When do we reopen the church? A pastor considers the questions brought by coronavirus

There are many vulnerable people in the church I pastor.

For 15 years, I’ve served at a multicultural urban church in a postindustrial midwestern town in Indiana. Many members of the church and community face challenges related to employment, educational access, healthcare services, mental health resources, addiction care or housing stability. The church reflects the community: it’s multigenerational and includes people of varying abilities.

The many factors at play have made it tricky to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. We recognize the value of gathering together and the dangers of isolation and seclusion. Yet even more urgent is the pressing danger of exposing people with underlying health conditions to this coronavirus. We have had hundreds of confirmed cases in our county and the majority of those who have died are members of vulnerable populations. We are physically distancing ourselves from one another while at the same time recognizing the toll doing so is taking on people’s mental health and economic situations.

Our church has long been active in community development work and provides vital social service and clinical counseling ministries. During this pandemic, these crucial resources are especially needed — yet can only be enacted with physical distancing measures in place. We are resistant to the idea that the activities of faith communities should be considered “nonessential” when some businesses of questionable social benefit remain open. Yet we are also resistant to the idea that we must press to meet in person as an exercise of “religious liberty.” As Christians, we are not motivated by a desire to pursue our personal “rights” but by a desire to love our neighbors as ourselves.

As church staff and leaders, we’ve asked ourselves questions such as:

  • How do we best meet the physical needs of people with limited access to vital resources?
  • How do we help protect the most vulnerable from unnecessary exposure to the virus?
  • How do we keep people connected to community support and spiritual care?
  • How do we provide for the increased need for benevolence funding?
  • How do the choices we make about worship and gatherings affect the most vulnerable?
  • What do our practices in these areas demonstrate about our theological commitments?

For us, these considerations have led us to the following actions:

  • Livestream Sunday worship until health agencies recommend that social gatherings are safe for the congregation as a whole. We’re not going to exercise our right to gather in person as soon as it is legal.
  • Use Zoom for Bible studies, small groups and counseling sessions – and making links available on our Facebook page.
  • Call, text and send letters to people who may have difficulty connecting online. We’re also brainstorming about who is most isolated and reaching out to them.
  • Publicly post pastors’ cell phone numbers for emergency pastoral care.
  • Post the church’s social service phone number and national emergency hotline numbers, including those for suicide prevention and addiction services.
  • Partner with our local food bank to deliver food to people in need weekly. We’re picking up food, sorting it and delivering to more than 40 families.
  • Distribute gift cards for groceries and medications. We’re applying for local grants for emergency COVID-19 relief.
  • Advertise online and mail-in giving so people can share an offering via Square, PayPal, text-to-give, automatic withdrawal or by mailing envelopes.
  • Regularly maintain our Facebook page, including: live updates, prayers, words of encouragement, ideas for serving neighbors, worship and children’s ministry

Even with these actions in place, we still overlook some people. There is no perfect solution to the challenges we face. It is difficult to enact needed programs while maintaining appropriate physical distance. We have been wearing masks, keeping 6-8 feet of distance between people when possible, sanitizing surfaces and regularly washing hands. Additionally, the pressure of the spiritual, mental and physical needs of our congregation can be heavy at times. It is both beautiful and difficult to be a primary lifeline for many people. We have been doing what we are able to do and recognizing that we cannot do it all. We have been encouraging our congregation and community to look out for each other as well.

Through it all, we have seen God at work building God’s church. When this crisis hit, we were worried about how it could affect our church numerically and financially. We were concerned about how it could affect our people financially, medically and socially. While it hasn’t been easy, we have seen God work in surprising ways. People who have been hesitant to attend church in person have felt safe to connect with us online. Many people are logging on to YouTube livestream, Facebook Live and Zoom. We’ve been able to stay in touch with others through phone calls, texts and letters. Giving has increased rather than decreased. Grant funding normally not available to churches has been available for crisis relief. People have been cooperative, appreciative and kind.

I have often asked myself questions like: “What is the church without Sunday mornings?” “If our church were gone tomorrow, would the community miss it?” “What does it mean to be the church rather than just going to church?” “What does it mean that the church exists for the good of the world?” Surprisingly, the coronavirus is helping us answer these questions.

While this season is challenging and difficult, we trust that the body of Christ will come through it better equipped and more effective. People of faith throughout the millennia have found ways to respond to societal needs and to thrive spiritually in times of crisis. While we would not claim that this pandemic is divinely instituted, we do believe that God works good out of messes. God doesn’t waste anything. Jesus is reconciling all things and we get to join him in that work.

ANDREW T. DRAPER is the senior pastor of Urban Light Community Church in Muncie, Indiana. He is a theologian, author, speaker and activist.