Gathering for Worship in a COVID-19 Age: Convictions and Some Lessons Learned

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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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16 responses to “Gathering for Worship in a COVID-19 Age: Convictions and Some Lessons Learned”

  1. Kevin says:

    I believe your post fails to adequately consider the reality of our situation, and the conclusions are therefore questionable. Rather, the post relies on emotionalism and hyper-generalizations that do not accurately depict reality. Most people who critically examine the science and statistics underlying the COVID would disagree with your conclusions. Here are some relevant facts:

    – Under conservative estimates, there is a 99.8% recovery rate for COVID. This is based on known positive tests, and fails to count cases of people who have been infected but have not been tested. The rate of recovery is undisputedly much higher than what is reported because people who are infected but asymptomatic and never tested are not calculated. As the facts solidify, we are discovering there are massive numbers of asymptomatic, untested positives, as evidenced by the large number of people testing positive for COVID antibodies (demonstrating that they had COVID previously).

    – COVID is nowhere near as dangerous as it is presented, particularly if you are healthy and under the age of 65. In fact, if you are healthy and under the age of 65, you have a greater chance of dying in a car accident on the way to church than dying from COVID. 78.6% of all COVID deaths in the States are in the 65 and older age group. Further, of that group, the overwhelming majority possessed one or more serious underlying health conditions. Likewise, for COVID deaths in the under 65 age bracket, an even greater percentage possessed one or more serious underlying health conditions. Consequently, if you are healthy and under the age of 65 (the overwhelming majority of the US population), you must realize that the COVID threat to you has been extraordinarily misrepresented.

    – Actual COVID deaths should be much lower. Of the total COVID-related deaths in the US, approximately 40% occurred in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Of these deaths, almost half are attributed to just five states (NY, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California). Shockingly, these states forced elderly COVID positive residents back into their nursing homes after they tested positive. The virus unsurprisingly spread in these facilities and unnecessarily infected, and killed, helpless residents. Disturbingly, one of the architects behind Pennsylvania’s policy, Rachel Levine, a biological male, removed his mother from a nursing home just before instituting the program. Yikes. Further, there are indications that the nursing home deaths in these five states are being under-reported, which is not surprising considering the responsible officials are exposed to potential criminal liability for negligent homicide (these states are presently under investigation by the Department of Justice for these policies).

    – The reported COVID death rate is misleading. It is becoming clearer that, if an individual had COVID, or even COVID-like symptoms, or even COVID antibodies present when they passed away, they are being counted in the COVID death rate, regardless of other contributing factors (like pneumonia, heart disease, etc). Recently, a man who died in a motorcycle accident was counted as a COVID death. This case was not an outlier as an increasing number of county coroners and medical professionals are reporting that they are being pressured to inflate the number COVID deaths. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising as there are financial incentives for states, localities, and hospitals to over report. There are astronomic amounts of federal dollars available for corona relief. If you report a COVID positive or death, in comes the money. If you don’t, no money.

    – On additional grounds, COVID deaths should be much lower. Effective treatments have been unnecessarily politicized and marginalized. Sick stuff. Countries that engaged in widespread use of Plaquenil have demonstrated death rates at significantly lower rates than countries that did not. The differences are not marginal. They are extraordinary. Cuba–a country of 11.5 million whose population regularly utilized Plaquenil as an anti-malarial drug before the virus began–has only 86 total COVID deaths. By way of comparison, Pennsylvania a state with a similar-sized population (12.8M), has recorded 7,700 COVID deaths. Notably,in Pennsylvania, Plaquenil has been politicized and access has been restricted. The incredible numbers from Cuba are consistent with other countries in malaria zones where widespread use of Plaquenil predated the virus. Many of these countries are the poorest in the world, where access to high quality medical care is non-existent. What are the reasonable explanations for their miraculous COVID numbers?

    Moreover, Plaquenil has been available since the 1940’s, is FDA approved, and, statistically speaking, is one of the safest drugs available. I took it for years while overseas, and know hundreds of people who have used it with no significant side effects. A growing body of scientific evidence (over 65 studies), unrelated to the Cuba example cited above and relied on by a growing number of health professionals, is demonstrating that Plaquenil is highly effective against COVID, particularly when taken in the early stages of infection.

