The pressure is on.
The State of North Carolina implemented Phase 1 of its reopen plan on May 8, 2020. Some businesses can reopen with caveats: social distancing must be in place, extra cleaning must happen. State parks can reopen, but with limits on the number of people who can gather. Churches were to be allowed to meet outdoors, but still limited to 10 people indoors.
But two Baptist churches and an organization called “Return America, Inc.” sued, saying that the restrictions on gathering in churches violate the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And a federal judge temporarily blocked the North Carolina governor’s restrictions on religious services.
Now churches can open—with up to 50% occupancy, social distancing, and extra cleaning.
Upon hearing that churches could convene, a church member texted me, “If we’re opening, I’ll be there!” One church member, worried about our finances, who keeps asking, “Will we open by June?”
But hold on! The news says that churches are “super-spreaders.” In a case in California, 71 people connected with a congregation were infected with the virus. Also in California, a church was open on Mother’s Day and 180 people were exposed to the virus after one person tested positive for COVID-19 the day after. Folks have attended worship and died for it.
In early March, it was not too difficult to decide to close the church doors. With mounting numbers, and cries to “flatten the curve,” it became clear that closing church might help to contain the coronavirus. Closing seemed to be the loving thing to do.
But I believe church leadership will be pressured to reopen, sooner rather than later. And the pressure may not just come from our members, but also from our communities and partners. Reopening may soon be seen as the loving thing to do.
Will you resist? And if so, how?
The most compelling argument I have heard is theological. If we reopen, with modifications, who will be welcome in our pews? Will we ask our elderly to stay home? We will ask our immune compromised and sick to stay home? We will ask our children, at risk for MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children) to stay home?
Jesus’s invitation says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” When sick folks lined up for healing, Jesus did not turn them away. Are we the church for the elderly, the sick, the burdened? Or are we the church for the young and healthy?
There are other arguments, too. There are public health officials who say we’re opening too soon. There are added costs of opening—having masks available, having to hire cleaning crews. And I myself hate the idea of policing my congregation—but I’m sure that many of them will break the rules of social distancing. The temptation to hug is strong in my church.
I cannot help but think that the second best argument would be the excellence of our current strategy, that worshiping, fellowshipping, and learning online is promoting spiritual growth and is highly inclusive.
However, I do not think my church has reached that level of excellence. We still have people excluded because of their lack of resources—no internet at home and no devices to get online. We still have individuals who are reluctant to meet online, saying, “It’s just not my thing.” We’re not participating in the same numbers as we were pre-COVID-19, although we’re pretty close.
The onus is on clergy to “produce” church and its programming. And with tech difficulties, massive learning curves, and increased pastoral care needs, this initial phase of online church has been stressful and disheartening. Yes, we could argue against re-opening too soon with our online excellence, but there’s still a lot to do to meet that mark.
So, dear readers, how will you navigate this pull to re-open? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas—for the times, they are upon us.
Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).
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