By Kristin Schultz
Calling the last seventeen months a roller coaster is an understatement. With a decrease of COVID-19 cases and the availability of vaccines, churches and ministries are opening their doors and taking steps toward something more similar to 2019 than 2020.
While this return to normal is cause for praise and celebration, some sobering statistics have emerged. In 2020, Barna reported that nearly one-third of churchgoers stopped attending church, virtually or in person, when the pandemic hit. According to a June 2021 poll, 73 percent of people who attended religious services before the pandemic plan to return to their houses of worship.
So how do we reopen? How do we reconnect with each other and welcome new people?
At some point during the last year and a half, we have all felt disconnected from each other, the world, and possibly from the Lord. For us to reengage those we haven’t seen in a while, we must connect with them personally. Compile or find a list of people who regularly attended before the pandemic, then call everyone on that list. If the list is lengthy, recruit volunteers to help. Use these calls as a chance to reconnect. Ask them about their well-being, changes in their lives and questions they have about returning to church.
Create opportunities for connection between ministry participants as well. Over the last year, some people may have left your church while new people may have joined your ministry. Encourage ministry and small group leaders to reach out to everyone, whether they previously attended your church or they are brand-new, in order to connect. Events like bonfires, walking or hiking groups, and community service groups, give people who have been isolated the chance at connection.
Peoples’ lives have changed. As we reopen, it’s more important than ever that we put others first. When welcoming worshipers and staff back, understand that they have different expectations and comfort levels.
People have new expectations of cleanliness. Consider making hand sanitizer available. If you’ve implemented enhanced cleaning procedures in high-traffic areas, be sure that all the volunteers know how to perform cleaning tasks and that people are aware of the new protocol.
Distancing and mask regulations may be loosening but, some people still might feel more comfortable wearing a mask or sitting far away from others. Let people worship and participate to the extent they feel comfortable. Respect personal decisions people make to protect themselves.
Consideration must also be given to the local and national authorities. It can be hard to understand or follow evolving guidance, but it is important for the health and well-being of our people—God’s people— to keep them safe. Mask mandates may change and evolve but praise the Lord that we can gather in our Father’s house – masks or not.
Also consider that the people who went home in March 2020 are not the same people now that they were then. Find out who has lost a job, moved, been hospitalized, lost a loved one, or experienced mental health difficulties. Bring people who have experienced the same challenges together so they can support one another. The Lord may be calling you to brand-`new ministries that serve those who are hurting. These ministries provide comfort and connection for God’s children.
Communication is the key to any effective ministry. As people return, it is even more important to overcommunicate so that everyone knows what to expect.
Let people know the safety measures you are taking, such as new nursery or gathering procedures.
Be clear about changes to programs like Bible studies, worship services, and children’s ministry. If you’ve reduced the number of people in groups to keep gatherings smaller, make sure those returning know which in-home groups have room. If you’ve added services to allow for more distancing, ensure everyone is aware of the new times.
How we communicate has also changed. Make sure everyone that needs to receive a weekly email newsletter is signed up and is receiving it—they may need to check their promotions tab or junk/spam folders if they aren’t receiving communication. Keep people updated with posts to your church social media. Also, starting a social media group is a way wonderful way to allow people to stay connected outside of church gatherings. These are also a great way to invite people to get involved.
Make sure those who do not have access to email are on a list to receive a call or weekly mailing of new opportunities.
Americans have also increasingly turned to social media to stay connected. Consider starting Facebook groups so people can stay connected, communicate and pray for one another regularly, not just on Sunday mornings. These groups are also great ways to invite new people to get involved.
Returning to church will not be a return to normal, but through prayer and thoughtful connections, the Lord will use you to gather his faithful in praise and worship and to share the Gospel.
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