyone coming within six feet? If your church is not already using online giving, how might you start moving your church to greater online giving? If you will have people handling money, what precautions will they need to make?
Provide a brief update on church finances that gives the congregation a picture of the challenges but also celebrates generosity and creative ministry that happened during sheltering. Can someone articulate a church vision for ministry to your community in the post-pandemic world in a way that excites people about opportunities to give and serve?
Invite all according to their ability. Can you ask a church leader to make an invitation that highlights the hardships that some are experiencing but also the opportunity for others to go a second mile? Are there some who may be able to “pay ahead” on their annual giving?
- Webinar: Electronic Recurring Giving: Needed Now More Than Ever!
- Webinar: What Might Stewardship Look Like in the Months Ahead?
Service and Community Engagement
How are you organizing your mission focus so that discipleship is strengthened and that you are making an impact? Are you transitioning to thinking more locally and long term? While organized long-distance trips are considered to be unwise and probably will be for quite a while, this pandemic presents the opportunity to focus on engaging our local communities and neighborhoods.
How will you organize volunteers for service? Does your particular mission opportunity require close contact or a large group gathering of volunteers? How will you continue to offer ministry such as food pantries and clothing closets within your facility? Consider ways that you could limit contact with other people, encourage or require masks and social distancing, and ask volunteers if they have experienced symptoms of the coronavirus. Encourage the vulnerable within your congregation who would normally serve to give in prayers and/or gifts rather than in presence during this time. Is it possible for the people being served to stay in their vehicle to receive their food? Can you operate as a drive-through service in which volunteers bring food to the car? In cases of a clothes closet, could you operate by appointment only, increase walkway space allowing people to stay distanced from one another, require the use of masks by volunteer, and provide masks to clients who don’t have them? While this may take more coordination and planning, it is important to continue to serve those who are experiencing hardship and lack the access to necessities.
Are there opportunities for service through other organizations/non-profits in your community? What guidelines will outside organizations maintain as you prepare your group to serve? How will you organize and mobilize your members for service through these other organizations? Consider lowering the number of volunteers you mobilize to a number that fits within guidelines that maintain social and physical distancing and that do not overwhelm the organizations you are serving, such as food distribution centers. Some food banks will require waivers and ask symptom and travel-related questions. Be sure to verify with the agency about what is needed. You will want to do so to ensure that you can best prepare your group to serve and be sure to follow all guidelines, so that you keep the health and safety of all those who are serving or being served a priority.
How are you discerning needs that have arisen during this season? Are there needs that are not being addressed by the community at large? What strengths, gifts, or skills does your congregation have that could be implemented to meet those needs? Phone calls, e-mails, and communication with local community leaders can be helpful. It lets people know that the church is present, and it gives you an opportunity to hear of needs or gaps that are being experienced. Within your congregation, look to your members who are community leaders or who are in professions that put them in a position to know the needs. Bring those voices together through conversation over Zoom and look for ways that your congregation can make a difference in a wise, safe, and healthy way.
How will your local church increase its reach into the community and find opportunities to invite people into this relationship? As churches continue to respond with online worship and Zoom Bible studies, they are also seeking to reach out to their neighbors to offer the good news of Jesus Christ, inviting people into relationship with God, and inviting them into the community of faith. You could think of this as a season that can be used to develop lay leadership, engaging, equipping, and empowering them to lead in their neighborhoods, on their block, in their homes, inviting new people into relationships and deepening discipleship. Do this over Zoom, and then it becomes a model for those that you are equipping to use as they grow to lead where they are. Consider online teachings, trainings, and resources that deepen discipleship, equip leadership, and offer tools. Long-term, this could be the opportunity to become a multiplying church or a launchpad toward small groups, new faith communities, or fresh expressions.
- "RE-Launch: A Conversation on Embracing the Ministry Possibilities of 2020""New Faces in Virtual Spaces"
- "New Faces in Virtual Spaces"
- "Becoming a Distributed Church: Why It’s Worth the Shift"
- "Returning to Church"
- "Love One Another: Ways to Engage Your Community in the Time of Coronavirus"
Evangelism and New Faith Communities
How are you able to engage and grow relationships with more people by staying online for worship, discipleship groups, and other relationship-building opportunities? Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and the founding pastor of Connexus Church in Barrie, Ontario, one of the most influential churches in North America. According to Carey Nieuwhof, churches have experienced a 300 percent growth rate since moving to online ministry. New people that you are reaching are comfortable connecting to a faith community online, and you might lose those relationships if you shift your focus and energy exclusively to gathering in person.
