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After weeks and months of being shut down to halt the spread of COVID-19, communities are taking steps to reopen. Many churches have begun to discuss when and how they’ll meet in person again, whether that’s in a week or later this year. Each church will approach this decision differently, depending on the demographics of the congregation and the instincts of the leaders. Communities have been affected in a variety of ways—from economic losses to the grief of losing church members to COVID-19 to the pain of being isolated—and will thus come to different conclusions about how to reopen. In any case, meeting in person as a congregation will be very different from the way church used to be. For the foreseeable future, meaningful rituals like handshaking and greeting, sharing communion, collecting the offering, and even singing will have to be rethought. In the meantime, reopening should happen in stages, erring on the side of caution to slow the spread of the disease and to protect vulnerable people in your congregation and community, who are at greatest risk.

Making a decision to reopen

Places of worship play a vital role in local communities. Faith communities are places of refuge that provide support for families in need, are vital for mental health, and add intrinsic value to their surrounding communities. Many believers miss congregating with their local worship community, as churches across the world have shuttered their doors in order to support stay-at-home orders.

In the U.S. and Canada, different areas are loosening restrictions at different paces. As they look toward reopening, churches and other places of worship must consider the opportunities and alternatives to provide safe and healthy environments for all worshipers, including people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. The fight to slow the spread of COVID-19 will continue for the next several weeks and months, even as restrictions loosen. 

These guidelines are simply considerations and suggestions for your organization to consider; as the situation continues to rapidly evolve, consider current circumstances in your area, and follow the most recent guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Requirements for churches

In some areas, places of worship are exempt from stay-at-home orders—yet they should do their part to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. You will need to discover where your faith community lies in the tension between the love and desire for worship and fellowship with the law of loving one’s neighbor as yourself—in this case, protecting vulnerable people by not spreading the virus.

When providing services in person, a religious organization is compelled to:

  1. Abide by local group gathering size limitations. Consider holding additional services to safely accommodate all who wish to attend.
  2. Provide space for individuals to practice social (physical) distancing in line with recommendations from the CDC and Public Health Agency of Canada—individuals should remain at least six feet from people from outside the individual’s household to the extent feasible.

Guidelines for worship services

To help slow the spread of the virus, when conducting services in person, churches ought to consider these recommendations.

  1. Encourage attendees age 65 and older to stay home.
  2. Ask all attendees with underlying health conditions to remain at home.
  3. Require any attendee to stay home if they have had a fever within 72 hours, have a cough, or have had contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 within the previous 14 days.
  4. Encourage anyone in attendance to wear a face mask or covering. Even when people wear masks, it’s important to follow social distancing guidelines.
  5. Keep all children’s and youth ministry spaces closed, including nurseries and other classrooms, unless your church can comply with the current CDC recommendations for child care facilities.
  6. Limit building access to a short time before and after the activity and allow access only to places within the building where proper social distancing can be maintained.
  7. Sanitize seating, restrooms, and other high-touch areas like door handles before and after each service following guidelines set by the CDC.
  8. Conduct temperature checks on all attendees before entering the facility. A temperature of 100.4 degrees is considered a fever and may be a symptom of COVID-19.
  9. Provide hand sanitizer at entrances and throughout the building.
  10. Remove greeting time from the service or implement an alternative that does not involve violating social distancing rules and guidelines.
  11. Refrain from singing. The coronavirus seems to be spread by tiny respiratory droplets. Recent research indicates that these droplets may be emitted not only when people cough, but also when they talk loudly or sing.
  12. Refrain from passing collection plates during the offering. Continue to encourage online giving
  13. Find alternative ways to administer the sacraments that do not include the same surfaces or violate social distancing orders.
  14. Cancel fellowship time or close social gathering areas, like a café.

Guidelines for staff and volunteers

For a church’s staff and volunteers, the organization should consider implementing the following practices:

  1. Provide face masks or coverings for ushers and greeters.
  2. Conduct temperature checks before allowing staff and volunteers into the facility.
  3. Require staff and volunteers to stay home if they are feeling ill—a fever in the last 72 hours, cough, or other symptoms—or have come in contact with anyone who has been sick in the last 14 days.
  4. Maintain a minimum six-foot distance between all volunteers and staff members, including musicians, if your church chooses to play instrumental music in lieu of singing in worship.
  5. If your church operates a child care facility, keep it closed unless the staff is capable of complying with current CDC recommendations for child care facilities. Follow the same recommendations for nurseries, classrooms, and other spaces used for children’s ministry. 
  6. Continue to hold all other gatherings virtually—things like staff meetings, consistory meetings, small groups, and Bible studies. If you do meet in person, everyone should wear a mask and stay at least six feet apart, and you shouldn’t share refreshments or distribute paper handouts.

Communicating with your congregation

In addition, clearly communicating what your organization is doing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus can help your attendees remain safe and healthy. Consider these recommendations:

  1. Before opening the church to services, inform the congregation of what is being done throughout the building to prepare for their arrival.
  2. Inform your attendees what service times are available, and what the options are for viewing, watching, or attending.
  3. Post clear signage reminders about hand washing, social distancing, face coverings, and what preparatory measures your religious organization is taking.
  4. Do not print and distribute paper worship programs.
  5. Find alternative ways to communicate announcements, orders of worship, and other measures and limitations taken by your church—these communications should keep all people informed, whether they are attending in person or remaining at home.
  6. Maintain a plan to continue checking in on elderly and homebound members, and helping support basic needs.

We are all in the midst of major changes in the wake of this pandemic. Figuring out how to safely meet means more than implementing a few sanitary practices. Churches are navigating a whole new normal.

This article was originally published by Bryan Haley of Church Juice, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church. It is adapted and used with permission.

Church is going to look different for a while, courtesy of the pandemic. Interested in thinking through innovation in the church? An innovation learning cohort will be forming this fall. Email Kris Woltjer for details: kwoltjer@rca.org.

About the author

Bryan Haley

Bryan Haley is producer of Church Juice, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America that helps churches with communication.

Grace Claus is resident theologian and editor for Faithward. She’s also senior editor on the Reformed Church in America’s communication team.