As some churches around the country begin to reopen worship services while others wait, I’ve been talking to several church leaders and members about the various things we need to be considering. We need to take into account a number of risks––both risks to opening and risks to staying closed. I write this to encourage church leaders to make decisions with all of these things in mind. And I write it to encourage church members to bear with us as we try to make good decisions when they aren’t easy or clear.
I’ve been impressed with the thoughtfulness and diligence of our church’s leadership and with the grace and patience of our congregation. Wherever you are, and whatever decisions you’re making, I hope you’re experiencing the same.
Anyone talking about churches reopening has heard about the risks of disease spread. We bring a large crowd of people together––
- people who love each other and haven’t seen each other in months;
- people who, if they’re like me, never knew how much they valued singing together and want to sing;
- people who all have different standards and awareness about things like physical distance and touch and masks and kids running around.
We bring these together and worry about becoming the next epicenter of infection.
As a pastor, I fear the news article that says, “75% of those in attendance that day have now tested positive, two have died, one is in critical condition. When we contacted the pastor, Teddy Ray, …” I don’t want to know how that line ends.
I’m concerned about the liability, the negative publicity, etc. But the much greater fear comes when I start to fill in the blanks with names and faces of people I dearly love. And I don’t even want to think about what it would mean if our congregation were to become an epicenter for a city-wide outbreak.
I don’t write this hypothetical to suggest it would be the likely outcome. I think it’s quite unlikely. Tens of thousands of churches are reopening. We’re hearing about the handful where these are the results. Nevertheless, it’s a possible outcome. And one that at least makes me take next steps with a healthy fear. Reopening of churches poses the risk of disease spread––both to our members, and then out into our community––however likely or remote that risk is. Churches must take that seriously.
Mental Health and Human Dignity
Then there are the other risks of quarantine to consider, those related to mental health and human dignity. These aren’t particular to the church, but they need to factor into our decisions. I admit that I’m frustrated by the ways some of these are being ignored or even scornfully dismissed. I’d love to see social workers and mental health experts standing alongside epidemiologists at press conferences and as key parts of advisory panels. Some of the major unintended consequences of quarantine have no reason to catch us by surprise.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been widely praised for his public handling of the situation in New York. And with good reason. He has been a model of class and measured response from most of what I’ve seen.[note]Some people have taken exception with this statement, especially citing Gov. Cuomo’s decisions regarding assisted care facilities. I wasn’t aware of those when I wrote this. I had seen many clips of his press conferences that impressed me and had seen general praise of his handling of the situation. Regardless, I’ll leave this in rather than editing after the fact. I hope one claim like this is neither the point of fixation nor enough to invalidate the rest of this article for reasonable people.[/note] But one of his most viewed moments was, in my opinion, his worst.
[Cuomo]: Economic hardship. Yes. Very bad. Not death. Emotional stress from being locked in a house. Very bad. Not death. Domestic violence on the increase. Very bad. Not death.
[Reporter, about people who aren’t receiving unemployment checks]: They can’t wait for the money. They’re out of money.
[Cuomo]: Yeah, we’re talking about a couple of days lagged on the unemployment insurance. And they will get the check from the date of unemployment. It does not cost them an extra penny.April 22 Press Conference
It’s a privilege to be able to dismiss economic hardship, emotional stress, and domestic violence this easily. That kind of approach doesn’t recognize the personal hell these can represent. If someone has ever waited for a check to buy food, they won’t see it as just “a couple of days lagged,” something that “does not cost them an extra penny.” Critics of the pro-life movement have (rightly) contended that you can only call yourself pro-life if you care about someone’s quality of life while they’re living, not just whether they live or die in the womb. The same should apply here. It makes sense for disease spread to be the beginning of our conversations right now, but it can’t be the only part of our conversations.[note]An example of the tunnel-vision some of us have developed: I talked to a healthcare worker recently who was chastised for using PPE for a contact precaution patient because the patient didn’t have COVID-19. Even some people working in healthcare seem to have forgotten that other health concerns still matter.[/note]
For many of us, the unnatural way quarantine has us living is mere “disruption.” But for others, it’s devastating, at least verging on inhumane.
Here’s just one crushing example:
This isn’t an argument that we should be doing something different. But it’s an argument that we can’t dismiss things like this. We must ask questions not only about life and death, but about living and dying with dignity. The church should be on the forefront of asking those questions.
I live in a house with four impressively self-sufficient kids and a wonderful wife. I still have my job. I have daily human contact––both in-person conversation and physical touch. I imagine that my situation is about as easy as anyone’s right now. And even with all of this, I admit there are days when I’m just barely holding it together.
