Gathering for Worship in a COVID-19 Age: Convictions and Some Lessons Learned
In late July, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Nevada church’s request to soften in-person crowding restrictions. The church’s case centered around fairness. If restaurants and casinos can legally fill their rooms to 50% capacity, why can’t worshiping congregations—currently limited to much smaller gatherings—do the same? In a 5-4 split decision, the Court denied the church’s request.
More recently, a California megachurch issued a public statement of non-compliance to similar state restrictions. According to the statement, the church “will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship.” Following its release, videos went viral of a packed sanctuary with thousands of worshipers, no social distancing, only a handful of masks, and a pastor remarking with notable sarcasm, “Welcome to our peaceful protest.” His words were followed by roaring applause. More recently, the same pastor is featured on video telling his congregation, “There is no pandemic.”
The separation of church and state has long been a core value of our nation. The principle originated with the idea of religious freedom, allowing believers to practice their faith openly and without fear of state interference. As a Christian minister, I embrace the separation principle. However, I do not believe that the Supreme Court or the states of Nevada and California have violated it.
The Supreme Court’s Nevada ruling is problematic (in my opinion) not because it over-protects congregations, but because it under-protects those who frequent restaurants and casinos. Wherever lives are at risk, it is always the state’s duty to protect. The California church’s public statement also seems problematic, because it mistakes rightful government protection for wrongful government intrusion. In California alone, there have already been over 10,000 deaths from COVID-19. Furthermore, one suspects that if the Sunday morning invader was a hostile criminal instead of a hostile virus, the church would welcome government involvement.
As a Christian minister, I understand firsthand why church people dislike gathering restrictions. Like casinos and restaurants, schools and concert venues, sports stadiums and protest rallies, a congregation’s ability to thrive depends on people meeting together in crowds. The practice of faith is as much public as it is personal. This is why the Bible is adamant that congregations not forsake the habit of worshiping together (Hebrews 10:24-25).
But in a global pandemic, our worshiping congregations must also take great care how we gather. We shouldn’t have to be told to practice protective behavior by governing authorities, because we should already be on board. Faithful protest or “speaking truth to power” is virtuous, right, and called for if the state is doing harm to its citizens (see Bonhoeffer’s opposition to Hitler, King’s to a racially unjust America, etc.). But when the state is aiming to protect the lives of its citizens, Christians should be the first in line to offer their enthusiastic support (Romans 13:1-7).
Christians have always identified as “pro-life” people. For this reason, coming alongside our most vulnerable neighbors, whether unborn or born, should never be treated as a lesser good than gathering to worship God. The command, “You shall not murder”—which includes protecting human life against the violence of persons as well as pandemics—is coupled right next to the command to “Honor the Sabbath Day.” Worshiping God and protecting neighbor are inseparable, and there is no occasion in which one can cancel the other out.
The reality of religious freedom is not a license to assert our freedom. To the contrary, true religious freedom is a freedom to love, serve, and bless God and others. This often requires us to lay aside our own rights for others’ sake, just as Christ laid aside his for our sake.
According to Oxford scholar and Christian, C.S. Lewis, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” Said differently, the more heavenly-minded we are, the more earthly-good we will be. For this reason, Christians have always been active, first and ongoing responders to the vulnerability of widows, orphans, the disabled, immigrants and refugees, minorities, abuse victims, the elderly, and the poor.
In a global pandemic, it is also notable that history’s first hospital was founded by Saint Jerome, a Christian minister, and backed by Christian funding. Centuries later, thousands more hospitals have emerged, many of which are named after a Saint. The worship of God and upholding human health—both soul and body—again go hand-in-hand.
The prophet Isaiah wrote that Messiah would forgive our sins and heal our diseases. Christ calls himself a “doctor” as he heals souls and also bodies—including those afflicted with leprosy, blindness, paralysis, hemophilia, fever, starvation, and other maladies. His disciples touched and prayed for the sick, that God might heal them. The Gospel writer Luke was a medical doctor. Concerning plague-infected citizens, one Roman emperor complained that Christians cared better for Rome’s sick than Rome did.
Those who are zealous to worship God will be equally zealous to prevent sickness. Jesus said as much when he affirmed that the second greatest commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is “just like,” or one and the same as, the first greatest commandment to love the Lord are God. In a COVID-19 era, this requires creativity regarding how we gather. For the church that I am honored to serve, we follow a hybrid model that includes at-home live streaming for COVID-vulnerable parties. We also offer CDC-compliant in-person services with social distancing, tracking and tracing, sanitizing, and the use of masks during singing. Lastly, we have well-ventilated, CDC-compliant outdoor gatherings for folks in between.
Like the churches in Nevada and California, the church that I serve (Christ Presbyterian in Nashville) is a large one. And thus far, we have had no known cases of viral spread using this model, while also providing a way for every person to participate in worship and remain well-protected. For this, we are thankful.
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