These are my reflections from what I am seeing on the ground after only 2 weeks of in-person worship gatherings. We began again on May 17. My reflections are operational assessments that may become the lead-in for new strategies. I suspect that results will vary across the wide range of churches and their demographics. Perhaps my experience will help you anticipate some of what you will experience.
1. Time is the biggest factor
We were in a strong growth cycle nine weeks ago when the lock-down began. Winter is always a strong time for our congregation. On our first Sunday, instead of 300, we ran maybe 125 in-person attending. We had a “family-friendly” venue simulcasting alongside the main auditorium venue. We ran two services times. We skipped rows. We had a full task force on hand to take temps, help people get seated, bathroom actively sanitized by contracted custodial crew, active post-service wipe-down, and sanitizing stations ready.
While those were important safety factors, I think the biggest issue is time. No matter our preparations, time is needed for people to re-warm to the church hour. People cooled off to church. Call it whatever you want to call it, assign blame or not, people just need to warm up. My assumption is that whenever churches restart in-person gatherings, they should expect time for the warm-up to happen.
2. Childcare is THE Issue for Young Families and No Sunday School Is the Issue for Older Adults
Most of our families with smaller children are sitting it out. I think this is for reason 1 above but also because of the difficulty of having no nursery. What I am not hearing is fear of Covid-19. People are just struggling to manage kids through a service. We typically ran 80 minute services. We are now running 45 to 47 minute service. I like to preach for 40 minutes. I’ve shaved the message to 27 minutes. Nonetheless, I am not expecting to recover families with young kids until nursery can reopen.
We have not opened our small groups or Sunday Schools for in-person gatherings on-campus. I believe this is driving the absence of some of our older adults. They are not coming, in part, because their classes are not meeting. Until their classes are meeting again, I do not expect to see them often.
3. The Reservations are Real
People are uncertain how to greet. In the South, a handshake is non-negotiable. Most are followed by hugs. Warmth and closeness are partners in the greeting. I noticed people talking softly, singing softly, and uncertain whether to extend a hand or not. This is a massive hurdle that cannot be overlooked.
The second kind of reservation I’m seeing is related to Covid-19 specifically. Our older adults are taking potential infection seriously. They are remaining home. They too need an all clear but from a better-safe-than-sorry perspective. Many of our vulnerable people have reason to be concerned. I expect that group to re-emerge once authoritative sources give the signal that life is safer.
Regaining momentum is going to take time. Though we have not met long, and though one of those meetings was Memorial Day, the atmosphere of those meetings suggested that people are uncertain of the “new” rules. I heard many platitudes, some cavalier talk about returning to in-person gatherings and government conspiracies, but once the opportunity presented most people sat out. Keep your cameras rolling for now. I believe the solution to regaining ministry momentum is to start as soon as you safely can deploy your morning service. You need the time.