As more states loosen their stay-at-home orders, churches must decide whether or not to reopen. My congregation’s session selected a phased approach to reopening, which involves staff returning to their offices first, then the resumption of some smaller in-person programs and finally culminating in a return to in-person worship. Our congregation was worshipping virtually two weeks before our county extended stay-at-home orders, so we have been at this for over two months.
Two months feels like a long time not to connect in person with the body of Christ, and so we have some members eager to return to in-person worship gatherings. Others are understandably more hesitant. What guides a pastor’s and session’s decision to reopen? While I have my own opinions about whether churches should be reopening right now, my goal in this article is not to convince you one way or the other. Rather, I want to highlight two values that seem to be in tension with one another in this pandemic. Creatively navigating this tension in your particular context may help guide decisions related to reopening.
Our desire for connection is God-given and good.
Something I keep hearing from mental health experts is just how bad loneliness is for your health. Scripture attests to the fact that God made us for relationships with others. A fundamental part of being human is to be connected with other people. Isolation is not good for one’s soul or body.
While many of us have been working hard not to be isolated, thanks to video conferencing tools, we are finding it just isn’t the same. Seeing a friend through a screen does not compare with seeing that friend in the flesh or giving that friend a hug. We are to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), which I argue is difficult to do over a screen. (It’s not impossible, but does seem less meaningful.)
Stay-at-home orders can exacerbate one’s feelings of isolation. Not everyone has access to the technology that allows for virtual connection (including the viewing of a virtual worship service). It makes sense that some people would be eager for churches to reopen because they want to reconnect with one another. They want to see one another face to face rather than worshipping over Zoom, Facebook Live or YouTube. They want to sing together, to take communion, to pass the peace. There’s something about our desire for connection that makes in-person worship feel more powerful than worshipping virtually.
God calls us to care for the vulnerable.
Scripture tells us that God cares for the vulnerable. Countless times in the Old and New Testaments, God commands the people of God to care for widows and orphans. God shows God’s care for those who are more vulnerable through the caring behavior of other humans. And God’s judgment is heaped upon those who take advantage of the vulnerable or ignore their cries.
Scientists and doctors have made it clear that certain members of the global population are more at risk of being hospitalized and/or dying from COVID-19. For this reason, whether or not we are part of that at-risk population, we are all urged to stay at least six feet away from others and wear masks, if not continue to stay at home. It may not be that dangerous for me to contract the virus, but I could unknowingly give the virus to someone with a greater risk of suffering from it.
This at-risk population includes people over the age of 65. Let’s face it, for many mainline churches, the majority of our membership is at least over the age of 55, if not 65. What does care for our older church members look like during this pandemic? It makes sense that some people would be hesitant to reopen churches.
How do we take seriously people’s real need for in-person connection along with the real need to protect the vulnerable?
Mitigate the risk
Whether churches decide to reopen now, or in late summer, or a year from now, there will be some risk of spreading COVID-19 because the virus isn’t going away. Granted, the more we know about the virus, the better our medical system can care for and combat the disease. So the risks associated with the coronavirus are likely to go down the longer churches stay closed.
That said, churches have many legitimate reasons for opening sooner rather than later. Churches that do decide to open can help care for the vulnerable by mitigating the risk of spreading the virus. This will likely demand some sacrifice. For example, the very things that draw people to worship gatherings may be the things we cannot do together for a long time (like sing, celebrate communion or pass the peace). We may have to wear masks while in worship and sit six feet apart from each other. In-person worship will not look as it did three months ago.
Churches will also need to ensure that congregants who choose not to worship in person can still partake in the life of the church. Virtual worship isn’t going anywhere. The question for pastors will be: How do you ensure that everyone feels like a valued part of the community, whether or not you are able to see them in person?
Many decisions in our lives feel weighty right now. Do I fly to see my family in mid-summer as I planned to do? Should I go to the dentist or get my hair cut? Will school be back in session come fall? What do I do for childcare if it doesn’t? But as a pastor, none of these decisions feel more weighty right now than the decision of whether or not to reopen the church building. I hope pastors, church leaders, and congregants can all be gentle and compassionate with one another, whether we decide to reopen or stay closed for the time being. For as of today, there is not a clear answer one way or the other.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.