by Tom Sims
Let me start with this. Many things have been closed that have never been closed before:
Stores and restaurants. Beauty Salons and barbers.
Theaters and churches.
The churches have not been closed. Those who think they have been are either confused about the church’s nature and mission or they have not been paying attention. For that reason, the call to reopen them seems a bit redundant.
You Cannot Reopen What Was Never Closed
But what people mean is they want to see buildings and public services opened.
Everyone is getting impatient with COVID-19 and the restrictions it has brought to our country and to our world. Yet, these restrictions have been saving untold thousands of lives. Never has there been such a global event. Never has there been such a global effort to protect the citizens of the world.
Early in the process of the spread of this coronavirus, there was a report of its spread to a conference in Indonesia where about thirty pastors died as a result of being together when one person, who was infected, brought the germ to the group.
Germs are invisible. So, we do not see the threat.
Impatience is a dangerous quality. It leads to lowering our guard. Lowering our guard gives microscopic invaders permission and hosts to spread. It gives us a temporary feeling of freedom and normality but sets us up for disaster. Fortunately, most people are being cautious and conscientious during these days of reopening, but some are flaunting what they supposed to be their freedom.
I want to focus on churches as opposed to the more generalized term, “houses of worship.” I do this because I know churches best because most other religious groups seem ready to continue to take extraordinary precautions, and because there are some churches that are crying out for their constitutional rights to reopen with minimal restrictions and encouraging others to join them.
In my experience, most churches that are making the difficult decision to reopen their physical doors, while implementing CDC and California guidelines, are doing so carefully and humbly. I am not writing this to criticize them. I am putting forth an alternate view of the advisability of it. I do so knowing how much people need face-to-face support and fellowship, believing in the separation of church and state with freedom of religion and association, and fully aware of the real trials that many churches are experiencing on the brink of survival.
These are trials we have faced in closing doors to an active children’s program in a community riddled with poverty and crime. Other non-profits join the churches in feeling crippled and financially strained to the point of financial failure. I know this. I know that either direction people go brings hardship and extreme difficulty.
I have the luxury of a small congregation. We are able to stay in touch with each other.
Another luxury I have, is a group of people already online and able to adapt to the reality of meeting that way.
Many of the scriptures I have been reading in my systematic study of the Bible this season have reminded me of patience while the church waits redemption. Paul and Peter, especially, in their letters to churches, encourage believers to exercise patience.
Jesus, whom we follow, gave the church two strong mandates. One was a Great Commission, stated slightly differently at different times, but essentially, to make disciples. The second was what has been called the Great Commandment, which is to love God and love one’s neighbor. Never did he say to build buildings and hold large services.
The New Testament and the apostles did teach believers to gather regularly, but never specified how or where. In most cases, it was wherever and whenever they could and usually under difficult situations. In Rome, they even gathered in underground cemeteries.
In this season, the church has been gathering by phone, social media, internet conference platforms, and email. Some have been encouraging the church, for years, to think about how to utilize these tools, along with face-to-face meetings, public square gatherings, and house churches, to make disciples and love God and neighbor. All religions share their own version of the first and most articulate some version of the second.
This current scenario has forced the issue on the church and allowed it the opportunity to discover its capabilities and opportunities. In many ways, it is a new day for global and local influence, bringing down walls, and increasing the impact that churches can have, the depth of relationships, and the regularity of personal contact. Of course, it leaves some behind, but some were being left behind before. I tend to think we have widened the tent.
I also believe that we need to look toward the time of coming together again. However, I believe that the time should be carefully implemented to maximize our love for our neighbor by not placing our neighbors at risk of physical harm. I think it should also give us pause to rethink all of our health and safety protocols and our strategies for maximum effectiveness. The public is going to be leery of large crowds for some time now. The church must meet those concerns.
The days of defining church as a series of large gatherings undergirded by large buildings and organizations with sophisticated structures and glossy programming has been fading for many years. Many have tried to pump new life into old structures rather than viewing structures as tools for being the church more authentically and personally.
In so many realms, smaller is being seen as better.
Intimacy and regularity have been rediscovered as essential.
The church and other religious bodies have been meeting that challenge in recent days. They have changed out of necessity. Now the temptation is to return to business as usual and even use the language of opening and reopening as if our fellowships were markets where people walk in, choose their religious consumables, and exit in isolation from everyone else around them.
The challenges churches, non-profits, social organizations, and other face-to-face entities face in the days of “reopening” are enormous. The questions are now being raised, and no one has all the answers. No one is an expert. We are all learning as we go along. My challenge to all is to be willing to learn, to adapt on non-essentials, and to reaffirm what the essentials are as we proceed carefully, strategically, and lovingly.
Churches, synagogues, temples, and other communities of faith have not been closed because they are communities and communities figure out ways to gather. They cannot be closed by outside entities because they are not physical locations; they are organic bodies made up of people. We are not at odds with a government that does not have an agenda to stifle religion, but a concern to protect the health and safety of both religious and non-religious people. This is a goal that people of faith ought to support and find common ground with.
I join those churches and religious groups that believe that loving one’s neighbor in this hour must include concern for his or her physical, emotional, and spiritual health. We must find the balance and not be too quick to press for a return to “normal.”
If we take that approach, I believe that it will boost the message we are trying to deliver and create opportunities for growth that we never imagined.
• Create systems for staying in closer touch with each other, daily.
• Organize online fellowship times just to chat and play games together.
• Post encouraging and devotional messages on social media.
• Plan those “odd-times” meetings online that were not possible when dressing and driving were required.
• Refine the capacity and skills needed to improve online services, classes, and meetings.
• Plan to continue online as a part of your ministry after doors reopen.
• Laugh with people and help them laugh,
• Teach healthy skepticism, fact-checking, and reasoning skills regarding information being shared in social media.
• Teach the faith-basis for conscientious personal behaviors.
• Praise and uplift those in the necessary and helping professions.
• Be creative and proactive.
• Stay ahead of the curves of change.
• Think long-haul thoughts.
• Smile online.
• Encourage positive use of downtime and positive entertainment choices.
• Set up online support groups for whatever you would support in person.
• Be aware of and provide resources for addictions, depression, and other problems.
• Create a climate of sharing resources and personal help.
• Add your own ideas in the comments here or on the KRL Facebook page.
Let us see these days as less of an obstacle and more of an opportunity.
Stay informed locally. www.facebook.com/groups/Fresnocovidresponse