Relaunching the Church: The Next 3–12 Months

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By Ed Stetzer and Josh Laxton – used by permission from Outreach magazine

Today, we are in the midst of a crisis that is forcing the church to learn a new song and dance.

Back on March 19, Tomas Pueyo published an article titled Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance. In that article, he argued for strong measures (Hammer) to be taken early to flatten the curve of the virus’ affect. During this time of strict measures, Pueyo noted that it would allow the healthcare systems and scientists—along with the federal and state governments—time to better address the virus.

After Hammer time, Pueyo explained it would be dance time until there is a vaccine. He explained,

We call the months-long period between the Hammer and a vaccine the Dance because it won’t be a period during which measures are always the same harsh ones. Some regions will see outbreaks again, others won’t for long periods of time. Depending on how cases evolve, we will need to tighten up social distancing measures or we will be able to release them.

We believe we are moving in the direction of Dance time—call it the “COVID-19 Dance.”

Without getting too technical—because neither one of us are dance experts—in dance, there is the rhythm of the dance, the rules (techniques) of the dance, and the moves of the dance.

It will be incumbent on church leaders to learn this new dance as we gear up to relaunch the church.

The Rhythm: The Proposed “Gating Criteria”

A couple weeks ago, President Trump released guidelines for Opening Up America Again. This was welcomed news. It was welcomed because many wanted to at least know what the COVID-19 Task Force was thinking with regards to reemergence from this crisis (although the federal government is leaving up the reopening of America to state governors).

According to President Trump and his team, the task force has created a “Gating Criteria’ followed by three phases.

Their proposed criteria is as follows:

When an area meets the gating criteria, they enter into Phase 1. According to the proposed plan, individuals in Phase 1 should continue to shelter in place and maximize physical distance from others—including avoiding social settings of more than 10 people (unless precautionary measures are observed). Specific types of employers, which includes churches, under Phase 1 “can operate under strict physical distancing protocols.”

To move from Phase 1 to Phase 2, the gating criteria would need to be applied again. If areas meet the symptoms, cases, and hospital criteria, they can move into Phase 2, which includes individuals maximizing physical distance from others and avoiding social settings of more than 50 people (unless precautionary measures are observed).

Also, under Phase 2, non-essential travel can resume. However, employers are still encouraged to allow their employees to telework. Furthermore, specific types of employers—sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, and places of worship—can operate under moderate physical distancing protocols.

Phase 3 happens when states and regions satisfy the gating criteria a third time. At this point, even vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions while practicing physical distancing and minimizing exposure to settings where distancing may not be practical. For specific types of employers, which once again includes places of worship, they can meet under limited physical distancing protocols.

It will be incumbent on church leaders to learn this new dance as we gear up to relaunch the church.

Ed Stetzer & Josh Laxton

Even if everything goes according to plan and all the gating criteria is met three times to move a state or region to Phase 3, that area is still looking at a month and a half (6 weeks) before life returns to somewhat of a normal state.

This means some parts of the U.S. will open sooner than others. One area might be in Phase 3, while another hasn’t even moved into Phase 1. This may mean that one area might be moving from Phase 1 to 2, only to have an uptick in cases and death and have to return to ground zero. As you can see, the situation remains volatile—at least until there are zero cases or a vaccine is created.

The Rules: Defining Strict, Moderate, and Limited Physical Distancing Protocols

Within the three phases you’ll find the “strict,” “moderate,” and “limited” physical distancing protocols. But what do these mean? You’ll be hard pressed, at least right now, to find the definition of each of these terms—particularly with regards to the physical distancing protocols.

According to the CDC’s website, social distancing (or physical distancing) means:

  • Stay at least 6 feet from other people
  • Do not gather in groups
  • Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings

In light of the CDC’s stance on physical distancing, it seems that strict protocols would be pretty much what we have now. Therefore, in Phase 1, there wouldn’t be that much change with regards to church gatherings.

However, in states and regions that move to Phase 2, where there would be moderate protocols in place, it seems there would be a possibility to slowly (gradually) introduce physical gatherings.

So, what would moderate protocols entail? Taking into account what was shared at the very beginning of the crisis regarding group gatherings, information from the CDC’s website, and language used to describe what businesses can do from the “Reopening America” plan, we would assume moderate protocols would entail:

  • Sanitation precautions
  • Safety precautions
  • Size of gathering precautions

Sanitation precautions. This involves cleaning surfaces that are frequently touched—doors, rails, countertops, bathrooms (with schedules posted of the last time they were cleaned), etc. In addition, making hand sanitizer (disinfecting wipes) readily available throughout the building. The CDC also gives guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting.

Safety precautions. This may involve providing masks or gloves for people coming to worship. This may involve having greeters with masks and gloves opening doors for people. This may mean posting signs that communicate a restriction in being in close proximity to others—basically preventing socializing in small groups from happening during the gathering. In addition, this may mean having no children’s ministry for a time—only allowing family worship. Furthermore, this may include spacing out the seating in the church’s auditorium and adding multiple worship services. For example, you may block off every other row or pew, and make sure there is six feet between families or attendees in the rows.

Size of gathering precautions. Under a moderate protocol, it would be wise to think about gatherings of around 50.

With regards to Phase 3, under limited physical distancing protocols, we don’t think much will change between the sanitation and safety precautions churches should take. However, we do believe the size of gathering precautions will continue to lift. In other words, it may move from 50 to 250… to 500… etc.

One of the things we are doing is monitoring professional sports and how they begin to gradually emerge during the crisis. For instance, the PGA tour as of this writing (April 20) is talking about getting back to tournament play in June without spectators. As July rolls around, it will be interesting to see how their plan to readmit spectators evolves.

Again, as of this writing there is no definition around “strict,” “moderate,” or “limited” protocols. We’re under the assumption that at some point state governments will define their own gating criteria along with their protocols.

The key for churches is to learn the dancing rules so that they can move with the rhythm of COVID-19. And although there are no specific rules now, there are guidelines to help churches prepare now for gatherings under moderate and limited protocols.

The Moves: How Churches Can Move to the Rules and Rhythm of COVID-19

As things begin to gradually open back up, our churches will go through a series of steps in the relaunch over the next several months or so (see the figure below).

(The timetables are not fixed, but an example based upon what some experts have suggested.)

It’s important to note that this is a volatile situation. Things can change in a day. As stated earlier, one state or region that’s in Phase 3 can in an instant find themselves back in Phase 1. So, whether we like it or not, it seems we are in for a roller coaster ride.

As the church learns to dance according to the rules and rhythm of COVID-19, it’s important that we understand that the virus has affected:

  • How people gather
  • How people live
  • How people give

Understanding those three things well will help us move from learning the dance, to dancing the new dance, to perfecting the dance, and finally to thriving after the new dance.

What are the dance moves churches need to learn? There are at least four.

First, churches need to learn the practical procedures and policies they will adopt moving forward. This takes into account the previous point regarding the protocols churches will need to adopt for in-person gatherings. This will definitely include communication plans to the church, but it also might include creating contingency plans in an effort to remain flexible in the midst of a volatile environment.

Second, churches will need to think through their finances. For the most part the financial impact hasn’t fully been felt in many churches—and we pray that they won’t feel it. Nonetheless, churches in such a volatile environment may want to reassess their budgets. Here are four axioms that provide a framework for how church leaders can think about their budget:

  • Mission is the mandate of the church
  • People reach people
  • Facilities facilitate ministry (including tech)
  • Benevolence is beautiful

These axioms should help you prioritize your budget as you allocate and steward your resources.

Third, churches will need to think through their ministry models. Ministry models include corporate worship, small groups, next generation ministries, and volunteering. At least for the short-term, all of these have been disrupted.

And while we’re certain most churches have found a new “online” normal, what’s the plan for these ministries once you receive the “green light” to begin holding some form of in-person gatherings?

