What should churches do as they consider reopening after the coronavirus?

Note: This article is intended as a starting point for your church as you consider the right course of action for your local congregation. Leaders will need to make wise decisions for their local church in line with local, state, and national guidelines, considering the needs and safety of their church members and community.

When should churches reopen their doors to allow in-person worship? This is a question that is on the minds of pastors and church leaders around the country. Bound up with this question are a whole host of others, too: What benchmarks will signify that it’s safe to gather again in person? When we do reopen, what precautions ought we to take?

Admittedly, there is no one-size-fits-all plan that will work for every church. Not only that, but we’re nowhere close to a “return to normal,” as many public health officials warn. Additionally, how and when churches reopen will vary from church to church based on size of congregation, location, local and state guidelines, the number of cases in their area, the demographics of their congregation, and the willingness of their members in returning to onsite gatherings. New information arrives each day, and with it the landscape seems to be changing constantly. But here are four things every church can do as they start to ask when the right time is to reopen their church.

What should churches do as they consider when to reopen? 

A previous article laid out four primary suggestions churches should consider when determining how they should respond to the coronavirus. In many respects, the same four suggestions remain—they merely apply to a different question now. Here are those suggestions and how to apply that same principle now:

First, churches should identify reliable, local sources of information. It may be obvious to say we need expert, reliable information, but it’s more critical than ever that we identify relevant local information as well. Some communities are reeling with overcrowded hospitals and large numbers of cases while other communities have seen far fewer. Churches need to take these factors into consideration. Regardless, choices must be made based on objective data, not subjective impressions.

Second, churches should assess their practices. There are all sorts of things that we take for granted as a normal part of church life—ranging from handshakes and greeting times to passing the offering plate and singing—which take on new significance and risk in a world rightly concerned with contagions. Churches should think through every aspect of the churchgoer’s experience, asking where the risks are and how people can be protected.

Third, churches should overcommunicate their plans. Go far beyond what you think might be necessary to explain to people what measures have been put in place and how their safety has been prioritized. Clear, careful, and intentional communication in advance of what you are doing, and why, is necessary and helpful. Internally, make sure different ministries are not communicating conflicting things. If you are requiring certain practices at church gatherings, communicate what those are repeatedly and carefully. When plans are undetermined or subject to change, be transparent about when decisions will be made and what will guide that decision. It’s difficult to overdo this step.

Fourth, churches should encourage their people. Even if churches put together incredibly well-designed safety measures, even if the curve flattens dramatically, and even if local authorities give the all-clear, there are still people who, understandably, are going to be anxious and/or cautious about returning to church. In many cases, they may be right to feel this way. In every case, be quick to be understanding.

How are churches considering plans to reopen? 

To get as practical as possible, we asked dozens of pastors around the country what criteria they were thinking through in order to make these determinations. Below, you’ll find synthesized responses from pastors and church leaders of all different sizes (from small churches to megachurches and everywhere in between) situated in widely different contexts (ranging from rural to urban to suburban areas).

What phased plans are churches considering?

Rather than a concrete timeline, many churches are developing plans in concert with their state and local government recommendations, as well as CDC large-gathering criteria. As different communities move into different phases, wherein larger numbers of people are allowed to meet together, the churches have a plan for each phase. While churches may not know when each phase will occur, they have a plan for how to proceed when the time comes based on the size, demographics, and the needs of their congregation. While churches had several different phases in their plans for reopening, in general, the following is how they planned to proceed:

Importantly, just because churches are free to host services, several pastors indicated that this did not mean they would rush back immediately.

What about children’s ministry?

Most churches did not plan on resuming children’s ministry until the latter stages of their plans. One shared that they won’t resume children or student ministries until phase 3 of the federal guidelines is implemented. Several churches were considering additional resources for families to aid them in discipling their kids since there was no kid’s program offered. For more on this issue, see “12 Things to Consider When Reopening Your Children’s Ministry.”

What other areas are churches considering?


