July 9, 2020
Letter to the Editor
A response to David Gushee: Zoom church is not the nightmare
We are writing in response to David Gushee’s opinion piece on opening churches. With great respect for our friend and neighbor, we find his arguments surprising.
Certainly Christians need to gather for worship. We all miss the familiar places where we have come to seek God. Above all we miss the loving presence of one another, utterly human and yet each one a reminder of what it is to be a child of God.
But when Gushee describes life during the pandemic as a “nightmare-land,” four months and counting, we say, what is four months compared to the lifetimes that will not be fully lived by the people lost to this disease?
Four months of Zoom worship is not a nightmare. A nightmare is a nurse, a member of our church who works in a COVID-19 unit, having to live in a travel trailer in her driveway for weeks, unable to hug her husband and child. A nightmare is what our congregation’s chaplains face as they risk their lives to hold the hands of those whose families are not allowed to be present as they die. A nightmare is what David Rensberger’s daughter, a nurse anesthetist, has to wear at work: cloth hat, paper hat, hood, N95 mask covered with surgical mask with eye shield, second mask with eye shield upside down, surgical gown and three pairs of gloves to peel off as they are soiled. She comes home dehydrated and low on oxygen. She is developing rashes and allergies from the PPE itself and the harsh cleaning chemicals she uses to decontaminate.
Zoom worship is not ideal, but it’s not a nightmare. David is willing go through a lot more than Zoom to keep his daughter safe.
But if nail salons are open and churches stay closed, doesn’t that send the wrong message about what we value?
We decline to make religious decisions based on bad, failing, secular examples. Georgia, where many businesses opened in early May without evidence that coronavirus cases were decreasing, is experiencing a serious rise in cases in early July. Florida, Texas and Arizona are faring worse, but for the same reason: they “reopened” without sound medical reasons for doing so. Why should churches follow this lead?
The writer of Hebrews does counsel against “neglecting to meet together,” but first writes, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” The church, not secular businesses, should lead this holy provocation, aware that to do so, “you need endurance” (Hebrews 10:36). Likewise, Paul would have us “not grow weary in doing what is right,” but “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:9–10).
Gushee describes a Catholic Mass that is “as safe as it can possibly be.” Congregants are distanced, everyone who isn’t speaking or singing wears a mask, practices involving touch are gone, and even the Eucharist is only bread. But, we would argue, how much church is this? Everyone is in the same room doing the same thing, but with no contact and the heart of the service curtailed. Is this worth even so small a risk?
Progressive Protestant churches may actually be well positioned to worship by means of Zoom. We are used to the idea of making difficult commitments and sacrifices for the good of others. We believe in the common good; we don’t think freedom consists in our individual ability to follow our whims, but in following our Lord in caring for the last and the least.
At Oakhurst Baptist Church, Zoom worship has had unexpected advantages. Former members in other states and other countries join in. Some have preached from Amsterdam, Italy, California and Kentucky. Prayers for the world have been prayed from all over the world. Students graduating from college tell us how encouraging it is to join their home church on Sunday mornings. People with medical conditions who have not been to church regularly for years show up with unmasked smiles. One Sunday our prelude was a piano solo by a retired missionary who is nearing 90 but plays with astonishing vigor. The closing hymn was led by a very talented 22-year-old man. This kind of intergenerational leadership could happen in person; but it was made fully possible through this digital medium.
Speaking of digital media: as Glen Guyton, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, has pointed out, worshipers in their teens and twenties were totally prepared, technically and culturally, for Zoom church. They, and their unchurched contemporaries, are the very people we will need to include in our worship when we do finally come out of the pandemic. Let’s not whine them away.
Other things are working well too. Our children are learning firsthand that God’s church is not a building, but people coming together regardless of physical location to worship, laugh, share and prepare themselves to love God’s world. Wherever they log in from is a sacred space where God and community are found. Practically, it’s easier for young children to display some meaningful object that represents their relationship with God when they can bring it from their room to the computer rather than dragging it to the church building.
Every Sunday, our church members have an opportunity to respond to the Scripture. For years we’ve sought a meaningful way to offer this in the sanctuary, but something about Zoom makes it more natural. Many have noted the surprising intimacy of seeing one another’s faces up close as we listen to what each finds meaningful or challenging.
We long to gather, hug, share communion, and sing together. Yet already we’re talking about devising hybrid services, so the accessibility of Zoom isn’t lost when we’re back in the sanctuary.
We’re all eager to come back. Nevertheless, we’re willing to make this sacrifice, with its unanticipated blessings, for the duration.
Melanie Vaughn-West, Lauren Colwell, David Rensberger