To open, or not to open: that is the question
One of the biggest decisions facing church leaders today is whether to open their churches for in-person worship, and, if so, what modifications to make to ensure congregants' safety. This is not an easy decision by any means, and EVERYONE seems to have an opinion about it. If you poll your church membership, you will probably get as many different answers or versions of an answer as you have members.
There are those who feel that church is such a central part of life that they MUST return to in-person worship. Among this group are those who feel that the government is infringing upon their First Amendment rights by "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion.
Then, there are those who feel that the most loving and Christian thing that can be done is to continue to keep the churches closed so that no one's physical health is compromised by unintentional exposure to the coronavirus.
Much of this seems to be local, regional, and anecdotal. I have been involved in conversations with several different churches across multiple denominations in different areas, each with their own opinion and predominant preference.
However, there actually is some research out there as to what Americans prefer when it comes to opening their houses of worship. Recent data from the Pew Research Center (https://www.pewforum.org/2020/08/07/americans-oppose-religious-exemptions-from-coronavirus-related-restrictions/) indicates that approximately 70% of Americans favor re-opening churches. In that 70%, 13% feel churches should open with no restrictions and immediately return to pre-COVID-19 operations while 57% prefer opening their worship spaces with some safety and health modifications (such as masks and required social distancing) in place. Again, these numbers vary by region and church affiliation, but, on the aggregate, 7 in 10 Americans favor re-opening their churches.
What is interesting to note here is the difference in attitudes toward re-opening churches and re-opening schools. Citing research by the Peterson Foundation, US News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2020-08-18/poll-6-in-10-americans-oppose-reopening-schools-in-person) recently reported that 61% of Americans are opposed to re-opening schools to in-person instruction. Many feel that it simply is not safe for students to return to the classroom environment. Again, this number varies drastically, not by region, but by political affiliation. However, the 61% represents the average of all respondents.
These numbers are very interesting. Most people (at least Christians) would argue that church and school are two of the most important institutions in our society. In many ways, they both exist for the betterment of others. When he was a high school principal, my dear friend and current Superintendent of Conroe (TX) Independent School District, Dr. Curtis Null, always hosted a breakfast gathering of pastors and youth directors just before the school year started. During this gathering he would always share his philosophy that schools and churches were 2 of the 3 most important sectors that supported a strong community (business was the 3rd sector). He always encouraged the religious community to work with the schools to make the entire community better.
So, if churches and schools share this heritage and this societal importance of strengthening communities, why the different attitudes toward re-opening? Why do 7 in 10 Americans want their churches to re-open while 6 in 10 Americans oppose re-opening schools? Why do the majority of people want to re-open their churches but not their schools? What does this say about our priorities and our predilections?
I'm afraid I can't turn to empirical research to answer those questions. Is it because we want to protect children more than we want to protect ourselves or other adults? Probably "yes" and probably "no." Is it because we trust our churches to provide a more sanitary environment than our schools? Probably "yes" and probably "no." Is it because we think adults and children under the direct supervision of their parents will do a better job of social distancing than 25 children in a classroom with only 1 adult? Probably "yes" and probably "no."
The truth is, there is no one cause or reason for our different attitudes toward churches and schools. Just as there are regional differences; just as their are political differences; just as there are societal differences; so, too, are there personal differences. At the end of the day, church and school leaders have no choice but to decide what is best for THEIR congregation or school in THEIR location under THEIR unique circumstances. No one poll; no one research group; no one finding can replace the human interaction of science, reason, belief, compassion, interpretation, and decision-making.
When all is said and done, each leader simply must choose what is right for their own group at the time. It can't be based on national averages. It can't be based on what the church down the street is doing. It can't be based on what the neighboring school district is doing. It must be an individual decision that is best for the organization you lead. Step up. Embrace your leadership. And, do what is right for your people.