When adapting this plan to your church, it is very important to adhere to local government guidelines. Therefore, the number of people allowed to gather in your plan may differ from this plan due to local restrictions. The table only includes some of the more common church activities. When making decisions on how other activities can be implemented safely, consider the factors in the first table and where modified activities should be placed in the second table.
As stay-at-home restrictions are loosened, gathering in small numbers will frequently be allowed first. Therefore, small group gatherings should be the first activity to be implemented. We should be excited about this because small group gatherings are a wonderful way to live out God’s call for us.
In small groups, we can build deeper relationships with each other, grow in God’s Word, foster a safer environment for mutual accountability, and encourage one another to love and good works. These groups can reach out to many who would not want to enter a church building but would accept an invitation to a home. They can also help prepare for the start of in-person worship services by gathering each week for worship and then joining with other small groups to attend in-person worship when it resumes.
Like the persecuted Christians in Acts 8, who were scattered beyond Jerusalem, our ministries have been scattered from the confines of our church buildings. By building strong small groups in our communities and organizing around them for return, we are building a solid and flexible foundation for eventual church ministry all together.
The risk for COVID-19 transmission in these groups is low. The risk can be further reduced by keeping group members constant and within the same age group. When infection in the community is still high, use of face masks provides an added layer of protection. Because members know each other, they can quickly inform each other if a person develops COVID-19 symptoms. This will facilitate rapid self-quarantine by other group members.
We all need human contact, but sometimes contacts feel superficial. This pandemic offers a chance to build deeper relationships. To reduce the risk of infection, we should reduce the number of people we are in contact with. But meeting with the same people all the time and meeting only with people in our age group also reduce the risk of getting infected. Gathering with the same group of people who are at the same life stage can also better meet our social, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Imagine the strategy as creating small bubbles of safety across the church. The more congregants stay within their bubble, the safer everyone in the congregation will be while infection in the community remains.
When in-person ministries in the church resume, it is essential to observe a physical distance of at least six feet. Although physical distancing is usually observed at the individual level, it can be observed at the level of a social unit. For instance, those who live together as one social unit do not need to be physically separated at church. As a unit they can be physically separated from other social units.
Use of face masks can be very helpful. Because anyone who walks into a church could be an asymptomatic spreader, putting a face mask on everyone entering the church can reduce the spread of the virus. To increase the proportion of face mask users, ask everyone to use them. This takes away the stigma and employs peer pressure to encourage use.
Because face masks, especially homemade ones, will not prevent all transmission, they should not replace other approaches to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Physical distancing is usually not practical for small group gatherings in a home, so using face masks there is important while there is still a high level of infection in the community.
Because COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, transmission of this virus could occur during the resumption of in-person church activities. Therefore, for the safety of the whole congregation as well as their friends and neighbors, churches should be prepared to assist public health departments to identify and find the contacts of people who discover they are infected.
The first task is to rapidly identify all the contacts to a COVID-19 patient who attended the church. Then, if requested, churches should be prepared to quickly notify these contacts so they can self-quarantine and be evaluated for COVID-19. In this way, even if these contacts were infected, any transmission onward can be minimized.
Remember, speed is of the essence when it comes to contact identification and tracing. Therefore, your church should set up a system to collect information for all participants. The following are some suggestions for doing this:
・Keep a log of where every person sits. Assign seat and row number (or table number) to your sanctuary and meeting rooms.
・Register everyone entering a meeting. Record name, contact information, and where they are sitting. For each household, only one person needs to register but should list the number of people in group.
・Maintain the record for at least three weeks.
・Have a designated person in the church responsible for maintaining the meeting registration, liaising with public health department, and helping to identify and notify contacts if necessary.
There are many factors to consider. One of the most important factors to consider is the needs of church members. When a real need exists that is best met or can only be met face-to-face, we should find a way to resume in-person ministries more quickly.
Church should closely monitor the level of infection in its community. If it is going up or is still high, it is not the right time to resume in-person ministries. But if the level of infection is going down and is low, then it is safe to move into step 1 of my plan. Specifically, a consistent downward trend in COVID-19 cases and deaths for at least three weeks is one metric to use before considering step 1 of this plan.
But a downward trend is not enough, we also must have a low level of infection. This is where it gets tricky because, without extensive testing, we don’t know the true number of infections in our communities. Until testing gets ramped up, we can only make a guess based on the number of cases and deaths reported. But this is not ideal.
For now, with a downward trend and a low number of reported deaths and cases, we can consider other factors that may move us into step 1 earlier or later. Engaging our church leadership and the general congregation throughout this process is important. Having a clear plan will help our congregants understand why and how we are making these decisions.
As an example, for a population like King County, Washington, where I live (2.2 million people), and with a consistent decline in reported deaths and cases as the foundation, one set of criteria might look like this (using rolling averages over three days):
Step 1: Consistently <5 deaths per day for 3 consecutive weeks
Step 2: Consistently <1 death per day for 3 consecutive weeks
Step 3: Consistently <5 cases per day for 3 consecutive weeks
Step 4: Consistently <1 case per day for 3 consecutive weeks
As testing increases and we learn more about COVID-19, churches can develop more precise guidance on when to move from one step to another. Because the COVID-19 pandemic will wax and wane, an increase in the reported number of cases and deaths can be used to move back a step if necessary.
This pandemic has dramatically changed our lives and has turned our world upside down. We are just a couple of months into this pandemic, but the pain and anxieties around us are so real. To serve those in our community, the desire to open our church doors as soon as possible to serve those in our community is understandable.
Our churches can use biblical truths and the available scientific knowledge to guide decisions on when to resume in-person ministries and how to do it safely. As knowledge accumulates, we will be able to make better decisions and the plan that I have proposed can be improved.
Churches in other parts of the world face the same challenges as government-mandated lockdowns eases. The step-by-step plan as described is not hard or expensive to implement and can help ensure a safe environment for congregants around the world.
In closing, I want to remind us of one certainty. The COVID-19 pandemic in its present form will pass. One day we will look back on this time and see clearly that God was with us and was working in our midst for good. Knowing this, we can turn to him today and ask him to give us the discernment, compassion, and faith to make the right decisions for our churches at this time.
My prayer is that this article will help your church live out its missional calling, meet the needs of your congregants, and protect the health of those in your church and community at this critical time.