How do you prepare your congregation to offer a two-track ministry that provides both online and in-person gatherings? As many churches are learning to go online, most of these congregations are thinking that they can support and sustain both online worship and in-person worship gatherings. Other churches are offering discipleship groups, prayer circles, and the like in both online and in-person meetings. What challenges and opportunities do this option present for your church? How can your church prepare for offering both online and in-person gatherings and get ready now rather than later? If two-track ministry becomes feasible for your church, how will you organize and equip your leaders for this new ministry opportunity?
How can you care for vulnerable people (due to age or pre-existing conditions) in your faith community? Consider maintaining online ministry indefinitely, so they can participate safely in the church. Even when it is safe to gather in small groups, it won’t necessarily be safe for everyone who has connected to your faith community, so maintain worship and discipleship opportunities for them online.
How are you empowering your church members to engage in evangelism and build new relationships by being social media ambassadors? We have seen the power of social networking during our time of social distancing. Encourage your faith community to get the word out about your church and get to know all the new faces they are meeting in virtual spaces.
Have you contemplated reopening with a neighborhood-based house church model as a safe next step to show hospitality to those who are yearning for community? The birth of the church came when the disciples left the upper room and scattered, starting churches in homes throughout the Roman Empire. Launching worship after COVID-19 in a house church format allows people to experience the connection they have been longing for in a more intimate and potentially safer environment.
- "Half of All Churches Are Instantly Growing. Here’s Why and Here’s What to Do"
- "Field Preachers: A Church Planting Podcast - Episode 28"
- "New Faces in Virtual Spaces"
- "Field Preachers: A Church Planting Podcast - Episode 22"
- "Field Preachers: A Church Planting Podcast - Episode 24"
Faith Formation and Small Groups
How will small groups and Sunday school classes continue? Will groups be able to use the church facility? Will they need to continue or begin meeting using digital platforms? How might you start new groups using a hybrid model of periodic in-person meetings, while most of the meetings occur through online platforms? While moving groups online can be awkward at first, discipleship requires accountability, nurture, and support. If needed, train leaders in specific platforms. Take time for participants to learn and explore the platform.
· How will you guide small groups and Sunday school classes to meet again in person? Will there be a limit on the number of people per group? Will there be a limit on the number of people per classroom size? Who will oversee and enforce these regulations? (Trustees, church council members, etc.?) If the room is used by more than one group, how will cleaning be done between the different groups? What specific touchpoints need to be cleaned (chairs, markers, curricula, etc.)? Who will make these decisions and how will they be communicated to participants?
How might worship themes be used to create new small groups? Either using a hybrid approach (some in-person gathering and some online gatherings) or an all online gathering, create groups to reflect on the weekly worship experience. You might also look to develop new groups focusing on support for current situations such as grief or job loss.
What rituals could families participate in to encourage faith formation? By default, families form faith in their children. What are you already doing in your families that you can build upon moving forward? How might worship themes be expanded to allow families to reflect on and engage these themes at home?
How will you offer this summer’s Vacation Bible school? Will you offer a virtual experience or onsite? If onsite, how will you respond to physical distancing concerns? Do you use a large number of retired, aged, or “high risk” volunteers? Would you consider postponing VBS until later in the calendar year? Would you consider offering a different format (i.e. weekend VBS, stay-at-home VBS)? How will you then provide family resources to have a stay-at-home VBS?
Will you offer children’s church outside the sanctuary, or will you keep families together and implement physical distancing? Will you offer “pew pocket” activities for children during worship? If so, how do you plan to clean/disinfect? For those worshiping from home, encourage families to take photos of arts and crafts that are shared for others to see. How will you approach nursery/childcare during worship services? How will you ensure major cleaning of the nursery facility
What is your plan with children’s Sunday school or other faith formation opportunities? How will you address location (virtual or in person), volunteer leadership (and provide for health and safety) and curriculum (in class or digital)? How will this faith formation opportunity connect to the worship experience? What are some “best practices” when communicating with children from a distance?
How will you guide in-person groups to meet again? Will there be a limit on the number of people per group (children and leaders)? Will there be a limit on the number of people per classroom size? Who will oversee and enforce these regulations? (Trustees, church council members, etc.?) If the room is used by more than one group, how will cleaning be done between the different groups? What specific touchpoints need to be cleaned (chairs, markers, curricula, etc.)? Who will make these decisions and how will they be communicated to parents?
