July 9, 2020
Letter to the Editor
Five reasons I disagree with David Gushee
David Gushee shared five reasons why he felt that the church should reopen, and I truly took issue with each one.
“Because Christians need to gather in community and worship God.” I certainly don’t disagree with David’s premise here, but I disagree with his conclusion. Humans were created in and for community. God exists ontologically in community. But we have found in the past few months that community does not ALWAYS require physical presence. We have found community in phone calls, emails, socially distant visits, Facebook Live worship services and, yes, in Zoom meetings. We have discovered that community permeates more than we thought.
“Because virtual church can only carry us so far.” I concede that “Zoom fatigue” is real. But I also remember back before the pandemic when “committee meeting fatigue” was real. Self-care is a priority whether we are meeting virtually or not. Indeed, since the pandemic, our nominating committee has actually had an easier time filling ministry positions for next year since people anticipated that meetings would be virtual and would not require coming to the church building. We have learned lessons we will take with us beyond the pandemic.
“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.” This point troubled me more than most. Meeting now, because it could be a long time before we could meet safely, means that people’s lives will be put in danger from our lack of patience. Like many pastors, a large number of people in my church are at an increased risk of complications due to COVID-19. I am not convinced we have reached the point where we can meet with a large enough threshold for safety.
“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.” This is a false equivalency. I do not believe parks, museums, grocery stores, hair salons and other businesses face the same challenges when working on safety. A local hair salon is open but takes only one customer at a time (the rest wait in their cars). This is not a model the church can duplicate. Keeping over a hundred individuals seated in an enclosed space, breathing the same air, for nearly (or over) an hour is not a challenge the grocery store faces.
“Because there appear to be ways to arrange worship services and spaces that are safe.” It is absolutely true that there are churches that have resumed in-person worship with accommodations. It is also true that too many churches have been in the news for “super spreader” events. I have encouraged my congregation to err on the side of caution. We also have worried about the difficulty of living into our mission statement, part of which reads, “to be a loving and inclusive community.” Churches need to limit the number of people in a sanctuary for safety reasons. One way people do this is by reservations. Others simply set a maximum number. Our leadership team struggled with having to turn people away because we were “full.”
What troubled me most about David’s overall position is how reductionist it felt. At McLean Baptist Church, we talk about “resuming in-person worship.” We don’t talk about “reopening the church” because we don’t feel it has ever closed. We are planning an ordination service for a new deacon. We are talking about introducing a new member who wants to join the church. The benevolence ministry in our congregation is providing family assistance every Wednesday and Saturday.
Do we miss each other? Deeply. But the work of the church continues. I earnestly believe we have been a living a parable to show that the “church” is not the building and “worship” is not bound by location. I am reminded that we have a large percentage of the books of the New Testament because the Apostle Paul was issued a “stay-at-home” order by the Roman Empire. Of course, in his case, it was called “house arrest.” He was unable to be with the churches he loved (some of which he founded), and letters had to serve as a substitute for his presence. Yet, in the closing words of Acts, the Bible describes his confinement this way: “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and free from any hindrance.”
He was confined at his own expense for two years, yet the Bible says he preached and taught without any hindrance. May we see our ministry in the same way. May we never believe these inconveniences and struggles that we are living through hinder the gospel. Until we feel we can gather again, safely and inclusively, we will continue to try do justice, love mercifully and walk humbly each day in new and creative ways.