    Further, the few studies that attempt to discredit Plaquenil are misleading, at best, and were funded by the pharmaceutical industry. The financial incentives to discredit Plaquenil are glaring. Plaquenil is out of patent, meaning pharmaceutical companies cannot charge exorbitant rates for it. For example, Plaquenil costs between 35 cents and $1 per treatment, while the patented Remdesivir, the current leading candidate for COVID treatment, will cost $3,120 per patient.

    Considering these factors, I strongly disagree with your assertion that California and Nevada’s policies singling out churches are reasonable. Further, your position that the policies fail to adequately protect Casino and restaurant goers is inconsistent with reality. Simply put, the justifications for shutting down the country are being destroyed in real time. If you actually believed that there are extraordinary risks present for in-person meetings across the board (as you assert here), empathy would compel you to completely shut your church down to such events. It is my impression that you have not. If California’s policies are justified, you should, at the very least be arguing for churches to shut down across the country. I doubt you will.

    I would also strongly question your other justification for the shutdown policies—that they are empathetic and are protecting our most vulnerable. Contrary to the corporate narrative you embrace, the current shutdown policies disproportionately and negatively impact societies’ most vulnerable. Consequently, these policies are anything but “empathetic.”

    School shut downs and virtual learning policies are devastating our poorest communities, where single, working parents cannot afford to quit their jobs and watch their children. Small businesses, who employ the critical mass of our poorest, are filing bankruptcy at unprecedented rates, stripping workers of their ability to provide for their families. Suicide rates have skyrocketed during the shutdowns. This was all totally avoidable, and unnecessary with regard to economically disadvantaged people who are young and healthy. As discussed above, many policies have been anything but empathetic towards the elderly, as evidenced by the 20,000+ nursing home deaths in NY, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California at the hands of officials who you claim are “aiming to protect the lives of [their] citizens.”

    If the facts somehow change and support your narrative, I will be the first to reach out to you with a formal apology.

    • scottsauls says:

      Thanks for engaging my thoughts here, Kevin. Respectfully, we will continue to follow the epidemiologists’ interpretation of the data and related recommendations. At this time, that seems the wisest thing to do.

  2. Gail says:

    Polarizing behaviors and comments to support either side I think is missing the point. The real issue stems from what Jesus said about considering your brother more important than you. No one is going to win from arguments pro and con to Covid related issues. Love and compassion and respect for one another means that I believe politics need to take a backseat especially on the pulpit. I am having trouble finding a church in my local rural area That is not highly polarized. Recently I thought I found a church that was truly centered on Jesus. I Have been standing alongside a struggling friend who is seeking Jesus. I was so looking forward to bringing him to This Church but unfortunately the pastor has been on a Political tantrum on the pulpit. This is not about facts or science or government structure. We as a church should be what Christ was all about. Being zealous for God. Christ did not ask anyone to overthrow the Roman empire that was not his thing. His thing was to do the will of his father to draw people to God.

  3. Gail says:

    I want to apologize. As I re- read the pros and cons Covid debate I realize that I was off-topic. By the way at this church filled with non-distancing non-mask wearing attendees, sadly my daughter and I were the only ones respectfully keeping our distance and wearing masks. We live in California and it saddens me that so many churches do not take a respectful stance to protect vulnerable people.

  4. Pat says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for your reply.
    Mr. Saul’s: MANY epidemiologists around the world disagree with this lockdown. Now the CDC says only 6% of deaths reported caused by the virus – the rest are mixed with 2.4, on average, co-morbidities. Death rates in the US have actually fallen during this time. I believe John MacArthur’s explanation of why they decided to disregard “expert” guidelines is correct. So much unnecessary fear out there. So much economic & emotional pain. And the churches close. So sad.

