Five Early Findings from Churches That Are Regathering

The regathering of churches for in-person services is garnering a lot of attention in both the religious and secular media. I totally get that. There are very few organizations other than churches that meet as a large group every week. The implications are significant. 

We are following closely as more churches open for in-person gatherings. While we are not yet seeing even half of the churches open, more are added each week. It thus behooves us to get these early reports. Those that are open will be making adjustments. Those that are not yet opened can plan accordingly.

For now, we see several early trends. The list is not exhaustive, but these five findings are the most common we are observing. 

  1. Most churches are cooperative with local and state officials and desire to comply with their guidelines. While the media will highlight adversarial relationships between churches and governments, such tension is simply not the norm. To the contrary, the vast majority of church leaders desire to work with governmental entities. The real story is not a battle between church and state, but a cooperative spirit between the two.
  1. Early attendance is significantly lower than the pre-quarantine era. At this point, one-half of the churches we have surveyed have an attendance of 60 percent or less than the pre-quarantine numbers. We rarely hear of a church that has an attendance of 80 percent or higher. For now, those churches are the outliers. 
  1. Returning senior adults present a unique challenge for many church leaders. We have numerous reports that senior adults are among the most eager to return to in-person services. Frankly, this trend is going contrary to our initial expectations. We thought most senior adults would be the last returning group because of potential health concerns. But as many of these older adults return, leaders are concerned how to minister to them spiritually and protect them physically. 
  1. The negative church members and naysayers are back. When the pandemic began, many churches had to hit the pause button on a number of fronts and issues. One of the unintended positive consequences was the pause taken by the negative church members. It has been a blissful silence for churches. Now that churches are planning to regather, the pause is lifted and the acrimonious few are back. 
  1. Most churches are utilizing some type of extra service at least for the short-term. The regathering churches are adding space to allow for social distancing. Some are adding services. Others are adding overflow rooms. Some are doing both or providing other creative solutions. The need for extra space has been exacerbated by children coming to the worship services who were previously segregated in their own age-graded area. 

For certain, the way churches are returning is changing regularly. These five findings will undoubtedly change as church leaders make necessary adjustments. Stay posted to as we continue to provide the latest updates on the regathered church.

Posted on June 7, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Our church reopened in person on 5/31/2020 and only about 25% of the church members showed up in person, and that has continued. I only watch the contemporary service on YouTube, but sometimes (in addition) I will also go back and watch everything but the sermon for the Blended Service. [I actually like YouTube because I have more time. I get up at the same time as I used to and I have been able to add a 2nd Sunday School Class (via Zoom) to my agenda. In addition, I am able to hear the whole sermon of Dr. David Jeremiah on TV, where before, I had to leave about 10 minutes before he finished.] If I could continue this forever and then also have a pot luck once a month where I got to visit with people, I would be a happy camper. 🙂 I think that our church actually has more people watching on YouTube than would show up on Sunday mornings. The big issue is the money. Our church has been struggling for a long time any way and 80% of our income is put into the collection plate. I am making sure that I send a check every month, but I sent in a check around 5/24 and it still hasn’t gone through yet, so I think that the US Postal System is extremely slow. I think in the future, I am going to drop it off at the front desk instead–and I will wear a mask when I drop it off, and I think I will be able to stay 6 feet apart from the one or two people I might encounter when I do that. I had to stop by and pick something up yesterday and the only person I saw was the custodian and we were both wearing a mask.

  • I am sorry that I cannot attend this webinar. I have a passion for this kind of work. I am teaching Bible Study on Zoom at 10 am this morning Mountain time. Is there a way to view this webinar at another time?

  • Hey all….
    I am resigning my ministry position here in the northeast, which is normal except for covid! What can I do to end things well in this pandemic time?

  • James M. Runnels says on

    We have found that people won’t return to Church because they don’t want to wear a mask. That is the one thing that keeps them from returning? Wow! What will the they do when persecution comes?

    • How sad that so many people believe this. There is NO logic to justify this dangerous opinion. If I go to your church Sunday and you don’t wear a mask, I will have to leave. I’m 70 with health issues. I cannot afford to get sick because you don’t care. My children have left the church because they say the people do not care. I wonder who these people are that’s running people away from the church. Any ideas? If wearing a mask is keeping you away from church. Don’t come.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        I would say people should wear a mask if only to make others feel secure ….. even though wearing a mask doesn’t protect anyone.

  • Local Minister says on

    I serve a small congregation in a rural location with mostly “at risk” attenders. But the observations are close to the target–we have been allowed “in person” services (with social distancing and not more than 33% of full capacity) for the last two weeks. We, per the governors directive, urge (but do not require) wearing a mask–but less than 1/2 who are attending are actually wearing them during the service. We are under strict “no touch” guidelines so we are not offering coffee, shaking hands, etc.. We are not allowed to have large group Sunday School or youth ministry activities. As of June 7th we had an almost 50/50 split of those who came “in person” and those who continued to watch the livestream only.

