Ed: Brian, your website declares, "We are open." Why are you and what does that mean for Calvary Chapel right now?
Brian: Following the governor's mandate in California, we shut down all in-person services for three months. When that lifted, we thought about how to do in-person services while recognizing most people at this point would prefer to meet online.
There were people who really wanted to get back to church, to be in a place where if they couldn't hug somebody, at least they could see another Christian and be with the family of God. With the restrictions and number limitations, we decided to accommodate as many as possible while creating a safe environment.
Jordan and Lance formulated a plan. We've been back about five or six weeks now. We navigate the changes as they come: the governor said no singing a couple of weeks ago, and a couple days ago we were not allowed to have indoor services. We have a large space, so now we are moving everything outdoors.
Ed: As you know, a lot of people aren't coming back. Maybe 15-20 percent will come. Why not just stay online?
Brian: We knew not everybody was going to come back, but some people did. We've got the energy, we've got the manpower, so let's do this, we decided. We felt like it was worth it. Maybe 20 percent or so of people have come back, maybe more if you consider those who come every other week. Everybody who has come back has been very thankful for the option.
Ed: How did you initially prepare?
Jordan: Six weeks ago, we planned to meet on our large practice football field. We saw the pictures of San Francisco parks with the spray-painted circles for social distancing. But officials told us no. So, our first iteration was to have a drive-in service. That's a popular thing down in Southern California since Robert Schuller started it.
Ed: When I was there on Sunday, the level of complexity was daunting. Talk about that.
Jordan: I spent a lot of time on it. I was influenced by Andy Crouch, who described the pandemic as a little ice age. That challenged me to think creatively. We knew we had the space. We came up with this eight-zone approach.
Each zone has a max of up to 100 people in accordance with the state of California's max. Each has a host team which welcomes people, a health and safety team, which sanitizes in between services, a ministry team, and either a minister or pastor assigned to it who can pray with and encourage people with social distance protocols.
The first Sunday people had reserved every space. So, we opened up a ninth zone with space for 250 inside, 350 outside. Now, we're going to have 350 outside as there are no inside zones for the foreseeable future.
Ed: What kind of preparation is involved to accomplish this?
Lance: The state of California has clear guidelines to follow in setting up our zones. It's daunting but also rewarding in the sense that we're now seeing hundreds of people come back on campus and it's giving them life and hope. We have staff members and trained volunteers who oversee the individual zones. Now that we have a system down, it's a pretty straight forward process.
Three months ago, none of us looked at high touch areas like doorknobs and toilets. The biggest adjustment for us has been to look through different lenses to see where the potential problem areas are because we want to provide the safest environment that we can, whether you're a low risk person or a medium risk person. We're don't recommend high-risk people attend, but we want to provide the safest area we can.
Ed: How could you help other pastors to know the things people are most likely to misunderstand?
Jordan: We had people calling to say you have to require masks. Others said, I'm not coming if you require masks. We had to figure out the best approach to serve the many different needs of the people. We have a high-risk zone. We don't force high-risk people to sit in that zone. But we want to honor them by saying that everyone here is going to be required to wear a mask.
We want to serve people in the many different risk categories in a way that follows the guidelines, while at the same time being driven by the Spirit and guided by our ministry philosophy in order to ultimately bring about the gathering of God's people so that they can go into the world and engage in what God has for them.
Ed: Many church leaders have told me they are leading through unprecedented conflict. How do you lead well with these various constituencies with different opinions?
Brian: We are God's servants and we're leading his people. We're depending on him to give us wisdom and guidance beyond our own understanding of things at times. I have leaned into the Lord heavily in prayer, in counsel, and in conversation with our team.
I shared with the staff a private message on Instagram that had to do with the order from the state to no longer meet inside. He thought I was capitulating. I said,
I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm trying my best to take my marching orders from Jesus. The Lord gave us a strategy from the very beginning, and he hasn't told us to do anything different. We're trusting him. We've stuck to the things that the state required. We're going to navigate it as the Spirit leads us to.
We were told no singing. We won't sing, but we'll be creative and see how the Lord leads in other expressions of worship.
Ed: What are some of the key changes you've made to make it effective but also a safe?
Brian: We were doing our regular service until we got the no singing order. I said, “Let's see how God will creatively lead us to have a meaningful worship time without congregational singing.” The team created background music, read through songs, and walked people through the Lord's Prayer.
They sang over people rather than singing congregationally. It created some really fresh expressions. The people who weren't here were all mad. The people who came thought it was great.
Ed: Is there a theological requirement that we should gather? What if governor Newsom says this is so bad that we can't even gather outside? Do you continue to pull back, or do you say, “No, theologically, we think we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together?”
Brian: A lot of people are seeing this as a form of persecution: the government has an agenda to undermine the church. If you see it through that lens that will determine how you respond. I don't think the state has asked us to do anything that's that is a violation of the clear commands of Scripture. I believe God is doing something in this moment that we can't see in the present, but we will see in due time.
Paul has been my inspiration. He understood he was the prisoner of Christ Jesus rather than Caesar. Our governor is not sovereign. Jesus is. If and when the government commands us to disobey the clear statements of Scripture, I will happily disobey the government. I do not believe that is currently happening.
Ed: If the theaters and other spaces were open, I would be the first person in line saying, “You're singling out churches, this is religious persecution.” But right now, it's consistently applied.
Brian: We've had a case or two go to the Supreme Court from California and the Supreme Court sided with the governor because of that very reason.
Daniel: What are some bright spots you're seeing outside of this Sunday worship gathering? What are some of the other ministries that are thriving?
Jordan: I've been impressed with our children's ministry team who have gone above and beyond. They are getting our Lifeway curriculum out to the parents and to the kids. They have a section in our Sunday worship with a kid's song and we pass out the same materials we make available for printing at home for the kids.
We're thinking through how we can encourage the parents at home who are passing on this instruction. This requires a razor-sharp precision.
Ed: Calvary Chapel has always been known for a passion for evangelism and different ways of serving. How have you mobilized and motivated the church in the pandemic?
Lance: I work with government, other non-profits, and other churches in the area. The objective is to be salt and light and to minister and serve people in the community. When COVID first happened, one of our County board of supervisors asked if we would start a popup food pantry. We put a table outside our gym where people in need could receive food with no strings attached.
We put the word out to our congregation, and they started giving. One table turned into two tables, which then turned into three. Families who had lost work come every week to receive.
They were thankful there was somebody who cared enough to serve them and to pray with them. Now we're partnering with Saddleback and their popup pantries that are serving thousands of families every single week.
COVID has provided multiple opportunities for the church to show love. We believe simply serving, loving, and giving is a very strong statement in a time where everybody wants to fight with each other and disagree.
Ed: What would a church need to know that you've learned moving forward for their unique situation?
Jordan: Be creative. It has to start there. Our God is a God of creativity. God is still working in a pandemic. We also tried to be very thoughtful and prayerful about things that we've done for decades, thinking maybe this is a time to have a conversation with people about some of these we might need to stop permanently.
The people who gather also provide a demonstration to the greater group. Like many churches, our online reach has increased. They're watching us interact.
Daniel: Brian, as you're thinking about the future and reflect on the past couple of months, what do you see?
Brian: We see this as a time of pruning. We went into the year having done a Strat-Op (Strategic Operation plan). It was pretty daunting. The Lord has created the strategy for us. We look at this time as a time of recalibrating for future ministry. God is trimming us down.
This season sets us up as a new ministry with a foundation from the past but a vision that's for the 21st century. We've got a history of revival and of church planting all around the world. We're asking, Lord, what do you want to keep? What do you want to throw out? We're open.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College 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.