So I can’t imagine the challenge for anyone who is:
- living in near- or total isolation,
- responsible for young, not-at-all-self-sufficient kids,
- going on months without a hug or human contact,
- single parenting,
- carrying deep anxieties about finances,
- living in a home that’s physically or emotionally unsafe
… to name just a few.
The church is the primary community and social support for a lot of people on that list. So long as we remain closed, we’re creating a barrier to much of that social support. Yes, we can do some things digitally and from a distance. But we can’t fool ourselves into believing they’re the same or even that they suffice. Staying closed does not come without risk to our people.
Some people have dismissed the importance of church gatherings, saying things like, “I think God will understand.” Yes, God understands. But we don’t gather for worship simply to appease God. We worship together because we’re made to worship.
God’s order to Pharaoh over and over in Exodus is, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” Of all the basic human rights denied the Israelites in Egypt, God identifies their ability to worship him as central. For any who would talk about “personal worship” or worshiping God “in our hearts,” any who contend that place and gathered community don’t matter, the treatment of worship throughout the Bible points us in a different direction.
If worship is really something we’re made for, it’s unsurprising to see that spiritual health has a significant relationship to both mental and physical health. This 2012 study is a helpful and interesting analysis of the best research on religion/spirituality and its connections to health. Here’s a summary table of its findings:
Church leaders who want to reopen churches aren’t just concerned about this for the survival of their organizations, as some have suggested. They’ve seen that their people’s spiritual health is related to their overall thriving, and they’re concerned, especially in a time of great adversity, for the well-being of their people.[note]To be sure, this is no suggestion that someone who suffers from depression or has a rocky marriage or is diagnosed with cancer must not have enough faith. This is no simple true/false relationship. But is a spiritually healthy person more likely to remain mentally, socially, and physically healthy? The research says yes.[/note]
Church Risks and Final Decision-Making
The Risks of Exclusion or Unwise Exposure
As we consider re-opening, we’ve begun to talk about all of the people who might be encouraged or required to stay home. We would encourage anyone in a high-risk group to make a careful assessment of the risk before coming. We would require anyone who poses a higher risk to others to stay home. That includes anyone who can’t follow the recommended social distancing precautions (masks, physical distance), anyone who has been in recent contact with someone who tested positive, or anyone displaying symptoms. Because of space requirements, we might even have to exclude people based on capacity issues.
I want to note here that this is not a new phenomenon. It’s just broader. Capacity issues and RSVP systems are unusual but not unheard of, even if the reasons for them now are different. We’ve always had at-risk people who would be wise to avoid large crowds at certain times. We’ve always had people who were excluded because they or their children posed a health risk to others. (I have a feeling churches from here forward will be much more direct about asking people with symptoms of illness to please stay home.) We’ve just not had so many who fell into these categories.
The risk of exclusion is real and much broader than it has been before. But it’s also not new. It’s something to grieve. It should cause us to look for as many creative solutions as possible. But I don’t believe we can choose to prevent everyone from worshiping because some, even many, may be temporarily and regrettably excluded. Kentucky’s governor, after noting that at-risk groups shouldn’t participate in social gatherings that he was opening to others, said, “That’s not fair, but the virus isn’t either.”
Leaders are also worried that some of our at-risk people might choose to come anyway. I don’t think we should prevent them or even actively discourage them in a way that would suggest they’re unwelcome. See all of the above. Our people’s physical health is a real concern. But so is their ability to live with dignity.
One other related risk here is that people will come because they think they should, out of a sense of duty or obligation, fearful that they might miss the grace of God, otherwise. The church’s worship and sacraments are real means of grace. We dare not say or communicate less. But we also, especially now, need to let people know clearly that we respect and support anyone’s decision to stay removed if it’s out of concern for their health or others’. Please don’t come out of any sense of obligation. Here’s where it might be appropriate to insert that “I think God will understand” line.
The Risk of Simplistic Decision-Making
“Would Jesus hide in fear instead of doing the work of God?” poses a slanted and simplistic question. So does “Would Jesus put people’s lives at risk just to do what he wanted?” You may not have heard these asked quite this simply, but many arguments about reopening churches go only about this far.
One side cites personal and religious liberty, deriding anything that seems like irrational fear. The other side cites the duty to be good citizens and care for others’ physical health by not going out, deriding anything else as selfish or uninformed.
Church leaders need to be sympathetic to both sides in this conversation. Preventing people from worshiping together is not a small deal, and we dare not treat it as such. Ignoring public health risks or public authorities (especially when their requests or mandates aren’t explicitly malicious), also no small deal.
