Which Way Forward?

Now two months into the COVID-19 lockdown, more and more people are beginning  to recognize we can’t continue like this forever.   You can see it in lots of ways.  There’s more traffic now than there was a month ago.  Yes, people are wearing masks and social distancing and giving each other the stink eye if they get too close, but people are out more and more.  There are also more official determinations that we have sheltered in place long enough.  Articles like this one show a growing determination that things need to begin shifting back to normal.

On a personal level, I agree it’s time to start reopening things.  I have little doubt that even when things open back up more fully, people are still going to keep their distance.  Perhaps those plexiglass shields in front of cash registers will remain for weeks or months or maybe they’ll never come down.  It’s hard to gauge the psychological impact of two solid months of fear.

I totally empathize both with small business owners as well as employees who understand keenly the need to get back to work or risk losing their businesses, homes, and who knows what else.  Very simple economic realities dictate whether or not businesses can remain shuttered indefinitely and people can cling to  unemployment perpetually.  The answer is pretty clearly no.  The question is how to deal with this reality.  Do we open things back up and let  people go to work again with reasonable precautions, or do we rely on the government to continue spending our nation into a hole to demonstrate how the State is our salvation?

But my issue is the church.  This is my vocation, my profession.  How do congregations determine what to do?  When to do it?  How to do it?  It’s a difficulty congregations and pastors and church leadership has been dealing with for two months now, and there is a range of responses.

I know some pastors who have continued to lead public worship on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes more  or less as they always have.  Sometimes in multiple, smaller services.  Some have opted for virtual church, streaming their services and providing online or telephone consecration of elements for Holy Communion in peoples’ homes.  Others offer drive-by Communion.  Some offer parking lot worship where people gather in their vehicles, and either bring their own bread and wine for Holy Communion or are provided individually packaged elements when they arrive.  They tune in on their cell phones or car radios to have church together.  Some, like me, provide devotional resources and teaching and sermon materials to their parishioners through e-mail or YouTube.

It’s a mixed bag.  Hard decisions.

I want to reopen church for worship.  But why do I want  to?  That’s the question I’ve grappled with for weeks.

Although I empathize with what the pastor in the opening article is doing, I don’t want to do that.  I won’t hold a press conference.  I won’t issue a press release.  I won’t agree to a television or radio interview.  I’m not making announcements to the general public, because this is not about the general public.  This is about my congregants.  Or at least it ought to be.  Publicity shouldn’t be my motivation.

Politics shouldn’t be our motivation either.  Church is inherently an anti-political institution.  Or perhaps an trans-political or ultra-political institution.  Christian churches – whether sprawling mega-churches or tiny little places – are places where the powers of this world are described for what they are.  Transient.  Temporary.  Blessings from God for the time being at best, the worst of sinful devils for the time being at worst.  Usually somewhere in between.  They are to be respected insofar as they keep the peace, but they are not to be looked to as saviors.  Psalm 146 offers a fair assessment of the powers and institutions of this world.

So I don’t feel it’s the work of the Church to pit itself for or against a particular political party or system or set of decrees.  As an American citizen I may seek to do that and rightfully so, if unfortunately.  But as a pastor and as a congregation, I am ultimately not concerned with these things.  My concern is the Gospel and helping my parishioners remain focused on the Gospel here and now, in this world, regardless of what political party is in power or what economic system is in place.  To help them see how their identity in Christ transcends and also transforms their lives as citizens of a particular geo-political entity.

And I don’t  want fear to drive a decision.  Either the fear of losing religious liberties or the fear of possible infection and sickness and death.  As a Christian my life is not to be characterized by fear, and as the Church we are to live out this to the best of our ability.  Whether the State takes away religious liberties or gives them is ultimately irrelevant as their decrees are not what for the basis of my identity in Christ or how that identity is lived out.  Ample examples throughout history and around the world remind us that Christians don’t disappear just because religious rights are curtailed or eliminated.  We might have to change how we do things, but the faith goes on, and that faith is inherently communal and will find ways to be so.

And fear of sickness and contagion should not keep the Church from being together.  Not  if there are precautions that can be taken and common sense to be implemented.  The Church cannot keep people safe or guarantee their lives any more than the State can.  Unlike the State, the Church can and should equip people to live their lives in the joy and freedom of Christ and not in fear of sickness or death, even as we employ our God-given minds to make choices that are reasonable and prudent.  It is not in my power as a pastor to ensure  that none of my  members get the Coronavirus.  At most, I can and should take reasonable measures to ensure that if and when they gather, we are minimizing that risk.

So if my congregation is to begin meeting again, I want to be as clear as possible in my own mind that this is not a political move.  It is not a move motivated by fears either political or financial or perhaps even theological.  It is not motivated by a desire for personal or congregational attention or notoriety.

Rather, it is only and always about Christ,  and when we make a decision to start meeting again it is because life in Christ is communal.  The talk of family and brothers and sisters and a heavenly Father is not simply metaphorical – it’s real and true even if we may not always experience it as such because of sin.  Church is essential, though it might be true Church is not essential economically or to the State (although I’d argue that the Church actually is essential).  When we begin meeting again it will  be to embrace our identities in Christ once again.  To celebrate his gifts of life and health that are only that, gifts.  Gifts we did not bring into existence on our own and which ultimately remain in his sovereign hands regardless of what measures we do or don’t take to ensure or longevity.

So I pray for all those pastors who wrestle with this issue, an issue that is not nearly as neatly and simply defined by government mandate as the State – or the Church – might be inclined to believe.  And I pray for the people of God around the world who must navigate this together as well, and pray they can be in open discussion and prayer with their religious leaders to try and find the best path forward for them, in their context.

One Response to “Which Way Forward?”

  1. Everything Is Political | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] opined earlier this week about the goal of restarting church worship without polluting the effort with agendas beyond what […]

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