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Church: Questions you need answered, even if you haven’t asked them yet 

Many of us are eager to hear words like “business as usual” or “back to normal.” As these weeks and months continue forward, however, it is becoming clear that “normal” will not be what we had first hoped or expected. The social and behavioral rules around places like stores, bowling alleys, restaurants, schools, and any other place where “two or three are gathered together” will have a new set of guidelines that govern how we act and interact. 

The church is no exception! The dynamics of church gatherings present questions that need to be answered. Questions such as:  

  1. What will people expect?  
    People will come with varied expectations. Some are saying, “I can’t wait to run around and hug everyone.” Others say, “I will only come if I can do it without touching anyone or anything.”
  2. Who decides what the new rules will be?
    The church leaders need to determine the new social and behavioral guidelines for their congregation. From the parking lot to the coffee pot, passing the plate to passing the peace, people with varied expectations will need to live together within the guidelines set by the congregation's leaders.
  3. How do we prepare for worshiping together with new, ever-changing guidelines?
    It will be much easier to meet if everyone knows the new guidelines for worshiping together BEFORE entering the church.
  4. Can everyone do this? 
    Some individuals
     may need individualized plans for joining in the worship setting.

Tools for Returning

You may also be asking why an organization like All Belong would offer guidance to churches on how to return to hosting in-person worship services. For many years, we have equipped persons with disabilities to thrive in the complex social settings of church and school. We have learned techniques to help persons with autism spectrum disorder understand the rules of the church. We have taught students with anxiety about the new school year and how to prepare for that setting. Ideas we have used with great success over the years are now the tools church leaders need for charting unknown territory in ministry. This time, it’s EVERYONE in your congregation who will benefit from these techniques. The social and behavioral interaction rug just got yanked from under the feet of each person in your community. Here are some ideas for getting the flooring back in place:

1. People will come with varied expectations.

  • Your congregation might benefit from a survey so that leadership can better understand the perspectives of those who will be returning. Here is a sample from Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Alabama
  • It will be important for the community to acknowledge that there are varied expectations among the people. A pastor may want to highlight Scriptures such as Philippians 2:1-4 that allow a congregation to notice that people will come from a variety of perspectives. We will need to practice grace with one another.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

- Philippians 2:1-4

2. The church leaders will need to determine what the social and behavior guidelines will be for their congregation.

  • Some congregations form committees or take their cues from leadership within their denominations. Others have a staff who will make the decisions. However your congregation is being led, it needs to know that there are people in charge of what will happen.
  • Some congregations see a gradual return to being together. Some are exploring small groups for worship, worship in homes, staggering attendance, and offering additional services. Whatever the format, the leadership should consider what processes and guidelines will safely support those gatherings and those who gather.
  • The questions are many. All Belong Member Congregations are thinking about issues such as sanitizing in between multiple services, taking shared hymnals and Bibles out of the church, dismissing by rows, refraining from singing, having offering boxes instead of passing plates, using pre-packaged elements for the Lord’s Supper, closing off the coffee and young-child areas, holding services in cars in the parking lot, continuing to have online options for people in addition to smaller gatherings, and more. The content of these congregations’ conversations makes up their new set of guidelines. These guidelines may change monthly, but it’s an important place to start. It would be helpful to have a written copy of these guidelines.

3. It will be much easier to meet together if everyone is aware of those new guidelines for worshipping with one another BEFORE setting foot in the church door.

  • Consider what hotels put online to introduce people to their setting. They have pictures, words, and testimonials. This would be a great time to make something similar for your congregation. Take photos of how you want people to sit, be dismissed, participate in singing or offering, and many of the areas the leadership discussed. Put those pictures and captions online for people to review and know before attending. As guidelines change, you can update that portion of your website.
  • Prepare a story for people. Here is the beginning of a story that could be completed by people within your church to communicate the new way of worshipping together. Consider asking a small group of people to come to your setting for worship (church, home, parking lot, etc.) and shoot some video of what it will be like when you gather. Let people see the process before they arrive.
  • Some individuals may benefit from attending that setting before others are with them. If you have a congregation member who would benefit from practicing greeting someone the “new way”, then invite that person to come in and practice at a time when there are a very limited number of people. Practice the new offering box, a new way of singing, a new way of walking to the children’s church area, a through new way of… Some people will need to learn through pictures, video, and hands-on (or hands-off) practice.
  • If you are currently showing a video of your worship service, consider introducing some of the new features in that video. If there is now a wooden offering box for people to use, show that to your community and let them know how to use it when they return to the church building.
  • Consider the individuals you may have been reaching during this time of isolation who could access worship or times together BECAUSE you had some online options. Consider how you can still connect with those individuals! The creativity of congregations has been bursting. Keep it up.

4. There are some individuals who may need individualized plans for joining in the worship setting.

  • Be ready to use that creativity. Some people may be unable to tolerate a mask due to sensory issues. Others may expect the church to be a place where people hug one another, and that habit is hard to break. Some may not have the cognitive level to understand many of the changes and come in operating based on how things used to be. Some individuals will need additional creative thinking to be part of that gathering. Come up with a plan within a plan for these individuals.

We are learning from our Member Churches nationwide as we support their efforts to include people of all abilities in worship. This post is one of the many ways we can equip congregations everywhere thanks to the idea-sharing community of our Members in our regular “Tuesdays at 2” online meetings.

Barb Newman 2 April 2011
Barbara J. Newman
Church and School Consultant

Barbara J. Newman (1962-2020) was the Director of Church Services at All Belong. For over 30 years, she endeavored to create communities of inclusion through All Belong. Co-administrating the inclusion program at Zeeland Christian School allowed her to stay on top of best practices which she shared at schools and churches nationwide and in her books and practical resources, including Autism and Your Church, Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, the Inclusion Awareness Kit, Nuts & Bolts of Inclusive Education, and her latest title, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship.