When organizations and governing officials provided guidelines for gatherings and later gave “stay at home orders,” the overwhelming majority of church leaders made the unprecedented decision to stop gathering physically. Leaders pressed pause on following the biblical mandate to “not neglect gathering together” in order to “submit to governing authorities” and “love our neighbor” (also biblical mandates) by working to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. The decision point was clear (you either gather or you do not) and the actions were fast. Yes, there were challenges with moving ministry exclusively online and finding ways to serve people in the broader communities, but the challenges with re-opening will be greater. Here is why:
1. Viewpoints are more divided.
Other than a few crazy voicemails to our church telling us that we no longer loved God for closing the church, people were on the same page that it was right and good for churches to close in the midst of the pandemic. What people, even church leaders, are not on the same page about is when churches should re-open. While there was unity in closing church gatherings, there will be disagreement in when and how to re-open church gatherings.
Here is a summary of two polar opposite viewpoints on when churches should re-open, with bullet points under each view representing that view. I have great and godly and wise friends with very differing viewpoints on when churches should physically gather again.
Some believe their church should re-open now.
- “Flattening the curve” was about not overwhelming hospitals to a point where the sick would not be cared for. We have done that, so let’s re-open.
- The implications of the “stay at home” order is devastating mental health and marriages. We must get our people in physical Christian community as fast as we can.
- Going back to church will be a process for people. It will take time; therefore, it is better to start the process now.
Some believe their church should wait until large gatherings can resume.
- If there is a surge in cases, we do not want faith communities to be responsible in any way as that would hurt our witness in the culture.
- Though not perfect, ministry online is providing care and resources for people.
- If we open now we are not providing church as a refuge and solace to people as the church they know will not be what we can provide (no kid’s ministry, masks, staying away from one another, etc.).
Of course, there are people who would place themselves in the middle of those two viewpoints (this is where I personally land, and I will share more later in the week).
With differing viewpoints, the potential for divisiveness among God’s people will be greater during “re-opening” than during “closing.” In our pride and fallenness, each side could accuse the other of not loving the Lord as much or not serving people well. Church leaders will likely feel the pain of people in their churches pointing to other church leaders and saying, “See! This is how we should be responding.” Let’s not do that! May we respect the views and plans of others and remember our ultimate unity is in Christ and not in our re-opening plans.
2. We have never done this before.
It is true that church leaders had also not “closed gatherings” before, but that was a moment more than a process. We turned the lights off, and we won’t be merely turning them back on. It will be a process which means our approaches will be changing quickly. In addition, there is a myriad of new processes church leaders are going to have to think about (training greeters in a new way, cleaning processes, seating arrangements, reservation systems, etc.) And that is just the physical gatherings. On top of the physical gatherings church leaders are going to need to continue serving people digitally at the same time because not every person is going to be ready to gather again even if governing authorities say that is ok to do so.
While “closing the church” has tested our leadership, our communication, and our responsiveness, “re-opening the church” will more so. The mountain we climbed to “close” and move ministry online is shorter than the mountain in front of us. We need His grace and His wisdom. And may we be gracious to others in the midst of it all.