The Reopening Challenge

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Reopening Challenge

I recently read of a church in Texas that wanted to reopen so badly that it met social distancing guidelines by limiting seating capacity to 25% and then took reservations for those few seats. I’m sure that facemasks and hand sanitizer were in full play. I have no idea what, if anything, they did for children. Nor can I imagine. Other churches are forging ahead with “drive-in” services in parking lots. 

Most are simply staying online until this mess is over.

But what then? 

Across the U.S. and around the world, churches are wrestling with how and when to reopen. There are at least three dynamics to consider:

1. The Phase

Most states have outlined “phases” or “stages” that they’ll enter if and when certain benchmark criteria related to the virus are met, such as 14 straight days of decline in new cases, the availability of testing and more.

In my state, we are in “Phase 1,” which opens up most businesses to limited engagement, allows non-essential travel, yet continues the “stay-at-home” and “telecommute” requests and limits groups to no more than 10. Yes, churches can meet, but only in an outdoor setting, with masks, staying six feet apart from each other.

Not much to work with there.

Under “Phase 2,” at least in our state, we should be able to reopen our campus for weekday activity, bring staff back to the office, open our on-campus bookstore and café to the general public, encourage small groups to meet throughout the city and hold select classes through our Meck Institute. We will certainly do all of this, and more, if allowed.    

Under “Phase 3,” depending on the cap that is put on the size of large gatherings and the nature of social distancing being called for, we should be able to go forward with our student ministry gatherings. But it may be some time (for us) before weekend services are back; this brings us to the second dynamic.

2. Your Size      

Without a doubt, the smaller your church is, the quicker you will be able to return to normal. Smaller churches will meet the limited-gathering thresholds faster (say, when 100 or 250 are allowed) and will therefore be able to practice social distancing with more ease. Further, many smaller churches do not have a children’s ministry to navigate, at least not for older children.

Larger churches, along with concerts and sporting events, will be among the last to surface. A weekend slate of services at Meck involved thousands prior to the pandemic. Those kinds of numbers are not being affirmed in any “phase” I’ve read about—only when the last, final phase is lifted or a vaccine is found.

What of large churches taking baby steps? Most pastors would say that stop-gap measures are not of much use. Yes, you can take 25% of the church inside on a rotating, reservation basis, but that still leaves 75% of your church gathering online. That isn’t exactly getting back together. And a socially-distanced children’s ministry? I think that’s what they call an oxymoron. Not many people I know want to try to sit through a service – even at 25% capacity – with a squirming two-year-old on their lap. They’re better off watching online during naptime.

All to say, it will be sometime – perhaps not until we are post-vaccine – that we will be able to meet as we did before.

But even then…

3. Their Fear

A recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that not only do most people oppose the recent reopening of most businesses, but that they also do not plan to frequent them. 

People are simply uneasy. Even in the midst of the phased reopening of businesses and restaurants taking place, most wish they would stay closed. 78% say gyms should stay closed, and an even larger 82% say movie theaters should not reopen. Even when reopened, 78% would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant.

All to say, the passing of time has not resulted in a drop in the fear of infection, with 63% of Americans currently saying they are either very or somewhat worried about getting the virus and becoming seriously ill. That is 6% higher than the same question asked two weeks ago. This means that even if churches were to reopen, they would surely find vast numbers voting with their feet and staying home.

So what should churches do? 

I can only say what Meck will do.

At this point, as mentioned, our state’s current “Phase 1” is virtually meaningless to us as a church. “Phase 2” will allow the activity previously detailed, and will be very encouraging to staff and those served by our weekday campus offerings, but that is all. And in reality, the coveted “Phase 3” will probably not hold the kind of release – either actual or emotional – to allow a megachurch to resume weekend services with a full children’s ministry.

So as things now stand, we will continue to engage our community – and community of faith – with full vigor, but we will be offering our weekend services exclusively online for some time to come. Not only will we need to be given permission through whatever “phase” our state might be in that will allow us to actually offer a full weekend service with all of its dynamics, but we will also need to be sure that regardless of the official declaration, people feel confident in their safety to return. And that, I’m afraid, won’t be in a final phase, but rather when we are simply done with phases or when a vaccine is available. So maybe the first weekend after Labor Day? And how surreal is it to write that in the middle of May? 

All to say, there is at least one thing we can say for sure:

Get used to the new normal.

James Emery White


Sources

Dan Balz and Emily Guskin, “Americans Widely Oppose Reopening Most Businesses, Despite Easing of Restrictions in Some States, Post-U. Md. Poll Finds,” The Washington Post, May 5, 2020, read online.
 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.