    We do weekly communion so we are now forced to use “pre-packaged” cups with wafers that they pick up as they enter the building as opposed to “passing the tray.” Our online giving has increased since the “pandemic” but more are actually just mailing their checks to the physical location for our treasurer to pick up.

    Thankful for the “faithful saints” who are willing to possibly risk to be present–they are the ones I thought would be slow to return–but they were actually the first ones to respond to the invitation to return.

    It seems everyone is at a different place–some may not return at all (?–I hope not), others will not return until some legal authority gives them the “all clear.” Others will not return until they are somehow certain that their health issues will not be compromised. Some who have attended “in person” were left wondering why we ever stopped having services in the building at all?!

    It has been a steep learning curve for me, and something our congregation was TOTALLY unprepared for, but something that God continues to bless us through.

  • We are not regathering for a while. It is not safe enough, let alone “safe”. While the numbers of infections are down in our state, it is because so many people have taken seriously the “shelter-in-place” and face mask policies. COVID-19, however is not gone. Some of you might want to equate the virus to evil, in however you understand it. It does not die, it may ease off, but, like most things that are dangerous, deadly, it is always lurking around the corner, just waiting for you to let your guard down. COVID-19 is not a myth. it is a real danger. I pray for you all, for your heath, for your life. I pray that you do indeed beat the odds.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      “Shelter-in-place” and face mask policies are more hurtful than helpful. If you are high risk these measures may be helpful, but the majority of the populace does not need to be shielded from the virus. The shelter-in-place and face mask policies shows how easily people have been manipulated.

      • Alaina Kelly says on

        I agree totally masks are unhealthy and ineffective.

        When the Mask Wearing Church goers start pointing fingers and determining who should go to Church and who shouldn’t. uhohhh, when the Church implodes from the inside with tattles and finger pointing and false accusations based on biased feelings, how attractive that is going to be. Not good.

        I wonder what the Church forefathers would think of todays churches…. I can only wonder

  • The is also the aspect of Holy communion that must be considered once meeting in person resumes. Regardless of it is passed down the pews or distributed at the rail, people get in close proximity to others and no one knows if someone is contagious and others do not want to contract the virus.
    Cancelling the online service as soon as in-person resumes only means that the cautious people will Switch to another church’s feed.

    • Alaina Kelly says on

      We are all in close proximity with eachother, how about the Essential Tim Hortons servies, or Walmart or Superstore, how about the Liquer Store. I consider Communion essential, and I will not die from Covid because the Church takes communion, I drink a Tim Hortons like daily, still alive and well.

  • Something I find really dismaying is the number of churches I see who have completely dropped the ball on continuing to stream their services once they return to in-person meetings. Most of the time, the people who are willing to return to in-person are a small but vocal minority while the bulk of the congregation is not ready to return physically. I’ve seen so many churches reopen with no plan for how to address the two thirds of the congregation who’d rather stay home and then have to scramble to figure out how to continue to stream without being distracting for those who are in the room. This is exacerbated by the fact that many churches have been offering pre-recorded services during the pandemic and have not invested in live streaming technology. Leaders must consider how they will continue to offer their services online and in-person if they choose to got that route.

    • The problem, speaking from my context, is unless we gather in a place other than our sanctuary there is no way to live stream. Just the dynamics of the campus and having a sanctuary physically separated from the office building (by ~300-350 feet). I would imagine most smaller churches are going to have to deal with live streaming/remote worship in unique ways. Not the least of which is staffing. I think, with most things in this world, if leaders communicate the options and solutions proposed whatever is offered for worship will be graciously accepted.

      In 14 weeks on no in-person worship, with all the hiccups and “mistakes” (human issues like forgetting to edit out the extraneous movement) from the last service, no one has said what we’ve offered hasn’t been helpful.

    • Live-streaming isn’t always feasible. What if you don’t have WiFi in the sanctuary and it would be prohibitively expensive and structurally disruptive to install it? Prerecorded services are better than nothing. We are planning to continue our prerecorded offerings once we do return to in-person worship.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Some people are more cautious than others. The more cautious people are going to be slower to return to the building than the less cautious ones. Pastors and other church leaders may not realize it but from the perspective of someone who has been studying how COVID-19 is transmitted and what kind of precautionary measures a church needs to take to prevent it from becoming the nexus of a new cluster of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the precautionary measures that they are implementing in their churches are woefully inadequate, based upon their self-reporting. Cautious people are apt to pay more attention to the latest findings on the transmission of the virus and the most effective precautionary measures. When they weigh what their church is doing, they conclude that it is not really taking the pandemic seriously and it is not really doing enough to protect its attendees. Pastors and other church leaders may dismiss their concerns but that may be a part of the problem.

