Preparing for the New “Normal” When Our Church Gathers Again (In Person)
By David Tarkington
You have likely heard it. You may even have said it during these days of the pandemic
“I can’t wait until things get back to normal.”
This is just my opinion, but I don’t think whatever “normal” was for us prior to the coronavirus outbreak is the “normal” we will experience in the future. I am confident we will not just one day go back to gathering in large crowds at sporting events, shopping centers, grocery stores, or even church.
“Social Distancing” is now firmly set in our lexicon and will likely not go away.
Face masks will be worn by more people on a daily basis even after the concerns of a strong communicable virus are gone.
We will see an increased usage of hand sanitizer.
Those stickers on the grocery floor telling patrons how far to stand from others will remain.
However, I do hope we see more toilet paper available on the store shelves again.
“Normal” Always Changes
Many of us have seen norms change numerous times in our lives.
For those old enough to remember the pre-September 11 world, we know that everything changed that day. Airports changed dramatically and instantly. Security increased. Full-body scanners were installed. Non-flying friends and family members were no longer allowed to sit in the terminal near the entrance to the planes. Things changed and the changes became normal.
That’s just one example, and perhaps the most obvious.
Other things have changed over the years. Most are minuscule and end up becoming memes or social media posts where adults reminisce about how things used to be.
This time, the changes will be global. This time the changes impacts everyone equally. This includes the church.
Now Is the Time to Prepare for Our First Sunday Back
Like others, I am looking forward to our first Sunday back face-to-face as a church family, worshipping together as the assembly of believers. While I am very thankful for the technological advances we have that allow us to stay connected online, these online meetings and gatherings are not sufficient replacements for the in-person gathering of the saints.
There will be a Sunday when the church meets once more in person. When will it occur? What will that look like?
No one knows when, but we can begin to think about what it will be like.
I shared these points with our church leadership and membership this week. These are just thoughts that I have been working through, based on conversations with other pastors and ministry leaders. I know I am not the only one considering these things, but hopefully by putting some of these on a list, we can (or at least I can) be best prepared to lead well during the days of the new “normal.”
Here are some of my thoughts regarding our church’s first Sunday back (these will likely change somewhat)…
On the first Sunday back…
- We will observe of the Lord’s Supper (we have not encouraged our church to partake as an at-home event during this time.) We will provide the elements of the juice and bread in pre-sealed cups with the wafers in the lid (view here) to ensure that no one in the room is touching the bread other than the church member partaking. It also provides a cover over the juice, just in case someone sneezes in the room. We will likely have the cups in the cup holders already in the pews with just a few on a table up front for distribution by our deacons.
- We will likely NOT have Life Groups (e.g. Sunday School, small groups.) initially due to the size of our rooms and the numbers who normally fill them. The spacing between people will be needed and planning well for preschool, children, and senior adults are vital. Therefore, online groups will remain for most initially. This means that we will likely have a family integrated worship experience.
- Our first Sunday back at our primary campus (our church facility) likely will not coincide with the first Sunday back at our extended campuses in the community that meet at the YMCA and an elementary school due to rented/borrowed facility space availability. Those churches that meet in schools or rented property have less control on their scheduling, so legacy churches may be in a position to offer their facilities for neighbor plants needing temporary space.
- What we’re seeing and hearing now leads me to believe when groups are able to gather again, not every group will be able to meet, at least not for unlimited participants. More likely, it will be limited to groups of 200 or less. For some churches this will not be an issue other than the spacing required in worship centers. For our church, this means we will need to restart with multiple services and physical gaps in the building between people so they are not within six feet of others in the room. Families may sit together (they’ve been living together during the pandemic, so this is fine.) We will use every other pew or row so that no one is directly behind another. There will be no shaking of hands or greetings with hugs (or holy kisses.) It will be weird, but will show our members and guests that we understand recommended guidelines and are prepared.
- Our ushers will likely be wearing face masks and opening entrance doors for everyone so no members or guests touch door handles.
- We will not be distributing paper bulletins or programs initially so that we are not handing anything from one person to another.
- My desire is that we have a full worship team and band, but we may have to have the members standing all over the stage and front of the room to provide safe distance.
- I desire to have baptisms that first Sunday back. These symbolic statements through the ordinance of baptism celebrate new life in Christ and we want the baptismal pool filled and ready. My prayer is that many are having gospel conversations now with friends and family members and that as God draws people to himself, we will see a great day of celebrating new birth in Christ.
- On the first Sunday back, I will preach a sermon from the inerrant, infallible, immutable Word of God (just as I always have) with the assembly together in the room, celebrating God’s goodness and grace, reliant on his strength, and fully surrendered to his will. This is a day, with my brothers and sisters together in the same room, I long to experience once more. In the meantime, God is no less good, no less gracious, no less strong, and no less sovereign. In that I rest each day.
All this could change (except for the last bullet point,) but these are my thoughts at this point.
Moving forward, our children’s check-in stations will have to be reworked to eliminate the crowding around the computers. The computer mouse and touch-screens we use for self-check-in will have to be cleaned continually. We will also likely provide face masks for all preschool workers and others as needed.
Most of these things we never considered prior.
The new “normal” may be strange, uncomfortable, and some may say unnecessary, but I believe that the church of Jesus Christ – you know that one the gates of hell will not prevail against – must be focused NOW on honoring him daily in our lives and prepared well to honor him together in the days ahead. All the points above (again, other than the last one) are nothing more than practical guidelines during this season, set in place so that our love for neighbor is clear, as we love our Lord and worship well.
If you have some other things you’re considering for your first day back, please leave a comment below. I would love to hear and perhaps learn from you in this as well.
David Tarkington is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Orange Park, FL.