What If COVID Becomes a Permanent Reality? 7 Implications for Churches

Do you remember the first time your church responded to COVID? For most of us, it was early in 2020. Hundreds of thousands of churches closed their doors and stopped having in-person worship services.

Many of us thought it was a short-term problem, that in three or four months, we would be back to normal. Then we realized that the problem would not go away soon, so we began planning for quarantines of nearly a year or more. We began to realize “normal” was not coming back, and we did not know what a new normal might be.

Finally, most churches reopened, and people regathered. In July, we thought we had a new independence from COVID. Then came the delta variant, in many ways worse than the previous strains of COVID. Now, we see the omicron variant on the horizon, and we are waiting nervously to see what happens next.

It’s tough to live in such times. And it’s tough to lead in such times, especially if you are leading a mostly volunteer organization like a church.

Our team at Church Answers has been gathering data constantly to do everything we can to help churches and their leaders. Now, we are asking the question, “What if a COVID strain becomes a very long-term or even a permanent reality?” We don’t have all the answers. Only God has a clear view of the future. But we are sharing with leaders some implications for churches. Here are seven of them: 

1. The new ideal capacity for worship space is 60% or lower. We no longer advocate that churches seek to get their worship space to 80% capacity. One of the COVID effects is people wanting greater personal space, even in crowds. While someone might make an occasional exception to attend a sporting event or concert, they do not want to be close to someone in a crowd every week.

2. Most churches should not combine existing worship services. Many churches added one or more services during the pandemic to provide greater social distancing. Members are urging those same churches to combine services to return to the good old days. In most cases, we recommend leaders not yield to the pressure. Social distancing in some form is here to stay.

3. Home groups will become a more significant challenge. We have been surprised to see the resistance to returning to home groups in many churches. Members do not desire the close confines, and the hosts are hesitant to bring different people to their homes every week. We are a big proponent of small groups, and we are concerned that this option may fade away.

4. If your church is not clean and sanitized, it will likely decline and die. This issue is no longer an option for churches. While every area of the physical facilities of churches should be clean, it is especially important for the children’s areas.

5. Digital services will remain a complementary option. The declining numbers of views in most churches are leading some leaders to discontinue digital services. We urge leaders not to shut down the streaming services but to look for new and innovative ways to connect with people through them. The church without a digital service in the months ahead will be like a church today without a website.

6. Horizontal growth will become more critical and common. Churches have typically grown through vertical growth, meaning that they try to get everyone to attend the “Sunday morning service at one site together.” In this COVID world, smaller is better for gathered worship, and smaller is made possible by offering alternatives to gather at times other than Sunday morning in the same place. This pivot might mean offering a Thursday evening service or adopting a declining church and growing at a new site.

7. Small foyers will be detrimental to growth. Again, the long-term COVID effect means people don’t like close proximity to each other in crowds. Many churches have such small foyers that attendees have to move through them quickly since there is little room. Church construction projects will increasingly seek to expand the foyer and, perhaps, decrease the size of the worship center.

We will continue to keep you updated on necessary pivots churches must make if it becomes more apparent that COVID is here to stay.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this trend.

Posted on December 6, 2021

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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  • My church is in MA and reopened as soon as the state allowed (May 2020). Outdoors for a few months, then inside (masks required by state). The Church only did what the state required no more, so when mask requirements were lessened then repealed they were also in the church. A few people still wear masks but most do not. We also did the state-required social distancing only as long as that was required. We only lost 1 member (and he thought we were too concerned about it all), although several continued watching online for quite some time. AND we gained a few people who were looking for a church that was open! We have families and older people not living in fear although if people feel sick or are exposed they of course stay home. Maybe half are vaccinated. We have not had any church outbreaks or cases traced from there.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    In my church we are seeing fewer people sitting close to each other and more people sitting further away from each other. My church has a high per centage of vaccinated people and attendees are encouraged to wear masks voluntarily. Many do. Kentucky is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases again. So is my county. My church has in the past asked people to wear face masks and may go back to that policy, depending upon the local situation. We livestreamed church services on Sundays and recorded them for later viewing on Facebook before the pandemic. Despite their small size home groups are not low risk for virus transmission. In fact, small gatherings were identified as one of the ways that the COVID-19 virus was spreading in the commonwealth. When they gathered with family, relatives, and friends in small gatherings, people let down their guard and infected ech other with the virus. I don’t think that we can generalize from the experience of one church as an earlier poster was attempting to do. We now have a new virus mutation–omicron–to contend with and this variant appears more infectious than previous variants. We have only started the winter months when people will be spending more time indoors and in close proximity to each other. We are deluding ourselves if we think that we can return to pre-pandemic practices. The pandemic has accelerated a number of changes that had already begun to take place before the pandemic. One factor that we need to consider in our planning is our particular community’s attitude toward the pandemic, public health measures, and vaccination. Some communities are less cautious than others, and their lack of cautiousness can influence the thinking of local church leaders. Where the level of cautiousness is low, the risk of transmission is high. This is a “fact of life” in public health. Churches and church leaders, however, need to be guided by the principles that Jesus articulated. Loving neighbor means being concerned about his health, safety, and wellbeing. It is not Jesus’ teaching to say to ourselves, “I have faith and God will protect me and therefore I need not concern myself with what happens to my neighbor. ” The example that Jesus gave us of a good neighbor was a hated Samaritan caring for a Jew who had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The Samaritan gave the Jew first-aid and then arranged for his care. This example points to an entirely different attitude toward our neighbor. We are to see to their wellbeing and not just our own.

    • Loving your neighbor also means knowing when to shut up and mind your own business. This pandemic has given me a new appreciation for what the Bible says about “busybodies”.

      • Robin G Jordan says on

        I don’t believe that Jesus would agree with you, Ken. He would say that loving your neighbor is not making the kind of remark that you just made.

    • Actually, Jesus often made the kind of remarks I made. Read the New Testament if you don’t believe me. Do you think Jesus would approve of your sanctimonious and judgmental attitude?

      • Robin G Jordan says on

        There was a big difference between Jesus’ righteous anger and your choice of words. Your use of Jesus as an excuse for harsh words reveals more about you than it does me. Seems like you have a problem with anyone disagreeing with you. Maybe you need to work on that. You might start by reading Timothy 3: 3 and Titus 1:7. “He is not pugnacious or belligerent. His temper is under control. He is not given to quarreling or fighting. He has a conciliatory bent. His feelings are not worn on his sleeve. He does not carry resentments. He is not hypercritical.” God bless you, Ken. May he fill your life and ministry to overflowing with his grace and give your a heart and mind open to his grace that you may use it to grow in every way as a pastor of your church and an underdershepherd of Christ’s flock. May God bless you with every spiritual blessing all of your days.

  • Great stuff all around! I think this is a big reason to make sure digital home groups have a role in your church. It doesn’t offer the same side-by-side growth that in-person can, but we’ve continued to see growth in all forms of our small groups – online only, in-person only, and hybrid.

  • Rob Guilliams says on

    I have to disagree with some of this. Our church has a small foyer, we have already recombined worship services, and we have not only continued but added new home groups during the pandemic. We have actually grown in membership and have seen an increase in giving during the pandemic. Yes, some people will desire the increased space and will continue to be fearful of crowds, but in general, I think people want to get back to normal and most are willing to do that.

  • We are seeing more COVID case within our congregation (thankfully not spread at church…yet) than at any time during the pandemic. This reflects the reality in our state, too (MI). Generally people are less ill, but some are not. While we did well in attendance and giving throughout the pandemic to this point, this new wave seems to be impacting both.

    I think we need to give careful consideration to what this article says, especially about people being less willing to sit close to others they may not know well. We have kept both our services (over the objections of some as the article mentions) for just this reason, and we see some people spreading out more, while others are comfortable with less space.

    Let the balancing act continue!

  • T. Chad Winder says on

    I will third Nick’s comments. I think the points in the article are fair but we need to be careful not to stop there. (This is not likely what Thom is saying.) But, we absolutely have to be intentional in our discipleship of people that we make it clear that despite the dangers of gathering, it is still how God designs us to be as believers. The underground Chinese church serves as a great example to us in this area. Week after week they meet despite the danger of arrest or even death.

    Thanks for putting these helpful ideas out, but let’s make sure we communicate that meeting is essential to the life of the church and that none of these are good reasons to choose a church or to leave a church. Whether the gospel is being preached and whether God is being worshipped in Spirit and Truth is paramount and trumps the danger inherit in meeting.

  • Something “strange” happened at Salem Alliance Church in Salem, Oregon, my parents’ church. During Easter 2020, while churches were not allowed to be open for gatherings, so online service was the only method, one of the pastors mentioned each of us being a “mobile tabernacle.” Small groups of people were allowed to meet in each other’s homes, so congregants ran with this idea and started forming home churches, much to the surprise of the leadership.

    This notion grew and spread and soon there were home churches beyond Salem meeting together, watching the live stream service. Even when the churches were permitted to open again and SAC, a church with a few thousand attendees figured out how to safely return to multiple services, the home churches continued to flourish. Church leadership has embraced this new model of ministry as having been birthed by the Holy Spirit and sees it as a different way of “coming to church,” not by the front doors, but by the side doors. Home churches have materials to study the sermons and have discussions together and be able to go deeper.

    3000 miles away in Canada, my pastor and I discussed attempting this and realized that sadly, at that same time, we did not have the same liberty as we were definitely prohibited from meeting in each other’s homes. Our rural internet, already rough in most areas of town, is not stable enough at the church to allow for live streaming, so we relied on pre-recorded messages by the pastor. Even now, with the church open, we find ourselves told to make difficult choices by the government if we want to do certain things in the building versus doing them online.

    It is both an exciting and difficult time to be in leadership and see what the Lord is doing.

  • Seth Pitman says on

    I would have to agree with Nick Stuart on this one. People will “sacrifice” being in a crowd for things they want to participate. However, I do believe that the perception of one’s spacial reality is becoming defined by being spread out. So, on that note, I doo agree that churches will see design changes and capacity changes that will help people feel comfortable being in a group.

    The bottom line does come down to what is important. If one feels being together for church is important, then one will find a way to be together regardless of the situation. Where I serve–in rural America, we have one case of COVID currently in out entire county. Out people are a social people and are conducting themselves at a pre-COVID mentality at the moment. We want to be together, so we are.

  • Nick Stuart says on

    By and large people will accept being in a crowd for something they want: sportsball, holiday shopping, concerts, theme parks, standing on line for vaccinations, etc.

    Maybe the thing is to be helping the congregation understand that gathering together is something they need, and helping them want it by making it a worthwhile experience (starting with sound preaching and a music set that doesn’t drive people away).

    Maybe deemphasize the amount of resources devoted to streaming the services, but continue to make a good solid webcast of the service available for people who for whatever reason CAN’T be gathered together with the body of believers.

  • Michael Huff says on

    COVID is a permanent reality. It is here to stay.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are likely right, Michael.

    • …but the pandemic is not here to stay… I hope to see more churches helping get the vaccine out as anecdotally it seems those who profess a Bible-based faith are some of the lowest groups with the vaccine.

      • The pandemic will last as long as we let it. It’s time for it to end. The vaccine isn’t going to do it. Not with its endless boosters and more and more variants.