How will you ensure safety and provide support to children’s ministries outside Sunday morning worship that are not meeting regularly during this time? Examples include Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), preschool and afterschool programs, and midweek Wednesday night meals and programming.
- North Georgia Conference: “Thoughts on Reopening Your Congregation to Children"
- CDC guidance for children
What rituals and routines have you developed during the COVID-19 response that you want to integrate into your discipleship and youth ministry plan for the long haul? You’ve had to be creative during the last several weeks. Keep the best parts of your innovation going because the online skills and gatherings you’ve worked so hard on will complement your in-person gatherings going forward! Think of the re-introduction of in-person youth gatherings as “both/and” opportunities with online ministry instead of an “either/or.”
How can faith practices that you have encouraged at home continue now that you can meet in-person again? Research from Fuller Youth Institute (Sticky Faith, Growing Young, etc.) continues to show that the single biggest influencer of a young person’s faith-life is parent(s). How can you equip households for at-home spiritual practices that grow young disciples? How will the plans you make for in-person gatherings support, and not compete, with the new balance that families have found during the isolation? How can you ease families back into meaningful in-person gatherings and still support them at home?
What games and activities can you do, and in what spaces? Obviously, outdoor activities allow physical distancing more easily than activities in interior spaces. Consider if you can gather in the largest rooms of your church building and have suggestions for seating areas, handwashing, physical contact, and cleaning that follow CDC or local guidelines. Modify games or use games that minimize physical touch or transferring objects. If you have meals with youth gatherings, consider inviting youth to bring their own plates and flatware, or use disposable plates. Will you require masks at youth gatherings? Regular handwashing? Sanitizers? Once a plan is in place, how will you communicate clearly and effectively with parents and guardians so that they know the expectations and are comfortable with their youth reentering physical gatherings?
How can you monitor health, and encourage youth to check on one another in addition to your follow up? Figure out how you might track the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of students along with attendance. Encourage youth to take their temperatures before coming to a youth activity and write it down, along with an adjective that describes the feeling they have had most of the week. How might you help them learn about and pay attention to their mental and emotional states, and how might you, your volunteer team, or youth who serve as leaders and connectors reach out to make sure that the youth in your ministry are healthy and thriving? When you take attendance, determine a follow- up plan, especially for anyone showing signs of distress.
How will you guide small groups and Sunday school classes to meet again in person? Will there be a limit on the number of people per group? Will there be a limit on the number of people per classroom size? Who will oversee and enforce these regulations? (Trustees, church council members, etc.?) If the room is used by more than one group, how will cleaning be done between the different groups? What specific touchpoints need to be cleaned (chairs, markers, curricula, etc.)? Who will make these decisions and how will they be communicated to participants and their parents?
What are the true building blocks of your youth ministry? The COVID-19 experience can be seen as a gateway to a different reality along with different expectations. If your youth ministry has traditions or “sacred cows” that just had to be done before the pandemic, revisit those with your youth leadership team. Ask youth and their families what they found to be really valuable during their time apart, and invest your time, energy, and resources in those things that are valuable for the people in your context. If there was part of your youth ministry that needed to be let go, this is the chance to drop it and never look back!
- ”13 Questions to Consider Before Restarting Youth Ministry Post-Quarantine” by Chris Lynch
- "Safe Sanctuaries and Online Youth Ministry: 11 Suggestions"
- "Thinking Ahead: Rites of Passage in the COVID-19 Moment"
- "Self-Care for Socially Distanced Youth Workers"
- "Naming Loss and Gratitude with Young People in These Uncertain Days"
Using Spiritual Gifts Assessment Tools to Get Ready for a New Way of Doing Church
Your mission and ministry will look different in post-coronavirus days. The budgets churches put together last summer and fall went out the window with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your church is different because the world is different. Ministry will be different for both clergy and laity as we move into this new world. While people are sheltering at home, it’s a great time to have them assess their spiritual gifts. Click here to use the free assessment tools.
One of the most important ministries in this time of isolation is communication and connection. Laity are well-equipped to take on this ministry. Have people take the online spiritual gifts assessment (see link above) and look for leaders who score high in the areas of the nurturing gifts cluster (wisdom, shepherding, exhortation, helping, discernment, faith, and compassion). Leaders with these gifts can keep people connected and cared for and can also help connect people by organizing them into small groups or classes. Click here to find more resources.