  5. Rebeca says:

    Thank you pastor Scott for speaking truth and walking in it. I encourage you to continue to be faithful to the Lord and his word and keep rejecting false demonic doctrine based on the idol of liberty. The Lord Jesus is indeed the only one who makes us free and has bought our freedom, not any government. His approved children find joy even when we have to worship in jail for doing good, so this pandemic really is nothing to what some of our brethren have to go through. I praise God for giving me life, health and a private place where I can worship him. I’ve been also rejoicing in hearing God’s work in many of my brethren back in Mexico who contracted Covid and were dying. The Lord has been SO good and faithful to his people. He is our healer.
    Keep up the good work. Rejoice in the Lord, and may the Lord fill you with the Holy Spirit to build his church and destroy the enemy’s work with the authority Jesus has given you.

  6. Patricia Trotter says:

    I wish this post had come out earlier perhaps to have been used at the round table of church pastors and administrators who have had to grapple with the same situation. I wish my former church would have understood the grace and depth in this initial stance. Next, the breadth of creativity is so admirable, including so many people.
    When the church surveys the depravity and fallen condition of our country, I had hoped we would have taken the shut down to heart. Perhaps, humbled ourselves , searched our own hearts for the hidden cultural idols , then prayed as moved by our broken hearts and the Holy Spirit. But no, so many churches like my own, raced back to life as normal. They met, spread the virus. The service was cancelled for 2 weeks as recovery set in, and now they are ‘back to normal.’ This situation was simply not picked up in the news.
    As members of my unbelieving family watched, they made conclusions abt Christ followers- self centered, rebellious and defiant. This is not the fragrance of Christ in the midst of our world.
    Our forefathers bent their ‘rights’ on the Mayflower to the greater understanding of ‘common good’. It gave us a valuable standard to measure how to survive hard times.
    The sorrow I feel for such a missed opportunity in the light of a nationwide stage is great. I feel the loss of opportunity, the loss of unified grace and humility, and the loss of voice in the larger exchange.
    I am 70 years old. A student of history, church history and a Christ follower. Through the intense and deep storms of living that long, I know there are times that call for different actions as in Ecclesiastes. I perceive this COVID episode to have be a call for private and humble alignment with our Savior, trusting Him to address His bride and body as He sees and knows us. If we don’t have a relationship with Him where He can meet and instruct, fill and transform us, examine your connection.
    A race back to meeting may not be what is needed now. Perhaps, bowing low in praise and worship, tears and cleansing, intercession and reflection, eating the Word in depth and reflection….I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t sound very American. After all, Christian or not, we have our RIGHTS!
    When you balance your rights on the scale of Love, I think as Christ followers, we would hope to weight the side of selflessness until such time as the Captain of the Host calls us to be defiant in His Name’ as the Rend Collective lyric says.
    Again, I am older and do not give myself the right to judge others , but the responsibility to discern can be weighty. I feel the call to weep and ask when will we give our God His dream of John 17?

  7. Tim Wright says:

    Scott,
    Well said.
    Thanks for your voice of Christian reason.
    Sadly this won’t go viral because it’s not what “the people” want to hear.

  8. Kevin says:

    Scott, thank you for your response. I don’t think the issue is whether we should listen to medical professionals (we absolutely should), but rather which medical professionals we listen to. There are a growing number of epidemiologists who are countering the corporate narrative with concrete facts rather than relying on hyper-generalizations and emotionalism. And I want to make clear that I am not saying we should not be careful, but rather that we should utilize our God-given faculties and discern whether the response to COVID has been wildly disproportionate to the threat.

    Do the known facts support epidemiologist #1 who says the threat and response have been overblown, or rather support epidemiologist #2 who says we should engage in the most extraordinary lockdown civilization has ever attempted?

    • scottsauls says:

      Hey Kevin, thanks for the dialog. For what it’s worth, the doctors I’m listening to chiefly are the ones that (a) I know personally, and (b) are treating COVID patients every day.

  9. Ryan says:

    Thanks for taking up this topic. As a fellow pastor (and serving in a much-polarised congregation no less) I appreciate the simple explanation of what you’re doing at Christ Pres and why. God Bless.