Several churches formed a team or committee to meet for the length of the pandemic and to plan for reopening because they recognized they had members in their church who have expertise to contribute to the discussion. These teams varied in size and contributors, but included custodians, medical professionals, health department officials, business professionals, educators, pastors, and church or ministry leaders. These teams were an integral part of decision making and communicating policies and procedures. One pastor explained that this team of knowledgeable individuals not only helped them develop a wise plan for reopening, but their work allowed the pastors and ministry leaders to focus on caring for people in the crisis instead of on the logistics of reopening. 

Beyond your church committee or team, consider the benefits of networking with other churches. Several churches were keeping apprised of what other churches in their area or of a similar size were doing. A number of the Southern Baptist state conventions have been diligently working to provide their churches with resources specific to their state. These are helpful resources to be aware of and familiarize yourself with.


After several weeks of closure and when planning for reopening, consider what needs to be done to prepare your facilities.


As you reenter, volunteers will likely be more essential and more scarce. You will likely need more help with the possible increased number of services, reduced class sizes, or needs unique to this season, like ongoing sanitation. Some of your usual volunteers may be unable to help due to sickness, health concerns, their comfort level in returning to on-campus gatherings, or temporarily relocating to another area to live with family during social isolation. You will likely need to recruit new volunteers and train all of your volunteers, so they are familiar with your COVID-19 protocols. The more prepared you and your volunteers are, the more confident people will be to return to in-person services. So before you return, a virtual training time for your volunteers can be helpful. When setting up virtual training, consider work and family schedules for time offerings. It may be helpful to record the training for those who are unable to attend at the set times.

Sunday services

Depending on the guidelines given nationally and locally and your church size, several changes to Sunday services may be necessary. 

Depending on church size and social-distancing guidelines in place, some churches may choose to provide multiple services to accommodate their church members. Some churches shared that they planned to have services in different parts of the building at different times (e.g., the fellowship hall at 8:00 a.m., the sanctuary at 9:30, and the fellowship hall again at 11:00), thus allowing one room to be sanitized while the other is being used. 

Regardless, if you decide to offer multiple services to allow for social distancing, you will need to plan for time to clean in between. You may need to change the time or the length of your services to accommodate for this. Some churches are considering small changes such as moving their announcements online to provide more time.

Also, as many churches will be unable to offer children’s ministries when they initially gather, you will want to consider what changes need to be made in the service to accommodate having younger children present. Several churches are considering what creative and additional resources they can continue to provide parents in this season to help them disciple their children.

If you do not normally offer your services online but have during this season, you may want to consider continuing to offer your service online for those who are more vulnerable or who will not immediately return to in-person gatherings.

Other considerations for your in-person service are:

Other gatherings

In addition to deciding what the church will do for Sunday gatherings, leaders will also need to determine how the church will return to their other gatherings. Some churches will resume in-person small groups before the Sunday service, while others will continue virtual small groups for a season while returning to a Sunday service on campus with social distancing practices.

One pastor said, “We’re going to experiment on the margins, not in the main.” What he meant is that he felt like his church was responding well to Sunday mornings online, so he wanted to avoid the whiplash of resuming Sunday morning services, only to have to take it away again and go back online if things in the area worsened. He also said that when they do decide to reopen they would start with something smaller than the Sunday morning gathering, say, a Wednesday evening prayer service with social distancing. Onsite and offsite church gatherings may or may not follow the same guidelines. Each church will have to determine those guidelines and communicate clearly.

Additionally, the use of the church building by outside groups will need to be considered. Some churches because of time constraints and facilities limitations will likely need to suspend outside usage. Others may need to consider what policies they implement for outside events such as food and beverage usage, social-distancing policy, or a cleaning agreement.

Additional considerations

Because there have been so many unknowns in this pandemic, additional considerations may need to be built into a plan for reopening. 

Additional Resources

Daniel Patterson

Daniel Patterson is former Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Molly have been married since 2010, and together they have three children. Read More by this Author

Jenn Kintner

Jenn Kintner holds a Doctorate of Education from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Prior to her work at the ERLC she spent 10 years discipling and teaching women in Christian higher education. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24