Ed Stetzer and Josh Laxton on What Relaunching the Church Might Look Like Over the Next 3–12 Months

Photo by Andreas160578 from Pixabay/Creative Commons

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Today, we are in the midst of a crisis that is forcing the church to learn a new song and dance.

Back on March 19, Tomas Pueyo published an article titled “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance.” In that article, he argued for strong measures (Hammer) to be taken early to flatten the curve of the virus’ affect. During this time of strict measures, Pueyo noted that it would allow the healthcare systems and scientists—along with the federal and state governments—time to better address the virus.

After Hammer time, Pueyo explained it would be dance time until there is a vaccine. He explained,

We call the months-long period between the Hammer and a vaccine the Dance because it won’t be a period during which measures are always the same harsh ones. Some regions will see outbreaks again, others won’t for long periods of time. Depending on how cases evolve, we will need to tighten up social distancing measures or we will be able to release them.

We believe we are moving in the direction of Dance time—call it the “COVID-19 Dance.”

Without getting too technical—because neither one of us are dance experts—in dance, there is the rhythm of the dance, the rules (techniques) of the dance, and the moves of the dance.

It will be incumbent on church leaders to learn this new dance as we gear up to relaunch the church.

The Rhythm: The Proposed “Gating Criteria”

This past Friday, President Trump released guidelines for “Opening Up America Again.” This was welcomed news. It was welcomed because many wanted to at least know what the COVID-19 Task Force was thinking with regards to reemergence from this crisis (although the federal government is leaving up the reopening of America to state governors).

According to President Trump and his team, the task force has created a “Gating Criteria’ followed by three phases. Their proposed criteria is as follows:


Downward trajectory of influence-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period


Downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period


Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period


Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)


Treat all patients without crisis care


Robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing


When an area meets the gating criteria, they enter into Phase 1. According to the proposed plan, individuals in Phase 1 should continue to shelter in place and maximize physical distance from others—including avoiding social settings of more than 10 people (unless precautionary measures are observed). Specific types of employers, which includes churches, under Phase 1 “can operate under strict physical distancing protocols.”

To move from Phase 1 to Phase 2, the gating criteria would need to be applied again. If areas meet the symptoms, cases, and hospital criteria, they can move into Phase 2, which includes individuals maximizing physical distance from others and avoiding social settings of more than 50 people (unless precautionary measures are observed).

Also, under Phase 2, non-essential travel can resume. However, employers are still encouraged to allow their employees to telework. Furthermore, specific types of employers—sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, and places of worship—can operate under moderate physical distancing protocols.

Phase 3 happens when states and regions satisfy the gating criteria a third time. At this point, even vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions while practicing physical distancing and minimizing exposure to settings where distancing may not be practical. For specific types of employers, which once again includes places of worship, they can meet under limited physical distancing protocols.

Even if everything goes according to plan and all the gating criteria is met three times to move a state or region to Phase 3, that area is still looking at a month and a half (6 weeks) before life returns to somewhat of a normal state.

This means some parts of the U.S. will open sooner than others. One area might be in Phase 3, while another hasn’t even moved into Phase 1. This may mean that one area might be moving from Phase 1 to 2, only to have an uptick in cases and death and have to return to ground zero. As you can see, the situation remains volatile—at least until there is zero cases or a vaccine is created.

The Rules: Defining Strict, Moderate, and Limited Physical Distancing Protocols

Within the three phases you’ll find the “strict,” “moderate,” and “limited” physical distancing protocols. But what do these mean? You’ll be hard pressed, at least right now, to find the definition of each of these terms—particularly with regards to the physical distancing protocols.

According to the CDC’s website, social distancing (or physical distancing) means:

  • Stay at least 6 feet from other people
  • Do not gather in groups
  • Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings

In light of the CDC’s stance on physical distancing, it seems that strict protocols would be pretty much what we have now. Therefore, in Phase 1, there wouldn’t be that much change with regards to church gatherings.

However, in states and regions that move to Phase 2, where there would be moderate protocols in place, it seems there would be a possibility to slowly (gradually) introduce physical gatherings.

So, what would moderate protocols entail? Taking into account what was shared at the very beginning of the crisis regarding group gatherings, information from the CDC’s website, and language used to describe what businesses can do from the “Reopening America” plan, we would assume moderate protocols would entail:

  • Sanitation precautions
  • Safety precautions
  • Size of gathering precautions

Sanitation precautions. This involves cleaning surfaces that are frequently touched—doors, rails, countertops, bathrooms (with schedules posted of the last time they were cleaned), etc. In addition, making hand sanitizer (disinfecting wipes) readily available throughout the building. The CDC also gives guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting.

Safety precautions. This may involve providing masks or gloves for people coming to worship. This may involve having greeters with masks and gloves opening doors for people. This may mean posting signs that communicate a restriction in being in close proximity to others—basically preventing socializing in small groups from happening during the gathering. In addition, this may mean having no children’s ministry for a time—only allowing family worship. Furthermore, this may include spacing out the seating in the church’s auditorium and adding multiple worship services. For example, you may block off every other row or pew, and make sure there is six feet between families or attendees in the rows.

Size of gathering precautions. Under a moderate protocol, it would be wise to think about gatherings of around 50.

With regards to Phase 3, under limited physical distancing protocols, we don’t think much will change between the sanitation and safety precautions churches should take. However, we do believe the size of gathering precautions will continue to lift. In other words, it may move from 50 to 250… to 500… etc.

One of the things we are doing is monitoring professional sports and how they begin to gradually emerge during the crisis. For instance, the PGA tour as of this writing (April 20) is talking about getting back to tournament play in June without spectators. As July rolls around, it will be interesting to see how their plan to readmit spectators evolves.

Again, as of this writing there is no definition around “strict,” “moderate,” or “limited” protocols. We’re under the assumption that at some point state governments will define their own gating criteria along with their protocols.

The key for churches is to learn the dancing rules so that they can move with the rhythm of COVID-19. And although there are no specific rules now, there are guidelines to help churches prepare now for gatherings under moderate and limited protocols.

The Moves: How Churches Can Move to the Rules and Rhythm of COVID-19

As things begin to gradually open back up, our churches will go through a series of steps in the relaunch over the next several months or so (see the figure below).

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Source: Christianity Today