the shape of leadership

Before We Reopen

Seeking the input of your congregation

Kristi Northup on May 26, 2020

As Louisiana prepared to end its stay-at-home orders and enter Phase 1 of reopening, we formed a group to consider next steps for our Assemblies of God congregation, Saints Community Church in New Orleans.

My husband, Wayne, who serves as lead pastor, likened it to Apollo 13, when the most difficult part of the journey was reentering Earth’s atmosphere. He felt reentering physical services had a similar chance of disintegrating before arrival, so he called our group the reentry team.

Everyone came with thoughts and suggestions. They included starting with extra services, adding a family service and doing an outdoor drive-in service. We were all eager to get back to being together.

That is, until we read the state guidelines for houses of worship: no childcare; all staff and volunteers wearing masks and taking their temperature upon arrival; a 16-foot-wide middle aisle; and six feet of distance between family groups.

What would we do about Communion — ask people to bring their own elements? How would we receive the offering? As daunting as these requirements seemed, I’ve heard about even tougher rules for other states, including no singing. As a worship leader, that one is very personal.

Our staff was torn. Those of us with small children envisioned the tantrums and screaming that would disrupt services. Others who work more closely with our elderly members sensed the anguish of those who don’t have the ability to join us online.

After much discussion, we decided to hold off opening in Phase 1 and to survey our people. There was even debate about doing the survey. What if the vast majority want to reopen? What if people say one thing, but do another?

I had heard about a church in Utah where 75% of the congregation said they would return right away, but only a fraction showed up on the first Sunday back. Nevertheless, we concluded we don’t have to be afraid of data. We can’t know what people are thinking if we don’t ask.

We made the survey anonymous so people could answer freely, and it seems they did. The findings revealed answers we did not expect. While not every member of our congregation has taken the survey, we were able to gather information from a representative sampling of attenders.

Only 17% said they would be comfortable coming back as soon as stay-at-home orders were lifted. More than 80% said they would rather wait anywhere from a few weeks to as long as it took for a vaccine to become available.

Nearly 70% of families with children said they would rather wait until kids’ programs opened up, compared with 30% expressing interest in attending a family service.
We can’t know what people are thinking if we don’t ask.

We asked questions about what precautions people would like to see, what online content they have participated in, and whether they were willing to volunteer. Responses were surprising and will be helpful as we continue to plan for the months ahead.

The Church Multiplication Network recently recorded a Zoom call interview with Rod Loy, lead pastor at First Assembly of God North Little Rock in Arkansas, which reopened May 17. Loy said the church saw 15% of its average attendance at the main campus, and 20–30% at other campuses. He cited the absence of kids’ ministry as one of the reasons for the decline in attendance. Loy’s insights were consistent with what we noticed in our survey.

Here are my takeaways from our research:

Don’t be afraid to ask. It’s not difficult to create a survey. We did ours through Google Forms. There are a variety of apps, but that was one we could access for free.

The data may look different where you are. I encourage pastors to conduct their own surveys to identify the needs, challenges and concerns of their congregations.

There may be a silent majority. Sometimes the loudest voices do not represent the majority. Even though several of our older members expressed a desire to resume live services, I suspected there were many who were not as eager when my own in-laws, who attend church every time the doors are open, said it would be a while before they would come back on a Sunday. Our data confirmed they were not alone in feeling this way.

Surprising discoveries are reshaping our response. Based on our findings, we decided to offer smaller men’s and women’s events to accommodate the childcare issue. Attendance at these events will give us an idea of the mood of our congregation as a whole as we move forward.

We don’t want to overlook the real discipleship that is happening remotely. During this time, we have added 20 small groups and had a great response to prayer times and online services. People who were unwilling to attend church before the pandemic are now regularly participating in Zoom small groups and Facebook events.

Knowing the enormous effort it will require to open every week for Sunday morning services in person, we don’t want to end up with weakened small groups or poorly attended Sunday services. We want to make sure we are able to do both things well.

Is it all about attendance? No, it’s not. It’s about people coming to Jesus in an unprecedented time. It is hard to let go of what we know and love, but God is moving in ways we have not seen before.

We make our plans, but the Lord orders our steps (Proverbs 16:9). Let’s keep our hands open, our ears in tune with what the Spirit is saying, and our heads engaged in creative solutions as we face the realities brought on by this global pandemic.

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