Small church worship and education options during pandemic

October 18th, 2021

Small churches adapted their educational and worship practices to survive the pandemic. The shifts include four strategies: (1) church at home, (2) expanding the shut-in ministry, (3) never shutting down worship, and (4) hybrid synthesis. With these strategies come new opportunities to adapt worship and Christian education for your settings. In this article, I’ll share effective tips for how to keep worship alive and Christian education vibrant during the pandemic in your congregation.

You are not alone: effective ways to communicate change

Small churches are often isolated from each other, so you may not be aware of how other congregations are coping. Through my work with congregations in Creating a Culture of Renewal®, we've gained wisdom from small churches around the country who are effectively using the following four strategies.

Whatever strategy you use, avoid the tendency of many churches to UNDER-communicate. Churches that under-communicate assume that everyone already knows what is happening. This assumption ensures that you will leave people out as you make changes. When you lose contact with your congregation, you weaken the bonds that will bring people back when it’s safe. Instead, regular communication allows you to stay connected with your people, and to implement the worship and Christian education strategies below.

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How small churches worship during the pandemic

Here are the strategies we've observed in small churches.

Church-at-home strategy

The church-at-home strategy is similar to a home-school setting, and is especially useful if your church is shut down. Here, worship and Christian education is provided at home in a family setting. In a way, family is the ultimate small congregation, as we've known from Rabbinic Judaism for centuries. The long-term value of families worshipping together cannot be underestimated.

Small churches can minister to the “church at home” by delivering weekly or monthly handouts that follow lectionary or seasonal themes. Coordinate worship and Christian education materials so they build on each other.  Several outlets, including Cokesbury Kids provide free downloadables for just this purpose. The Upper Room periodical or other subscription-based devotionals can fill in the gaps. Be sure to include an offering envelope, as well as letters of communication, if email is not being used.


Shut-in strategy

If your congregation has re-opened, but older members are reluctant to return to in-person worship, consider expaning the shut-in strategy.  Similar to the church-at-home strategy (which can be handled digitally), the shut-in ministry is based in delivery of a resource directly to the household.

Just as you ministered to shut-ins before the pandemic, you can deliver to these folk bulletins, Upper Room or other devotional booklets, and pre-packaged consecrated Holy Communion. The major difference is the need to socially distance, including the potential reluctance to have non-family members enter the home. Be sure to include newsletters and an offering envelope in your delivery.

If internet is not available in your setting, both the church-at-home and shut-in strategies can benefit from a conference call phone number. This could be used for bridge-line-based prayer, worship, and brief Christian education sessions.

"Never shut down" strategy

Congregations that never stopped meeting or continued to meet for the most part will want to pay special attention to protecting at-risk populations. This includes folk who are unvaccinated. Be sure to ask people to mask, to sit six or more feet apart during worship, and to use hand sanitizer. The value of meeting together, even under these conditions, cannot be over emphasized. People-to-people contact, worshipping in community, and the joy of seeing familiar faces—while keeping safety practices in place—boosts the spirit and makes glad the heart.

Hybrid strategy

If and when your church began to meet again, it's no surprise that some of your people don’t return. They may opt out, either because of safety concerns or because they just got out of the habit. In this case, developing a hybrid approach to worship and education may be your adaptive strategy. If internet is not accessible, your hybrid approach would sustain delivery to the church at home or to the shut-in folk, even as the rest of your congregation worships in person. Again, be sure to mail or drop oiff offering envelopes or give people an opportunity to give online. If you have internet access, use that to create a hybrid community that allows for people to participate online or in person. At 20 months into the pandemic, churches of all sizes are learning how to livestream worship and Bible Study on Facebook, Zoom, or uploading a recording to YouTube.

It’s time now to plan your next outreach, whether a mailbox delivery for Thanksgiving, a bulletin, or a letter to your congregation. Lead with love, follow up with invitation, and round it out with a call to action.  Ask people to pray for one another, to contribute to or volunteer at a drive-through food bank, or to call their neighbor. Though folk aren’t meeting in person, they can remain connected. Also, don’t forget to ask them to contribute to the work of the church.

Finally, if you are looking for the next best practice while you survive the pandemic, join me for a brand new online short course starting in November: Church Growth: From Barriers to Breakthroughs.

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