In addition, what’s the plan for creating more small groups? What’s the plan for children and student ministries? Would they be different from what you have been doing for the last five weeks or so?

Fourth, churches will need to continue thinking through their mission strategy. People will still be hurting, grieving, in need, and asking deep questions. Given that sin is comprehensive—affecting every sphere of life—we believe the redemption Jesus offers through his life, death and resurrection is comprehensive.

Therefore, we like to think of mission in terms of spheres—spiritual (reconciliation to God), social (reconciliation to others), and cultural (reconciliation to what we do in the world and how we do it).

Spiritually, churches can be on mission as they:

  • Use online as the new Mars Hill
  • Launch virtual small groups for seekers and grievers (Grief Share, Alpha, Explore God, QPlace)
  • Strategically use sermon series to help people through this crisis
  • Conduct ministry to the vulnerable (older, homeless) population
  • Seek ways to plant a church, revitalize a plateaued or declining church, or adopt and foster a church in need of revitalization

Socially, churches can be on mission as they:

  • Launch group counseling or support groups
  • Assist those in need
  • Care for the vulnerable
  • Become a resource center
  • Partner with sister churches

Culturally, churches can be on mission as they:

  • Leverage facilities for missional use
  • Host a job fair
  • Support local businesses (and possibly launch a business themselves)
  • Partner with local school system (for the continued feeding of children and preparation for a fall relaunch of schools)
  • Bless local governments by finding ways to work with them for the common good

By now the church understands the challenges and obstacles they face. However, with every obstacle and challenge, there is an opportunity and solution. As Ed noted at the onset of this crisis, this is the church’s moment. Truly, this is our missional moment where we have the glaring opportunity to shift the posture of our churches from monuments, managers, and disseminators of religious goods to a missional movement dispensing and demonstrating gospel hope.

This Too Shall Pass: Taking the Time to Learn Something new

We are sure many can identify—especially church leaders—with the psalmist’s words, “How long O Lord?” How long is this going to last? How long do we have to continue doing online church? How long will we be relegated to groups sizes smaller than 10?

The reality is, at some point this crisis will end. A country preacher recently said, “It may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.” And in its passing, there are those who think this crisis will forever change the face of the church—and that this will be the end of the large (and mega) church. In all honesty, we don’t think that.

In fact, we don’t necessarily believe this is the death of consumer Christianity (although we would pray it would lessen). However, we do believe churches should take advantage of this time to learn a new dance.

There were those—particularly the 3s on the Enneagram—who encouraged people at the beginning of this crisis to take the time to read a book, write a book, learn a new game, or learn a new language. In other words, they encouraged people to steward this time rather than squander this time.

Church leaders, to steward this time well, you will need to learn the COVID-19 dance. You will need to the learn the rhythm and the rules—the music and the guidelines—as well as the ecclesial and missional moves that will help you move to the rhythm of the beat.

And in learning this new dance, you will be better equipped to thrive as God’s people advancing His kingdom through sharing and showing the good news of King Jesus.

Our hopes is that through this crisis churches will have learned to:

  • Be a church of small groups rather than a church that has small groups
  • Utilize tech as the new Mars Hill
  • Leverage facilities in missional ways
  • Concern themselves with those outside the church rather than cater to those inside the church
  • Restructure their finances for Christ’s mission rather than church management

In closing, this too shall pass. But after it passes, will you have squandered the time waiting for things to go back to normal? Or will you have stewarded the time to learn something new that will help you thrive for the glory of God and the good of the world as you move ever further into the 21st century? We encourage you to learn a new dance.

This article originally appeared on The Exchange and is reposted on Outreach by permission.

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Ed Stetzer & Josh Laxton

Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism and the dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School. He is also executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

Josh Laxton serves as the assistant director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast, Living in the Land of Oz.

Ed Stetzer & Josh Laxton

Ed Stetzer & Josh Laxton