    As they consider a return to the building, pastors and other church leaders need to be considering their attitudes toward the pandemic, the attitudes of their church’s members and regular attendees, and the attitudes of the different segments of the community. I live in a region of Kentucky in which its residents are not in agreement regarding the serious of the pandemic and the need for precautionary measures to protect congregations and communities from the virus. This division which often reflects the political divisions in the region affects pastors and other church leaders as well as the rest of the region’s population.

    In the case of senior members attachment to the building and other factors may override their caution. The Sunday before last most of the members of the church that I have in the past served as a preacher and service leader returned to their building for an in-person service. What prompted this decision was the arrival of an out of state couple who sometime attend the church. They have a second home in the area. They had decided to travel even though their state and Kentucky advised against out of state travel. As far as I know, they did not observe the 14-day quarantine that Kentucky was urging out of state visitors to observe. In their state crowds ignoring precautionary measures and gathering in close proximity to each other made the news over the Memorial Day weekend. The two local members who had been pressing for a return to the building had been attending another church that did not temporarily suspend its in-person despite the urging of the governor.

    Another factor which may have contributed to their return to the building may have been the President who urged churches to reopen their doors on that Sunday.

    Most of the church members are elderly and have underlying conditions. They erroneously assumed that their gathering would be safe because it was a small one—less than 10 people. One of the reasons that churches were at one point restricted to gatherings of 10 or less people was that smaller gatherings reduced the number of people who might be infected if one or more of the participants had COVID-19. When the gathering is a small one it is much easier to do contact tracing. Small gatherings are not “safe.” They simply reduce the risk of infection assuming that the participants are maintaining social distancing, wearing face masks, and not engaging in activities that increased the likelihood of the transmission of the virus such as singing, loud talking, and eating from a common dish. There is also the assumption that the participants are themselves observing appropriate precautionary measures outside of the gathering. A small gathering in which the participants are not taking care to implement recommended layers of protection—social distancing, face masks, etc., and in which one or more of the participants have not been personally observing such precautionary measures can become the nexus of a cluster of COVID-19 cases and deaths as much as a larger gathering.

    The members who returned to the building have an attachment to the building which the church has occupied for 15 years. They have an attachment to each other. They also have an attachment to the formal liturgy that comprises their Sunday worship. These attachments and the view that the COVID-19 pandemic is not as serious as the health experts claim, a view verbalized by one member and reflected in the actions of several members and those of the pastor whose church two members were attending until their own church resumed in-person services led them to make what may prove to be a reckless decision.

    Church leaders have a responsibility to their church and their community. It does not matter what other churches are doing. It does not matter what politicians are saying. It does not matter what protesters are doing. What matters is the safety of the church and the community. We should be leery of muddle-headed thinking which concludes that because others may not be doing the right thing or urging us not to do the right thing, we should not do the right thing. It may be a hackneyed saying but “it is better to be safe than sorry!”

    • Craig Giddens says on

      The lockdown was and continues to be ineffective and destructive,

      • I might agree with destructive to a lot of society and the social structure. But, given the hard evidence around the world regarding the effectiveness of lockdown vs. no lockdown (New Zealand vs Sweden), if a lockdown were taken seriously and people didn’t scoff at it, the health effects regarding the pandemic support lockdown.

      • What authority are you to say it has not been ineffective? I believe you are wrong. This is a world wide pandemic. If you are from an are that has little or no death and hospitalizations from Covid-19, you should thank the Lord. It’s not like that in the real world.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Carl Cavitt says on June 10, 2020 at 7:40 pm
        What authority are you to say it has not been ineffective? I believe you are wrong. This is a world wide pandemic. If you are from an are that has little or no death and hospitalizations from Covid-19, you should thank the Lord. It’s not like that in the real world.

        I’m sorry Carl, but you are the one living in the fake world. The fact is you have absolutely no idea how many Covid-19 infections and deaths there are. No idea! Should we take Covid-19 serious? Absolutely, but the shutting down and sheltering in place will prove more destructive than helpful.

    • I imagine our state association has an attorney on retainer. WWDJD (what would a Doctor of Jurisprudence do?) What is the liability of a church who goes against the State, or CDC recommendations. What is the liability of the church who allows it’s members to not wear masks?

    • Frank Johnson says on

      Thank you for this thoughtful and thorough assessment.

  • Our “gathering again” services have been (surprisingly) just about “normal” attendance – if you count those that are joining online as they are gone on vacation, our attendance is above our average. Our congregation has all ages – but especially younger families. We’re in a rural area, but close to town. We have also been meeting outdoors – something that we are familiar with already.

  • We are 35 miles S of Metro KC. We were down from 180-190 to 50 at the early service, & 103 in the second service(subtract 12 repeaters). We set up for physical distance seating, and it worked well. Our people paid little attention to physical distancing otherwise. They stood in groups w/o masks and caught up on the latest events. We did not require masks be worn. Only 2 wore masks out of all who were present. We live streamed and a few caught the service that way. Sunday School – 125 present preschool through senior adults. 2 children’s classes with 6-8 in each had class on the church lawn. Lots of teens. For us it was a very normal mix of ages.

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