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Preparing to Reopen Churches for Worship during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic means churches planning to reopen will have to consider not just how to keep congregants safe, but also how to make them feel welcome. Consider these thoughtful recommendations from Yvette Lau, a pastoral musician, scholar, and teacher serving in Hong Kong.

As pastors and church leaders think about reopening churches for worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many things to consider when there is not yet a vaccine. Surely our actions and habits will be altered; however, this might also be a good time to reflect on past routines and habits and explore new ways to express our Christian emotions and to experience the presence and comfort of God while we worship as best we can within limitations. Though different churches will face their own unique challenges, listed here are some general epidemic prevention measures, some possible adverse effects on worship to keep in mind, and some ways to make worship accessible and meaningful during the pandemic.

Churchwide epidemic prevention measures

General

  • If your country or state limits the numbers of congregants, find an equitable and pastorally discerning way to let members join (e.g., assigned rosters and registration to ensure the roster works well and fairly, rotating members through multiple worship venues so that every member can regularly worship in the main worship space).
  • Decide if both in-person and online services will be offered in the early phases of returning.
  • Limit the number of entrances to enable body temperature checks and other epidemic prevention measures for everyone.
  • Make doors exit-only or entrance-only and, if possible, make hallways one-way.
  • Provide good ventilation in indoor areas.
  • Use air-cleaning devices or germicidal UV lamps.
  • Keep restrooms clean, especially frequently-touched surfaces such as door handles and faucets. Encourage people to limit restroom use. Insist on thorough handwashing and/or hand sanitizing. Provide a sanitizer station in each restroom.
  • Install more hand sanitizer stations throughout the building, especially next to doors.
  • Frequently and thoroughly sanitize floors in high-traffic areas.
  • Sanitize the stationery at the welcome counter.
  • Sanitize the pulpit, microphone, pointers, PowerPoint controllers, and other pulpit supplies before the service begins.
  • Provide suitable personal protection material at the entrances.
  • Do not serve any food or beverages other than prepackaged communion elements.
  • Clearly communicate all safety measures to congregants via different channels before implementation.

For congregants entering the worship space

  • Station ushers at the entrance(s) to take body temperatures (or set up machines to do it).
  • Make sure all congregants wear a mask, whether a disposable surgical mask or a washable cloth mask.
  • Have everyone use hand sanitizer before entering the building.
  • Screen congregants before they enter to make sure they have no COVID-19 symptoms and have not had contact with a COVID-positive person or traveled outside the area in the past 14 days.
  • Record names and phone numbers of all congregants to help with contact tracing.
  • Consider whether elderly people or children should come into the worship space.

For worship

  • No physical touch, including hugs or handshakes.
  • No opening of hymnals or Bibles.
  • No singing, at least not without masks.
  • Close off some seats to maintain social distancing, as in these two examples:

 

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 For communion

  • Use prepackaged communion elements. These can be ordered from church supply stores.
  • To distribute the elements, officiants can wear gloves and, if desired, use a sanitized tool like tongs to place the packaged elements directly into the hands of the congregants.
  • If your church does not already offer digital giving, have congregants drop offerings in a deacon-attended offering plate near the door to the worship space.
  • Have pastors, elders, deacons, and ushers wear disposable gloves while serving communion or collecting offerings.
  • Avoid distributing paper materials such as bulletins.
  •  Cover microphones with disposable or washable covers
  • Have all instrumentalists and tech operators sanitize their hands before touching any instruments or controls.
  • Have all instrumentalists wear masks during worship.
  • Minimize the number of people leading from the front of the worship space.

Individual epidemic prevention measures

Even if the government allows gathering in churches, do not go to church if you:

  •  Have been in contact in the past 14 days with someone who has contracted the virus
  • Have traveled in the past 14 days
  • Have any symptoms of COVID-19 or other illnesses

Bring with you to church:

  • A face-fitting mask—and use it
  • A folder or paper on which to place your used mask if you must put it down. Put used masks face-down on the paper, and be sure to discard the used masks and the paper properly. A pen or key to press elevator buttons or any other buttons or knobs—or sanitize your hands immediately contact.
  • Bottled water, if needed
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Disinfecting wipes

Possible Adverse Effects of Safety Measures on Worship

Worship will be less welcoming

  • Many “procedures” before worship
  • More restrictions on gestures, movement, and seating
  • Literally excluding some people for safety reasons
  • No physical touch for greeting
  • Cannot see people’s faces or expressions
  • Pew bible and hymnal use is off-limits
  • No refreshments or meals for casual fellowship

Worship will have less singing

  • Some churches might not let congregations sing during worship
  • Some churches might sing fewer songs and only with masks on

Worship leaders will face difficulties

  • They won’t be able to see congregants’ faces
  • Congregants (and their singing voices) will be more scattered
  • There will be fewer leaders up front to support each other or share leading responsibilities
  • Wearing masks when leading or singing will sometimes be suffocating
  • More staff or volunteers will be needed to carry out COVID prevention measures
  • Some church members still will not be able to join on-site worship

Ways to maintain hospitality, artistic expression, and leadership in worship

  1. Allow for more space—both physical and temporal—during this time of heavy-hearted abnormality.
  2. Explore ways of reading scripture more vividly and dramatically, and consider adding more Bible readings in worship services.
  3. Think more about how to create useful projection slides to help congregants participate in worship, especially to help them focus on the liturgical actions and understand the actions’ meanings.
  4. Provide both music and lyrics on projection slides to enhance singing.
  5. Use more visual elements to inspire the congregation to express praise, lament, thanks, or other responses to God.
  6. Use songs of lament as prayers either by singing them, reciting the lyrics, or projecting the lyrics for meditation.
  7. Insert more meaningful silences for reflection or prayers.
  8. Create a more meaningful environment for meditation by using appropriate instrumental music.
  9. Make sure congregational prayers are theologically and pastorally sound.
  10. Use the time when the offering would ordinarily be for reflection and personal response, perhaps with music and projected visual elements, and as a reminder of God’s grace and our commitment to offer our lives to God.
  11. Distribute communion packages beforehand to those who cannot join on-site worship so they can participate in communion at the same time as congregants.
  12. Find ways to remember or connect with those who cannot come to in-person worship.
  13. Use more welcoming language to address both the on-site congregation and the online congregation.
  14. Use simple hand or body gestures for expressive worship.
  15. Consider using simple sign language instead of or while singing.

Though things may change and practices may be altered, let us pray that our desire to worship the triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—will never fade away, even during a time like this, but instead be fueled by God’s abundant grace and unfailing love. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable to God even in times of challenge!

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