Understand that the need for your church’s mission and outreach has increased exponentially in just a few months, and this is the ministry of all believers. Not only is this a time of great need in communities due to economic downturn, jobless increases of 400 percent, and the rise of fear and anxiety, it is also a time of great opportunity. The world is watching churches to see if we really live out what Jesus taught. Use the spiritual gifts assessment tool to find people who will be energized by being invited to join in this work. Look for disciples with the gifts of compassion, healing, servanthood, evangelism, working miracles, prophecy, or apostleship to lead and grow these areas of ministry. Check out these pages for helpful ideas to move to higher engagement with your community:
New Member/New Disciple Orientation
What might a fully online or hybrid model (using both in-person and online spaces) new member/new disciple orientation look like for your church? What topics need to be covered? What video resources might you use (Amplify Media, Alpha, Bible Project, etc.)? Will the participants view these before or during the class meeting? What other online (PDF) resources might you use to supplement learning? (See below for suggestions.)
How are you identifying new attenders or attendees or are geographically distant? Will they sign in on your website? Through a texting platform such as Text-in-Church? How can you make this easy for the end user? How might whatever platform you decide to use to collect their information also help participants register for a new group?
Who are longtime attenders who might desire to be part of such a class? Sometimes those who need a class on discipleship might be those who have attended church for a long period of time but, for a variety of reasons, have not taken next steps in their faith journey. The current situation might be a ripe opportunity for a class that will nurture their spiritual growth.
Equipping Disciples and Spiritual Leadership
What new forms of leadership and leadership training will be needed for the next phase of your congregation? What is your plan to identify and train those new leaders who have shown themselves faithful during this time? How might the more technologically savvy equip those uncomfortable and unfamiliar with digital platforms to gain competency as the need for experiencing worship online will likely continue. Highlight the ways these new (sometimes younger) leaders are using their strengths and acting out of a calling and vocation they may not have perceived before. Pastors/staff will also want to encourage their pre-COVID-19 leadership team to help new leaders assume lasting roles of leadership and connect the dots between ‘helping out’ versus serving as strategic agents of the church’s blueprint for intentional discipleship.
- Equip your leaders to disciple and equip others. What specific issues are your leaders wrestling with? (Grief? Job Loss? Isolation?) How might the pastor and/or staff begin to address and support the leaders of the church? How then can these leaders equip and support others who are going through similar situations?
How will you integrate and balance the new insights of online connectedness with the deep and abiding need for in-person, face-to-face ministry? Many churches will return to ministry invigorated by the new connections and tools found in online meeting applications (like Zoom). Pastors and staff members will want to identify ways that online tools enhance their ministry, while also naming the limits of these tools – especially for those without resources or with challenges that create physical/mental obstacles to online forms of connectedness. Have your leaders ask, “Who does this form of communication leave out?” and brainstorm low-tech, face-to-face solutions that honor those both with and without internet access.
What teaching opportunities are created by the recognition of the fragility of life and the conviction that God is present? While some may be experiencing economic setbacks and grief, how can your church invite reflection on the essentials of our faith? How might we learn to hear the needs and concerns of our neighbors better? For those who are dealing with the loss of a job and/or economic difficulties, how can the church help them (and others) rest in their true identity as baptized Christians (as opposed to being solely identified with or without a job or as gaining their worth through money). Sermon series and corresponding small-group studies – even online Q & A – focused on listening to the stories of parishioners – can help your church hear and address the setbacks and losses of this season without abandoning hope in God’s love and power. Above all, create opportunities for listening to honest questioning, stories of Good News, and even grief-filled stories of lament will be helpful in equipping parishioners to reflect theologically.
- The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, Deanna A. Thompson (Abingdon Press, 2016).
- “Using Digital Technologies for Faith Formation” (webinar) with Scott Hughes, Tanya Campen, Christina Hides
We are fortunate to live in age when most (sadly not all) have broadband access. While challenging, this is an opportunity for churches to engage their communities in new ways. As churches continue using high-tech and low-tech options, we affirm the need to experiment with new ways of connecting to our communities and inviting people into deeper discipleship.
- “Reimagining Life Together” from the Greater Northwest Conference
- "Why Reopening a Church is Different"
- CDC Checklist for Community and Faith Leaders
- CDC Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith
- HHS Recommended Preventative Practices and FAQS for Faith-based and Community Leaders
- "7 Shifts Churches Need to Make Because of the Coronavirus"
Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.