6 Observations About COVID & the Church

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1. Superspreaders and broad brushstrokes. I wince every time I read a list of high-risk places to avoid during the pandemic. “Places of worship” is usually near the top of the list. Ouch!

The story usually goes on to tell of a Pentecostal church in Idaho that sang for 90 minutes during a three-hour revival attended by 1400 people that included lots of embracing and laying on of hands. Or perhaps a fundamentalist church in Alabama where worshippers were told to “unmask evil” by collecting face masks and throwing them into a giant bonfire in the parking lot.

Just as you may often wish to declare, “I’m not that kind of Christian!” I too want to proclaim “We’re not that kind of church!”

We mask. We distance. We abbreviate worship. We worshipped outdoors from July until October. We went indoors briefly until the numbers caused us to go back to online-only for a couple months. Now we’ve been gathering in the midst of an endless polar vortex that made social distancing no problem at all.

More than a few have thought us overly cautious. Yet no one on our staff has had the virus, and I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that no one has contracted the virus at our worship services.

I’m not asking for the Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t think we are unique. Among my close colleagues, I’ve seen almost all exhibit conscientious leadership and attention to detail. Many congregations chose paths that could be viewed as detrimental to themselves, that generated ire from lots of their own people, but were for the greater good of the community. Such actions garner no attention, let alone accolades.

2. The virus falls on the just and unjust. After just mentioning reckless churches that became superspreaders, I also observe that many churches whose response to COVID I would deem irresponsible, have done so with impunity. They began gathering for worship weeks before we did. They’re running a full schedule. Worship lasts an hour and 15 — with lots of maskless singing. And no apparent repercussions.

I hear whispers about a few here and some others there catching the virus, but no superspreader. For that, we should all be grateful. But I’ll confess to muttering a few times as I look at our long list of protocols, or the many Sundays we didn’t gather when others did — “Why do the maskless prosper?”

Healthy 22-year-olds die from the coronavirus and nonagenarians skate through asymptomatically. And then conscientious congregations don’t seem to have any noticeably better safety records than chancier congregations. Do we do good for the results or because it is intrinsically good? Be slow and cautious about answering that.

3. People who have left your congregation over a mandatory-mask policy, didn’t really leave over that alone. A wise colleague shared that.

What was a hairline crack of discontent a year ago has grown into a full fracture through a year of discord, different news sources, and not being together. A mandatory mask policy was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. There were many straws, perhaps known only to a few, on that camel before the pandemic.

If the COVID pandemic is indeed the “great winnowing” for the American church, it also may be the great reshuffling. Churches have lost members but also have gained new members because of their response to COVID. I’m not in any way suggesting, however, that the gains will equal the losses. Thanks to COVID, churches become even more homogeneous and sociologically-defined.

I wonder, however, if this doesn’t point us toward some rarely-discussed fallout of not gathering for worship. We’ve come to see that safeguarding students through online school or those in care facilities by restricting them to their rooms can unintentionally produce deep social detriment. Similarly, after a year of not sharing a pew with someone, it is easier to detest the person who last March was merely annoying. It is easier to walk away from a community that has not truly and fully been together.

Once, when we worshipped together weekly — singing, praying, eating, and hearing Good News — we could hold together as a community even if we disagreed about God or Trump or music or immigration or LGBTQ inclusion. When we can’t do those things together do our differences and distrust become insurmountable? Could worshipping together, seeing one another, hearing a message of love have prevented this? We will never know.

4. Ghosting. The Urban Dictionary tells me that ghosting is ending a relationship or cutting off all communication with zero warning or notice.

There’s been a fair amount of ghosting in churches since last March. It hurts. It makes you wonder. Is it wishful thinking to hold out hope that it means nothing? They’ll show up this summer without skipping a beat?

Obviously, people have left churches during the pandemic, but the ghosters are a whole other category. Nothing. Na-da. Zip. Are they angry? Are they inordinately scrupulous about possible exposure? Are they lazy? Perfectly content? Poor communicators? Unaware? Calls, cards, invitations, opportunities dropped down their well haven’t produced even the slightest echo.

It feels like COVID has been a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card for some — a chance to disappear without explanation or notice. I suppose if people have been quietly equating church with jail before the pandemic, it’s not surprising they saw a crack in the wall and quickly scampered through.

5. Context Matters. Big, blanket pronouncements and ideological litmus testing about how churches should deal with COVID have seemingly decreased over time. Could we even hope that the whole thing is becoming somewhat de-politicized? Frankly, as I’ve written here before, last spring it sometimes felt like the “don’t rush to re-open” crescendo was driven as much by anti-Trump spite as concern for public health.

Maybe we’ve all realized that we have enough to figure out with our own congregations without trying to tell others what they ought to do. Yes, of course, the coronavirus is incredibly slippery, mobile, and acts like the same virus everywhere. Still, hot-spots and spikes have shown us that appropriate responses may differ. It isn’t as simple as one-size-fits-all when it comes to how congregations face COVID.

6. We All Have Blindspots. As a pastor, I’ll admit that I get frustrated, hurt actually, by the family that believes gathering for worship is risky but basketball tournaments and boy scouts are not. People concerned about how we might celebrate the Lord’s Supper safely are not concerned about eating at restaurants.

While I’ll admit to being puzzled and disappointed, I try not to be too judgmental.

I’ve noticed that even those who consider themselves the most meticulous about COVID safety have odd exceptions and incoherent ways. Everyone has caveats and loopholes. I’d tell you my blindspots if I could see them. Maybe a robustly Reformed understanding of sin is helpful here. We are all incredibly unable to perceive our own inconsistencies and foibles. Grace, kindness, and patience seem to be the only response.

The grind goes on. Has our skin grown thicker? Are our expectations so much lower? Is it just me, or have the sudden, deep, and piercing pains abated? Become more a chronic, hollow ache? Flashes, blasts, and wildfires have given way to bitter, blinding smoke. Still, hope persists.

Maybe at Easter we could… Do you think by summer we’ll be…?

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Thank you Steve, Your post is encouraging...I'm just gonna have to trust that God's grace will prevail.  God help us and forgive us for our own shortcomings in all this.