Despite surging COVID-19 case numbers in many states, I believe it is time for progressive, mainline and Baptist churches to consider reopening for worship services. I make this suggestion quite tentatively and with full awareness that it might seem counterintuitive. But I believe there are good reasons even now for churches to open, so long as we require rigorous health precautions that are being used in other settings.
Here are five reasons:
Because Christians need to gather in community and worship God. This extended period away from the gathered church in worship has offered something of a test. For four months we have had the opportunity to discover whether we miss it, what we miss and what we might substitute for it. I find that I have missed it — not everything about church, but many things. By now, I would say it is incarnational things that are most irreplaceable — the familiar sacred spaces and objects, the physical bodies of fellow church members in a room together, the Word wrestled with together, and the Eucharist shared in community.
“I do not believe Zoom Church can carry us indefinitely.”
Because virtual church can only carry us so far. Since the very first weekend of this crisis, the small group I lead has gathered live, virtually. Skype was rough; Zoom has been better. Meanwhile, our staff have offered prerecorded worship services online. I can say that Zoom has been successful in helping us keep our little community intact and in providing a safe space for Bible study and shared prayer. Still, Zoom fatigue is real, and we ache to see each other again in the flesh. I do not believe Zoom Church can carry us indefinitely.
Because the situation is not likely to get better any time soon, so if we wait for dramatic progress, it could be months or years until we can gather again. Once we thought there would be a “first wave,” then with “social distancing” we would be able to “flatten the curve” and then get back to a “new normal” — you know, all this language that for months has become our way of life. For various reasons, it ain’t happenin’. It looks like we are stuck in this nightmare-land until … a vaccine? Mandatory national mask-wearing? It’s not clear. Meanwhile, the weeks tick by. The fact that we are at four months with little hope of immediate change means it might be time to reconsider.
“The fact that we are at four months with little hope of immediate change means it might be time to reconsider.”
Because remaining closed when so many businesses, museums, parks and other entities are finding ways to open sends the wrong signal about how much we ourselves value the gathered church experience. I live in Atlanta. As I write, here is what is open, most of it since May 1: hair and nail salons, dry cleaners, malls, food courts, daycares, many restaurants, the zoo, some playgrounds, some pools, auto repair places, gyms, construction sites, hotels, dental offices and most retail businesses. They have found a way to open, with social distancing regulations. They are open because they need to be to survive and because they believe they provide a service people want and/or need badly enough to undertake some level of risk. If our churches remain closed long after these other entities are open, I fear this sends the wrong message to members and a watching world. I also fear some of our more fragile churches will die.
Because there appear to be ways to arrange worship services and spaces that are safe. Readers of my recent work will know that I attend both Catholic and Baptist churches. With my wife, Jeanie, we have been back in person at Catholic Mass since mid-June.
I want to tell you what it is like. It certainly appears to be as safe as it can possibly be. Congregants enter through a limited number of doors, which are kept open so we don’t touch handles. Arrows, and retrained ushers, guide us on a path to our seats. Every other pew is roped off, and no one is within 6 feet of anyone outside of their family. Everyone without exception is required to wear a mask, other than speakers and singers (when they are speaking and singing).
All paper has been removed from the sanctuary. There are no programs or hymn books. No offering plate is passed. The passing of the peace has been eliminated. No one touches anyone else. Congregational singing is limited as few really want to sing through their masks. The choir is reduced to a pianist and a cantor sitting well apart from each other. The Eucharist no longer involves the cup, only the bread, and people file forward for it, carefully spaced apart. Everyone exits following the arrows and through two different doors from entry.
It is hard for me to see how going to church on these terms is any riskier — and probably a lot less risky — than going to Target, Kroger or Great Clips. It is certainly a shock at first because some of that incarnational good stuff I discussed at the beginning simply cannot happen, or not as well. No hugs or handshakes, and even smiles are hidden behind masks. And, of course, just because we open for church services does not mean everyone will feel comfortable or even be able to come back. That’s clear.
In my first experience at doing worship in this hard new era, I got choked up. It reminded me of how many losses we have suffered as a society during this time. It felt a bit like going to church in Europe during the plague or something.
And yet, a wounded people in a wounded world, we were there. And it felt good and right to be there.
I wonder what, besides the obviously grave health worries, might deter Protestant church leaders from moving in this direction. I wonder if we are overly impressed with the staying power of virtual church. Or perhaps we are not sure that church under these kinds of health constraints would be worth it. Maybe we fear some of our congregants will want to come back but not cooperate with these new rules. I want to sit in my old pew with my old friends and without that stinking mask! That would be a problem, for sure.
Big picture, we are a society crippled by a mismanaged pandemic and filled with hurting souls. I think it is time for our congregations to reopen, to meet the needs of those souls as best we can.
See a personal response David Gushee has written about the dialogue sparked by this article.