Holding Church in a Pandemic

Insisting on large gatherings for worship while dealing with COVID-19 shows a lack of faith, and perhaps ignores the Greatest Commandments.

I “grew up” in a rural community known as Camden County, NC.

No, I did not spend my childhood or school years there. The growing pains (and joys) that I experienced came as a very young first-time pastor of a country church. As I have written previously, it was a glorious experience.

If any community is tailor-made for social distancing, it is Camden. On the front of our home in that farming/bedroom town, I had to walk 40 yards to get to our closest across-the-street neighbor. And don’t even think about trying to walk to the back yard (or, back 40) neighbors.

The problem with this type of natural separation is it also makes community gatherings all the more vital. School events are packed to the rafters. Ball fields are crowded with family and friends. Services at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist (our church) are should-to-shoulder—where great grandparents to children worship together. These are the things that make community what it is in many rural regions.

Yet, as important as these gatherings may be, the pastor of Sawyer’s Creek Baptist Church has chosen caution. Rev. Kevin Buzzard is opting for online services and forms of delivering the Gospel message, rather than opting for regular worship gatherings. SCBC is not the most high-tech congregation, but they are using the tools at hand to connect with this close-knit community in a safe and responsible way.

A few pastors in Florida and Pittsburgh could learn from his example.

Many have read the stories of churches holding services or perhaps of pastors being arrested in the midst of this mess. I have a lot of issues with the government interfering in the ministry of the church, but we may save that for another blog.

I am a Christian, and a pastor (albeit the world’s worst). A few pastors choose to hold public worship as an example of faith and fearlessness. Parishioners claim to be “covered by the blood of Jesus” and “claiming Psalm 91” as protection from coronovirus. (Side note: I’m not a fan of the video, just using it as an example).

These folks might need a reminder of someone else who once quoted the power of protection of Psalm 91. It was Satan. He was trying to convince Jesus that God would protect him if he jumped off a steeple.

Having live worship gatherings during a time of international crisis and mounting health concerns/death is not an act of faith and obedience to God’s call. Nor is it a demonstration of God’s power over the forces of this world. It is an act of extreme arrogance, foolishness, and—truth be told—faithlessness.

That may sound harsh and judgmental to you. And you’re absolutely right. I am not judging the intention of these pastors, as I cannot begin to imagine what they are actually thinking. But we can discern the potential outcome of their decisions, and the witness they are providing to the world through them.

There is a reason that I hold to the Biblical description of church as the “Body of Christ.” I firmly believe that Christian community is about embodiment—both the mental, spiritual, and physical presence of Christ in and through one another. The Body is at its best when we GATHER in person as a community.

But that does not mean that God can only work when we gather in a physical place.

Church buildings do not contain God, and they are certainly not the only places where God shows up. Gathering for worship in a sanctuary—or, in modern parlance, a “worship center”—is not the only way for us to be the Body of Christ. Right now, it is probably not even the best way.

Christianity holds an idealized view of Biblical heroes that they just bulled straight ahead in a death-defying charge to share the Gospel. They didn’t. While they certainly did as the Spirit directed them, they acted with wisdom, reluctance, and savvy in carrying out their tasks.

And they certainly did not act in a manner that would put Christ-followers in harm’s way. THEY took the responsibility and whatever punishments might come, while encouraging their followers to use caution in care of one another.

Even Jesus knew when to withdraw from danger, and when to stare it in the face. He waited until the time was right and it was absolutely necessary to confront the ultimate danger.

Why would God call on us to bring people together in willful defiance when such gatherings risk the health and lives of believers—and, worse yet, non-believers? It’s one thing if we choose to take risks ourselves but continuing to gather risks the lives of others.

I am wary of the government getting involved in religion, and vice versa. But this is an extreme circumstance where our best and most powerful witness is to work with civic leaders. Doing so might also save our faith.

From the evidence that I can see, these churches are not gathering to feed the homeless or compile medical supplies or care for homebound senior adults. That might hold legitimate weight if they were taking such actions. They are insisting on getting together for regular worship.

If we truly believe that God is more powerful than COVID-19, then why is God not powerful enough to speak and act and move to gather us over Facebook Live? Why would we ever suggest that we must gather in a certain building on a certain plot of land to experience Holy Ground? If God is watching over us, then certainly the Holy Spirit can work in wonderful ways even through the dangerous power of the internet.

Perhaps pastors are worried that they will appear weak if they do not defy the civil ordinances. But don’t we often cite scripture that tells us God’s strength is found when we feel weak?

Perhaps some pastors fear that, if the online option becomes a “thing” among their people, they will quit coming when services resume. But isn’t that the very heart and spirit of fear that they say they are defying?

I talked with a pastor of a small church in the Pittsburgh area who expressed such concerns. He worried about giving, attendance, and the very future of the church is services stopped. Such worries are much more significant for smaller congregations than for some who continue to violate the law.

After his decidedly traditional, low-tech congregation moved to online services, he then discovered that a lot of people were watching—even people whose shadow never darkened the door of the church. He received comments and questions and compliments from those in the community that he barely knew or never met.

Yes, Christ does not require your defiance in order to be a positive witness to the world. He does expect your faithfulness, and that includes faithfully caring for the well-being of others about yourself.

For a congregation like Sawyer’s Creek, gathering as community is essential. If they can find a way to do that through technology, then surely others can prove faithful by doing the same. Faith tells us that the Spirit will continue to work, even when the rest of the world doesn’t.

Our witness to the world right now will determine how Christianity is viewed after this crisis. Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How we choose to react to this crisis will determine how serious we are about both.

2 thoughts on “Holding Church in a Pandemic

  1. Totally on point! I have been saying for the last several days that ministers/pastors who are sueing over constitutional rights being infringed on are showing an utter lack of compassion for their congregants. Surely compassion for others is more important right now!

    Like

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