  10. Roscoe Mayberry says:

    Hey Scott, appreciate your thoughts here. I do have differing views though in how Covid-19 has been handled in society, but more so in the church at large. To begin, and to be fair, MacArthur said that “there is no pandemic” based on the CDC’s new report that says only 6% of people who died from Covid have Covid listed as the primary source of death on their death certificate. We know this is true based on just some of the data Kevin laid out above. These past several months have reminded me of a term I picked up from Dr. Johnathon Haidt awhile back, “Safetyism”. Safetyism he says, “refers to a culture of belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people may become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” He used this term toward children, teenagers and young adults who were more-or-less over protected by their parents, or institutions, out fear of them becoming emotionally or physically hurt. So it is “safe” to say, “safetyism” hinders the emotional growth required to function as a responsibly resilient adult, which is crucial to any flourishing society. It is my belief that a term Dr. Haidt meant toward children, teenagers, and young adults in academia has crept unhindered into mainstream corporate life in America. This concoction of safetyism, mixed in with a mild pandemic, leads me to conclude that Covid has become a political tool political elites are using to undermine freedom in society, specifically religious freedom. This is on full display in both cases in California & Nevada where progressive Governors are restricting corporate worship, while allowing other secular gatherings to resume. As Christians, where do we draw the line and realize that friendship with the world is enmity toward God? When will we realize that the world hates us, because they hate Jesus?

  11. RM says:

    Thank you for this blog post. Since April we have been livestreaming our local church service and then livestreaming Christ Pres afterwards. We have so appreciated Pastor Sauls’ appeal for the local church to be embodied together in safe ways. Our small group has kept meeting via Zoom. This Sunday we’re planning to take our lawn chairs to the shade outside our church in Chattanooga, livestream, and then wearing our masks and socially distanced, visit with folks we have not seen for many months, outdoors. It is so helpful to see the folks that you are praying for, even if we can’t/won’t hug them just yet. Pro-life from conception to death has implications of protecting and caring for the vulnerable. The broad middle ground between complete lock-down and complete free-for-all is a tough place to be and I appreciate Pastor Sauls’ and the church’s efforts to model practice and adapt as needed. This is a tough time and I pray the Holy Spirit protects our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ so that we can be salt and light in this world.

  12. Peter Dupre says:

    “a congregation’s ability to thrive depends on people meeting together in crowds.” is a very recent practice where as the church for centuries met in very small gatherings in homes. A congregations ability to thrive depends on people using their spiritual gifts in serving the body of Christ which is often done better in smaller gatherings of 8-10 people than in large gathering where a very small group of people get to use their gifts. I think that the church’s finances thriving depends on people meeting together in crowds.

    I am a pastor whose church is meeting online and has enjoyed more interaction and people using their gifts than when were were meeting in the building. I think the assumption that we need to move back into our performance model where a few paid staff do all of the presenting, speaking and worship leading, is not the only model of the apostolic vision of the church as it was implemented in the first few centuries of the church.

  13. Tim Terhune says:

    Pastor Scott,
    Thank you very much for your writing and ministry. You have helped keep me spiritually and mentally sane these past few years.
    I am the pastor of a small church in Michigan. We have been doing outdoor worship since Father’s Day, but will soon need to move indoors. I like your hybrid idea of wearing masks during singing. Is that what you’re doing now? The church website says masks have to be worn during the whole service, so maybe that’s outdated information? I suggested the masks during singing at our elders meeting last night, so I want to make sure I didn’t misspeak when I used your church as an example. Thanks again for your ministry!

  14. Paul Atreides says:

    Thank you,Pastor Sauls, for your thoughtful words and selfless spirit during this time. The church we attend rushed back very quickly to in person meetings with half-hearted regard for CDC guidelines and has continued to make unsafe and poorly advised choices putting parishioners and their children at unnecessary risk. Our family has chosen to continue to watch our church’s live stream (due to some of us having adverse health conditions) but each Sunday has become harder as we can see on screen the active disregard for masks and social distancing from a slowly growing population each Sunday. This past Sunday our pastor seemed emboldened to be defiant by telling everyone watching to come physically to church and no longer live in fear. Needless to say, we are disheartened and feel that our presence and involvement is no longer valued. I hear the same from other like-minded friends at other churches who feel their churches have chosen a politicized and self-interested path rather than loving your neighbor selflessly and seeking their good and wellbeing. Thankfully there have been no known cases spread at the church yet, but I feel it is only a matter of time.

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