Across the country, state governments are setting dates for re-opening businesses and other parts of the economy in phases. What will church life look like during this “in-between” season? What is involved with reopening the church and gathering for worship?

Here are four suggestions for pastors and church leaders thinking about how best to minister in the months ahead.

1. Watch your heart and note your fears.

Many pastors feel a more acute sense of their inadequacy in ministry these days. The concerns vary:

  • Will people get used to sitting on the couch in their pajamas watching church on livestream? Will people still want to gather?
  • I wonder if people in my congregation are jumping into other livestream services and hearing pastors who preach better than I do. Will we lose church members after this?
  • Our financial situation is precarious. I’m not sure if the church will be able to afford all our staff, even me.

Some of these fears may be overblown. It’s possible that many church members will gain a newfound appreciation for gathering after this crisis passes (even if we’re many months away from that), leading to an eventual increase in church attendance. Technology is a blessing for these times, but we all know it’s insufficient. We have an inner longing to gather as the body of Christ. All of us are missing face-to-face interactions. We may want to gather more once this season is over, not less.

Regarding live streaming and podcasts, your people know of other church services and probably listen to other preachers already. The good news is, the quality of preaching or the style of worship isn’t the only or primary factor that goes into church membership.

Regarding finances, the fears are likely not overblown. Many pastors may be underestimating the economic effect of this crisis and the long-term effects.

These areas of anxiety are real. But remember this: you are not in ministry because you are adequate, but because you are called, and the One who has called you knew you would be in this season when he placed you in his service. Watch your heart, take your feelings of inadequacy to the Lord and let them develop in you a more desperate dependence on his power. Then watch what he will do.

2. Adopt the mindset of ‘creative carefulness’ as you consider returning to church.

We won’t be going back to normal any time soon, even if the economy reopens and people go back to work. Many people were quarantining and self-isolating before government restrictions came into effect a month ago. That won’t change for some people just because government officials say it’s safe to emerge from our homes.

This means no one should think we can just flip the lights back on and church will resume like before. Just as the economy is reopening in phases, so will our churches. We’ll have to get creative in how we mitigate the risks associated with the spread of the coronavirus.

  • Will we start by regathering community groups (with ten or less) in homes to watch the worship service on livestream and do Bible study together?
  • What steps can your congregation take to implement social distancing in your sanctuary?
  • Will your church host multiple services at first, with people spread apart in smaller groups within the sanctuary?
  • How do you free people up to not take on necessary risks, for example, older adults who may need to remain quarantined longer?
  • How do we continue to minister to those who would be safer at home?

Ken Braddy, a leader at LifeWay, has compiled an excellent list of questions church leaders should consider as they move forward in these times.

Creativity and carefulness matter as we seek to implement new policies and procedures, depending on the size of the church or the region we are in. I talked with a pastor in a larger church this week, and their leaders have a plan for what it would look like if smaller groups were the only groups that could meet, while the large group gathering would have to remain cancelled for the rest of the year. They hope the situation improves so that they can scrap that plan, but foresight in developing plans for multiple scenarios will be important for leaders in the days ahead.

3. Extend grace to church members and leaders who reach different conclusions.

Some people will still be fearful of large crowds, so churches may have reduced attendance for a while. And some may think it’s time to gather all together again like before. Show grace to church members who may think your policies unwise, on whichever side, and remind them that you’re trying to make the best decisions for everyone. (LifeWay Research has a free resource to help you survey your congregation in order to discern the perspectives of your people.)

Show grace to other church leaders, as well, who may reach different conclusions regarding the mitigation of risk. You and your team will need to prayerfully make decisions on a lot of ideas and opinions.

4. Don’t miss the opportunity to reinforce what is essential.

We have the chance right now to change the way we think about church connection and attendance. We must move beyond the “Let’s count how many people came and sat in the pews on a Sunday” as a metric for the health of our church. The pandemic reminds us that church health must extend to connection that goes beyond the worship service.

What’s more, as we are likely to see declines in giving, we will soon decide what cutbacks are necessary; what ministries or projects will need to temporarily halt; what budget line items need to be reconsidered. Constraints can clarify. They can help us refocus on what is most necessary.

How do we continue ministry with fewer people or less finances? Which ministries are essential? How do we minister differently, with less, going forward, trusting God to help us shepherd our sheep well?

As we think through reentry into church life, let’s be wise, bold, creative, and hopeful in what we implement moving forward, as a demonstration of our desire to love God and serve our neighbors.