I have a sister who lives in Vancouver, Washington, and another who resides in Richardson, Texas. Vancouver has few cases of COVID-19. But Dallas County, by comparison, has a lot. Yet, at the moment, Vancouver has stricter social-distancing restrictions than Richardson.
So, when it comes to determining what individual churches should do in response to COVID-19 and when to re-open, one size does not fit all. We have differing circumstances in different locales; so, we have different needs and risks, as well as a variety of guidelines from elected officials. And perhaps you’ve seen a Venn diagram similar to this one on social media. It reminds us that we also have many needs and concerns to consider.
And with our varying needs in mind, I have some suggestions:
Begin with prayer. And keep praying. The admonition to pray may seem like… “duh.” Maybe even a “Jesus juke.” Yet, so often we launch off seeking to do good without stopping to ask for help. And only when we hit a wall do we remember, Oh. I haven’t even prayed about this. J. S. Bach is famous for writing “S.D.G.”—Soli Deo Gloria, or “To God Alone Be Glory”—when he finished a musical composition. But what is less known about him is that he also began his compositions with the abbreviation of another Latin phrase: J.J., for “Jesu Juva”—or “Jesus, help.” The Book of James reminds us that if we ask for wisdom, God will give it. Generously (Jas. 1:5).
Determine that love will be the ultimate ethic in which we root all of our decisions. Make love the grid you come back to for processing each decision. Keep asking, “Is this the most loving way to do this?”
The apostle Paul has much to say about liberty vs. love in Romans 14. Sure, debating whether to eat/not eat meat sacrificed to idols differs a lot from wearing/not wearing a face mask. But some principles found in the passage do have application to this situation. Wearing a face mask could be described as the love-of-others position; and it could also be the concerned-about-spreading-COVID-19 position. Not wearing a mask could be described as the human liberty position; but it could also simply be one rooted in the fear of inhaling one’s own germs.
If the latter position is rooted in concern about government overreach (liberty), one could—as the diagram shows—hold the love position while also taking steps to guarantee liberty. Will refusing to wear a face mask result in the government reconsidering infringement on individual rights? Unlikely. Are there ways to challenge government actions while still sacrificing one’s rights or convenience or even clean air for the sake of love? Yes. So, our “not gonna wear one” probably fails to show love to another, while still doing nothing to influence the government. So, why not encourage deference to each other by wearing masks but encourage those concerned to correspond with government officials.
Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “We urge you, brothers and sisters, to [love] more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody (1 Thess. 4: 9–12). Notice how concerned he is about the testimony of the Christians. That should be our concern, too. Do we bring the most glory to Christ by sacrificing for the sake of love or by insisting on our rights? Yes, both are important. But one—love—must take priority.
We must also ground our ethics in Scripture, not the U.S. Constitution. Sure, the Constitution is rooted in many biblical values. But it is not the Christian’s ultimate authority or ethic. Some pastors featured in the media are saying a lot about rights and not a thing about love. Or others. Or self-sacrifice. Was Paul’s concern about the church’s reputation in the community for how well they stood up to Rome or how well they loved?
Consider the input of many “counselors.” Do you have physicians and healthcare workers in your congregation? Ask what they advise for your area. Do you have people out of work? Ask them, “What alternatives might you have to suggest?” Do you have people over age 65? An ancient Jewish proverb reminds us that “There is success in the abundance of counselors” (Prov. 11:14, NET). One Texas church planned to re-open till it polled its congregants and found most wanted to wait a while. The sole entrance to the sanctuary is narrow, so the ability to keep even two feet away from others is impossible. Consequently, the leaders encouraged people to gather in small groups in their homes to worship together, watching the service together, taking communion together. They made a better decision because they asked. Another with a lot of land chose a drive-in service complete with audio via radio frequency.
When churches do return to their buildings, it is unlikely the Sunday school classes and nurseries will be options. Do you have parents of small kids? Ask them “When will you feel safe for us to open the nursery?” And “Would the absence of a nursery keep you from attending?” Can your church change up your services so they’re like those in most of the world, in which people of all ages—including kids—worship together?
Some of the “best practices” some are proposing based on the input of experts from multiple occupations are as follows:
- Seat domestic units—singles living alone, roommates, and families together—and spaced six feet apart
- Consider multiple services to reduce occupancy to meet health guidelines
- Dismiss people aisle by aisle and ask them not to congregate
- Request that all staff, ushers, greeters wear masks/gloves; have leaders model self-sacrificing behavior
- Ask everyone to consider wearing a mask, and make masks available at the entrance
- Increase sanitation efforts
- Consider doing drive-in church before you have walk-in church—phase it in
- Once you return, it will likely be without kids’ classes or a nursery. Encourage adults to welcome the noise. Stock the hymn racks with colored pencils. And include this note in the bulletin:
To the parents of our young children, may we suggest…
Relax! God put the wiggles and loud whispers in children; no need to stress over these. All are welcome.
Sit toward the front. That way your little ones can see and hear. They prefer not to look at the backs of others’ heads.
Quietly explain parts of the service and actions of those leading. You have a great teachable moment.
Sing, pray, and voice responses. You are modeling worship for them.
Slip out if you need to. But also, please return if you can.
Know you are showing your children something important. The way we welcome children in church affects how children respond to church, to God, and to each other.
Feel free to let your child doodle on the other side of this card.
Get creative. Like Daniel. Remember the guy in the lion’s den? There was also that story about him in which he had some food commitments. But a pagan king did not care about Daniel’s dietary needs. Yet instead of making himself a nuisance to the authorities, he had a “Let’s try to make this work” attitude. So, he came up with a plan to meet his own needs (stick to the diet) while meeting those of the king (have healthy, buff-looking guys). Win-win.
Invite out-of-the box thinking. Are there ways for members to gather without walking into an auditorium where they stand next to each other? Do you need to add services? Divide the church into elder-led groups? Start meeting in homes on Sunday mornings in small groups? Gather in back yards where people can bring lawn chairs and practice physical distancing while being social?
The US government is not saying the church cannot gather. It is saying we cannot gather as we have done in the past. And why? Not because they oppose our message. But because they perceive our doing so as lacking love for our neighbor. We can get on board with that goal! So, we teach people about Jesus’s minimum gathering number that has no maximum: “Two or more gathered in His name” (Matt. 18:20). And what is the goal of our gathering? The glory of Christ. Mutual edification. Worship. Being known and knowing each other. Using spiritual gifts for the up-building of one another. Love. None of which is sacrificed in smaller gatherings. And in some cases, that goal might even be more thoroughly accomplished.
“When and how to return” to being the church gathered together are more than mere decisions we need to make. They’re opportunities to show and explain how to make decisions: We ask God’s help. We root all decisions in love. We listen to counsel. We make life as easy as possible for hospital and police and other government workers. We seek to have a reputation in our community for loving sacrificially. We have a healthy concern for safety, but we don’t make decisions rooted in fear. We don’t forsake our gathering, but rather, in this unique season, we find creative ways to so, and in so doing we spur on one another to love and good deeds.
Sandra Glahn is associate professor of Media Arts and Worship at Dallas Theological Seminary. She is the author, co-author, or general editor of more than twenty books, the most recent being The City of Ephesus: A Short History