I think I have wrestled with this post more than anything I have written here. I want you to know that before I say anything else because I have been trying very hard not to make things worse by speaking rashly or condemning others. Covid-19 is an unprecedented crisis in world history, at least in my lifetime. I believe everyone is doing the best that they can. And I believe that we are all under great pressure and strain. I have often been afraid, and I bet you have been too. In these kinds of moments, it can be virtually impossible to hear each other well, particularly in this kind of medium. (The pandemic has also been so politicized it seems to make it close to impossible to talk in a way that can be heard as something other than partisan talking points. I have done everything I can to avoid that here.) For what it is worth, I have done the best I can to be charitable and gentle. I have written this out of love and concern for the church, which I see as increasingly paralyzed by fear. And so, I have decided to risk saying something. And of course, I could be wrong about everything I’ve said here. We all have extremely limited vision at the moment. If you experience conviction as you read, I’ll leave that between you and the Holy Spirit.
We need to be more aggressive in reopening churches.
I appreciate that it is not prudent to return to large in person gatherings inside the church. But I think we are being far too complacent and content to limp along with the temporary solutions we cobbled together when the first wave of the pandemic hit.
The church seems paralyzed by a culture of fear and safety that is not from God.
It seems to me that the criteria for returning to in person gatherings of any form have shifted radically from the initial shutdown in March. Do you remember the reason we embraced radical new measures like social distancing and even shelter in place in the Spring? The rationale for flattening the curve was to prevent hospitals from being overrun, which would lead to people dying because they did not have access to an ICU room or a ventilator.
The goal now seems to be to prevent anyone from getting sick. Many of us are embracing severe restrictions to prevent the disease from spreading at all. This is well-intentioned at first glance, but impossible.
In some context the burden of proof seems to be even higher: a church must stay closed until they can guarantee that no one who is sick will be on church grounds. That is an unreasonable standard. If that is the goal, for example, why would you need any other protocols? Isn’t the reason we wear masks and social distance built on the assumption that sick people are in our midst, we just can’t know which ones of us are?
And so many churches are finding themselves in a cycle of announcing a target date for reopening, pushing it back, and then pushing it back again, and again. You get the point.
Churches should respond to the changing circumstances in their communities. This is wise and prudent. However, I see increasing fear and decreasing clarity about when church leaders would feel safe reopening in some way.
If a church cannot open in a week because there is a risk that someone who is sick will come to worship, when is it realistic that that level of risk will no longer be present? If church leaders intend to embrace that level of safety, they need to be honest and direct about it. And they also need to be honest and direct that this means churches will be asked to stay closed not only for a few more weeks, but likely for years.
To key leaders like bishops, district superintendents, and senior pastors, I understand why many of you remain concerned about churches reopening. I appreciate your desire to limit the spread of a highly contagious disease that has no treatment. I do not take this lightly and agree that it is a crucial concern, particularly for those who have high-risk factors for Covid-19.
And yet, it feels like many of you are more passionate about keeping the church closed than you are about them reopening. I have heard from many people across the connection who feel that the burden is on churches that want to reopen to prove that they can do so in a way that guarantees there will be no transmission, or even presence, of Covid-19.
My concern with that burden of proof is that just isn’t how pandemics work. The church needs you to be clear that you are ultimately passionately in favor of churches reopening. There will be times when the threshold of community spread in particular areas makes it imprudent for churches to gather. But we need you to do far more than discourage churches to reopen. We need you to actively encourage churches to fight to find creative ways to wisely and courageously gather. Wisdom and courage need not be in opposition to each other.
I would like to see bishops, district superintendents, and pastors in charge, shift from pressuring churches to stay closed to pressuring them to reopen in the best ways that they can.
Much of my concern comes from the feeling that we are drastically underestimating the essential need for public worship for those who are Christians and for those who have not yet received the gift of faith in Jesus.
Here is how my own denomination defines the local church:
“The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple making occurs. It is a community of true believers under the Lordship of Christ. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by persons divinely called and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.” [The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 ¶201)
The United Methodist Church explicitly teaches that the local church exists to maintain worship. It needs to be stated unequivocally that the maintenance of public worship is not some optional side show that is nice when possible. It is at the very center of why the church exists at all.
I anticipate that some reading this will object, “but we have been maintaining worship throughout the pandemic.” First, there are many, many churches that are not able to maintain public worship right now because they have not had the ability to have video worship services either in advance or live. These churches are doing the best that they can. And I do not intend to condemn them. But we need to acknowledge that many parts of the church have not been maintaining worship at all for five months. This is devastating to the faithful and needs to be acknowledged explicitly and regularly by anyone who is convinced that the harm of reopening churches is greater than the good of fulfilling the reason the church exists.
Second, can we be honest that the vast majority of churches that have started online worship services during the pandemic fall far short of the in-person services we’d had before? The efforts to start these services were faithful and went above and beyond by all who have been involved in getting them up and running. But they are not close to an adequate replacement for in person worship.
Pastors and worship leaders: many faithful members of your churches will stick with you through this season because they love you and appreciate what you are doing. This has been exceptionally difficult. But many laity also find much of the experience of online worship to be frustrating and hard to follow. There are often a host of technological glitches that make the production quality very poor overall.
We need to be clear that online worship is not the future of the church.
Study Gnosticism, why it is a heresy, and why the body is an essential part of the Christian life and part of what needs to be saved. Corporate worship with bodies present matters. There are going to be seasons in the midst of a pandemic when it is impossible to responsibly gather corporately in the flesh. But we must not pretend that what we do in the midst of those times is as good as the physically gathered body. It just isn’t.