The risk of making simplistic decisions is, after all, why I’ve written as much above as I have. Church leaders, I hope you’ll consider all of these together and not make a decision based on any simple slogan. Church members, I hope you’ll give your leaders grace and patience as they try to hold all of this in tension.
One Final Risk No One Is Talking About
Our national divisions about when and how to reopen are beginning to cut along partisan lines. Just-released survey results show Republicans more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe non-essential businesses in their states should be allowed to open (61% to 29%). A wide majority on both sides (about 80%) said they “feel strongly” about their position.
One of the poll designers noted, “What we have here is a very real partisan split that you don’t expect to find in a public health epidemic.” It really is unusual. A pandemic has become a divisive partisan issue.
As unusual as this is, it’s equally unsurprising. Partisan allegiances may have become the greatest idolatry of our nation. For a number of Americans, these allegiances have become a primary identity––the most likely association to determine what’s good and what’s evil, who’s friend and who’s foe, who we treat with charity and who we treat with hostility. They also determine the sources we trust for news and opinions. The news outlets that carry each party’s agenda feed it all.[note]In my first draft, I called them “false prophets of their political gods.” That sounds extreme, but I don’t take it back. I’ve moved it to a footnote because I still want to say it but don’t want it to distract from the body of my text.[/note] They’ve demonstrated much more interest in promoting their preferred political parties than giving us the full, verified truth. This runs from deception through silly and unnecessary distortions to promotion of unfounded conspiracy theories.
Whether for good or bad, churches have usually been able to avoid partisan politics if they chose to. Fox News and CNN viewers can sit side by side in the pews without either side getting too agitated. But now, reopening decisions may force all of us to inadvertently take a side.
Many churches are likely to have some members eager for reopening and indignant at any approach that seems slow or over-cautious. They’re likely to have other members firmly set against reopening soon, angry at any actions that could put public health at risk. Those divisions will probably fall along partisan lines. If we go several months with churches making different decisions on this, it could prompt a next-level partisan separation of our churches. I could see Republicans, frustrated with churches that open too slow, leaving for the ones down the street that opened early. I could see Democrats, ashamed of churches that opened too soon, leaving for the ones that have maintained a full #StayHome approach. This won’t likely happen if everyone makes the same decision over a month or two. But I could expect it if we go into the fall or longer without clarity.
What We’re Doing
So finally, here’s what my church is doing as we try to take these many things into consideration.
#1 – We’ve committed to following all guidance from our authorities––both government and denomination. We believe this is a Romans 13 “be subject to the governing authorities” moment, not a Revelation 13 “resist the beast” moment. We may or may not agree with our authorities’ full prescriptions, but we accept their authority and believe they’re trying to act in the best interest of the people.
#2 – My church community’s leaders don’t believe we can abide by the current guidelines and have meaningful, in-person public worship services. The current guidance prevents us from singing or celebrating Eucharist together. These have always been essential pieces of our worship. Without these pieces, we believe we’re able to facilitate better worship for our community online, where we can still sing and have even found a way within the current restrictions to continue celebrating Eucharist and distributing the elements. (To be sure – we are NOT encouraging virtual or online communion. Worship leaders are celebrating communion in the room, then we’re distributing the elements to those unwillingly absent––a long Christian tradition.)
#3 – Meanwhile, I’m advocating for a creative plan to follow our government’s guidance regarding other kinds of gatherings. Gatherings other than for worship services seem to be our best options right now, given the restrictions. Our leaders are talking about ways to hold Bible studies, prayer gatherings, simple outdoor social gatherings, and other things of the sort. Just last week, we were able to begin distributing communion elements at a local park again. It was so good to see people in the flesh, pray with them, and see them able to stand six feet apart and talk with each other. I hope to continue offering more of these opportunities in any creative ways we can find that adhere to governmental and denominational restrictions.
#4 – We’re not naming many plans in advance. Many changes in guidance have come with relatively short notice, and our church has done a good job of responding to change quickly. So we’re preferring to make quick decisions once we have all the necessary information, rather than trying to anticipate what will come next or when. As soon as enough restrictions lift that we can gather people for worship, I expect that we will do that quickly. I could see that involving the offer of several small gatherings in homes or outdoor gatherings.
#5 – We’re committed to streaming online worship services for the foreseeable future. We believe this is an important option to provide so long as anyone is unable or uncomfortable attending in-person.
#6 – As we begin holding in-person gatherings, we will communicate frequently that no one should feel pressure to come if they don’t feel comfortable. See above.
I’m interested to hear from other leaders what you’re doing and how you’re thinking about this, or to hear from you if you have questions or think I’ve missed anything here.
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