To open or not to open? That is the question.
Updated: May 25, 2020
I was recently asked by two churches representing two different denominations to sit on committees exploring how and when to re-open their churches following the COVID-19 closures. Both churches' committees consist of clergy and staff, as well as lay people from the congregation. And, each has members representing different viewpoints on re-opening churches.
Some are of the opinion that corporate worship together in their sacred space with their revered liturgies and worship styles must happen soon. For them, church just isn't church if they're not in their sanctuary with their musicians singing their hymns listening to their preacher. They say, "the sooner the better."
Others are of the opinion that erring on the side of caution is best. They are concerned about people trusting the church to look out for everyone's best interest. They worry about others and carrying for the vulnerable amongst them. For them, waiting is the best option. "Better safe than sorry."
And, it seems everyone has some sort of statistical metric that they are concerned about. "We can't re-open until our area has had no rise in the rate of new cases for at least 14 days."
"A plateau isn't good enough, we need to wait until the reports of new cases actually declines."
"We've been in quarantine for 2 months. That's long enough. Temperatures have been over 90 this week. Viruses can't live in warm weather. Now's the time to open."
"We should go ahead and open at 25% capacity."
"25% capacity isn't a critical mass. We need to wait until we can open at 50% capacity."
The truth is, metrics are only PART of the picture. We definitely need to weigh the scientific evidence and to listen to what the experts are saying. But, the truth of the matter is, we are the church. While a business can rely solely on scientific evidence, we cannot. There are certain theological implications which the church must consider.
#1 - Money can't be a consideration. Businesses have a bottom line to meet. Churches do not. Some churches are concerned about a decline in tithing and giving trends. They worry about laying off staff members and paying bills. Finances cannot be a major consideration for the church. I'm not saying, "don't worry about your bills or paying your people." But I am saying, "don't let money drive your decisions. Let fidelity to God and ministry drive your decisions." With unemployment rates rising and congregants feeling strong financial pressures, it is unlikely that your giving will increase just because you returned to in-person worship.
#2 - The church is not a building. Churches have been doing very creative ministry and finding new and innovative ways to connect with members and to serve their mission fields. Continue that innovation. You are no less the church just because you are worshiping online instead of in your sanctuary. WE are the church, not our building.
#3 - Church is built on trust. If people think you are rushing or don't have their best interests at heart, they will not trust you. If they can't trust you with their physical well-being, how can they trust you with their spiritual well-being?
#4 - Jesus showed a proclivity toward vulnerable populations. The poor, the sick, and the marginalized were frequent beneficiaries of his lessons and his miracles. Who amongst us is most at risk during the age of COVID-19? The poor. The sick. Marginalized communities such as the elderly or the homeless or those who are medically fragile. If the church claims to reflect Jesus in this world, shouldn't the church show a deep concern for those most at risk?
As your church seeks answers to difficult questions regarding re-opening your facilities, take time to reflect theologically about what those decisions mean. Are you re-opening for yourself? Or, are you re-opening for others? Where is Christ in your decisions?