I am also concerned that there is a failure to recognize the ways that people in our churches are fighting to be together and taking risks to do so. Are we noticing what is happening outside of our churches?
Parents are enrolling their children in sports leagues (despite the very public spread of Covid-19 in various attempts to return to professional sports).
Parents are enrolling their children in preschools, in many cases preschools run by churches that are otherwise closed.
[I will resist unpacking this further here, but church preschools reopening in closed churches is a stunning illustration of the present confusion.]
Private schools seem to mostly be reopening, though that is subject to change. Public schools are closed in some areas and opened in others. Many parents who were given a choice whether to send the children back to school want their kids to have in person instruction, though many others elected not to.
This list gets to a related concern: The formation of Christians for more than a generation seems to have produced Christians who believe that worship is not that big a deal. There is a crisis of faith (and I mean a crisis of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ in a basic way) when parents can be expected to consistently prioritize secular extra-curricular activities over worship and participation in the life of the church.
If extracurricular activities come back faster than the church brings back public worship, we will reinforce a serious and devastating confusion about what it means to be in Christ and what it looks like to be connected to the church.
Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.
There are a host of bad outcomes that can come from not gathering. We may decide they are not sufficient to take on any additional risk of gathering together. But they are important enough they ought to be named and considered.
How do we balance the real risk that people will get sick if we reopen with the real risk that people will walk away from the church or lose their faith entirely if we don’t?
In a time when people are dying from a pandemic, the need to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have not come to faith in Jesus needs to at least be considered along with concerns about safety.
I have seen the phrase “Do no harm” used many times in discussing closing churches and keeping them closed. United Methodists will recognize this as the tagline of the first “General Rule.” We need to consider the kinds of harm happening right now in a much broader way than only the concern to limit the spread of Covid-19 (and I hope we can all agree that everyone wants that).
How do we balance the concern that there could be harm if we open the church with the harm that comes from long-term isolation, depression, overdoses, and suicide?
Are we considering the deaths related to Covid-19 that have nothing to do with contracting the virus?
In the current climate it is a virtual guarantee that any church that can be connected to an outbreak will receive major negative media attention.
But what about all of the churches that have already resumed in person worship in various forms without major incident? How do we account for those churches and the good that has come each time they have faithful maintained worship?
It is perhaps too much to ask, but I would love to see bishops and other leaders come alongside churches and use their power and authority to encourage them and bless them. What if a bishop were to say to a pastor considering opening a church, “I trust you. You know your context and the conditions there better than I do. If you, as the pastor in charge, decide to reopen I will commit to pray for your success. And if there is an outbreak, I will stand with you and defend you in every way and in every place that I can.”
In the diminished trust in the current UM environment, I cannot imagine how encouraging that would be to a pastor to hear. And that would strike me as a powerful example of leadership in a basic way, not to mention the episcopal office.
It is quite discouraging to hear the number of clergy who cannot imagine such a scenario, and instead anticipate their bishop would make an example of them to press other churches to stay closed and to protect themselves from criticism.
I am not asking bishops to stop advocating and educating their conferences based on current realities and what they see. I am asking them to have much greater urgency about the church gathering together in some way in person. The space between a church being completely closed and meeting as it did back in February is enormous. There are infinite ways to not be completely closed to in person meetings without imprudently jumping straight into a 250 person indoors sanctuary service.
The church needs to be taking proactive steps to reopen. That may not mean meeting indoors. Indeed, in most of the U.S. I think it would be premature to begin meeting as we had before March. We need to be prudent and aware that there is a deadly pandemic in our midst.
But the fact that a church cannot have their normal 11 o’clock sanctuary service does not mean they have no other options. We need to do a much better job thinking outside the box. We can have outdoor worship services, which most health experts believe is safer than indoors. We can multiply the number of worship services and cap the number of attendees to follow recommended best practices.
There are a multitude of other options. It is time for leaders to lead out of the place we’ve been stuck for the past several months. The hard truth is that it appears the pandemic is going to be an unwelcomed presence in our midst quite a while longer.
We can’t be content with the new pandemic status quo any longer.
Here is an example of what I’m envisioning: After prayerful consideration, the leadership of a church near us (not United Methodist) decided it would be premature to return to normal worship in the building. They also refused to be complacent and recognized online only gatherings were spiritually malnourishing. So they began meeting on Wednesday evenings for a worship service outside in front of the church. And they encouraged small groups to meet together in person on Sunday morning to view the worship service together. These are creative ways to reconnect the Body of Christ and move in a positive, though measured direction.
At the end of the day, it may not be time for your church to open yet. I can live with that. I can even respect that. Really. You may need more time to plan for a wise and courageous reopening, that will be significantly different than it was in February.
And circumstances can change rapidly. We should respond rapidly to changing circumstances.
My concern here is that it feels to me like the church has pulled into a shell and it seems increasingly unlikely to come back out until there is a guarantee that everything will be ok. The problem is we are not going to get such a guarantee.
There are no paths without risk. This is an extremely challenging time. I yearn to see leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ take the right kinds of risks and make the right kinds of mistakes.
I understand that there are deep disagreements about how and when to best move forward. I am not trying to start a fight here or score cheap rhetorical points. I am for you and your churches. I want to encourage us to prayerfully seek God’s guidance and scratch and claw to reclaim as much of what we’ve lost as possible, because the local church exists for the maintenance of worship.
Come Holy Spirit. Not being able to worship together has been so hard. Guide, direct, and bless your church. Give us prudence and courage. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.
I have closed comments on this post because I do not intend to start a fight or encourage people who agree or disagree to fire off a quick response that has more heat than light. You’re welcome to contact me directly here. I read all comments I receive, though I am not able to respond to all of them.