My participation in Sunday church services began when my parents enrolled me in the “cradle roll department” in our Texas Baptist church. Seventy-four years later, I’ve seldom missed Sunday-to-Sunday involvement with a worshiping congregation whether in pew or pulpit. Until now.
I’m still worshiping, but online, with the saints and sinners at First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, our family’s home congregation for the last 23 years. These days, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, my presence at worship is spiritual, but not collective. And even if the President of the United States orders me to do so, I’m not going back to the church building any time soon.
“If some congregations feel the compulsion of the Spirit to restore in-church worship, then they are also mandated to offer the care of souls in ways that protect everyone.”
Why? Because I’m in the “vulnerable” group of Americans for whom the virus is something of a death threat. If the church is truly committed to the “care of souls,” then my physical absence on Sundays is not a test of faith; it’s an affirmation of faith and life. If God really is present everywhere, and if churches, at least some of them, continue to offer worship online, then let’s get on with it. The Spirit knows where to find me, wherever I am.
Yes, there are those who may consider themselves physically healthy enough to join the “gathered community” of faithful souls worshiping God together in a specific sacred space, but let’s not make that an event for separating the sheep from the goats in this world or the next. If some congregations feel the compulsion of the Spirit to restore in-church worship, then they are also mandated to offer the care of souls in ways that protect everyone, especially those chronologically or physically challenged. To use time-worn Baptist language, churches that opt to restore public worship should exercise considerable “stewardship” of such occasions amid a life-threatening epidemic.
Such “stewardship” means at least this:
Everyone attending worship must wear a mask, both to protect themselves and the most vulnerable among them. Failure to do so is to undermine the heart of Jesus’ teaching, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Refusing to wear a mask at worship may say more about a person’s Christianity (or lack of it) than the decision to show up on Sunday.
The danger of singing must be taken seriously. Recent studies suggest that singing sends particles from our mouths much farther than six feet. Choir lofts may be particularly dangerous. One study from Washington state indicated that one individual at a choir rehearsal infected numerous choir members in one evening. Perhaps we should consider humming the hymns, mouths closed.
Congregational social distancing is essential. Many churches may need to add multiple services in order to accommodate everyone who wants to attend. An Episcopal bishop recently told me of one Kentucky church with seating capacity for 400 that discovered effective social distancing would allow for only 19 individuals in that worship space. In addition, proper sanitizing of the worship center is essential, especially if multiple services are necessary.
And what of worship leaders? Will each have a microphone, or will microphones be disinfected after each speaker? Will those leaders wear masks until it is their turn to speak? And the preachers? In many churches, the front pews will need to be vacated so that worshipers are protected from the particles that preachers might dispense in addressing the gathered community, especially in their most passionate gospel moments. (Shorter sermons might also help!)
What about the welcome? We all know that the days of passing the peace, hugging, handshaking and close proximity conversations are on hold for the duration. Hand sanitizer must be readily available. Love, however, prevails.
What about the sacraments? That may be the most complicated element of all. For those Christian traditions that call worshipers to the altar for the observance of Communion, how much distancing is required? Clearly, use of a “common cup” with temperance grape juice could send us all to heaven shortly thereafter! Certain Protestant communions have turned to “pop-top” Communion sets, with bread and grape juice sealed into segmented plastic coverings sanitized for individual consumption. Distribution, however, will no doubt require deacons to wear surgical gloves and masks in patrolling the aisles. And what of baptism? Infant baptism certainly requires sanitary sensibilities beyond the norm – gloves, masks, distancing at the font. Likewise, baptismal immersion, always logistically challenging, could be precarious for convert and minister alike, especially when multiple candidates enter the same water in the confines of the typical fiberglass pool. Best to take it back to the river!
Truth is, traditional worship forms will be a long time returning to congregations that open immediately or choose to delay. Protecting those who come together and ensuring that homebound congregants are included will require both onsite and online worship, thereby keeping faith communities reasonably intact.
Through it all, the “witness” of the church will undoubtedly be evaluated by the seriousness with which each congregation takes the logistics of worship in the COVID-19 era. At best, perhaps we Christians will discover a new sense of the Spirit, uniting us in church, at home or wherever the Spirit finds us. Two millennia ago, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the glory of the transcendent God might be revealed.”
In 2020 we know how right he was.
Wendell Griffen | The First Amendment and religious freedom compel me to refute Trump’s position on churches reopening
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