By Josh Ellis & Keelan Cook
The following article is part of a collective resource for considering your church’s current practices in light of COVID-19. This collection of articles is designed to help pastors, church leaders, and church members as they forge a path forward. The work of the Great Commission doesn’t stop for a storm, a shooting, or a pandemic. However, the methodology of transmitting the gospel will look different in each of those cases and as cultural and regional contexts play a role in shaping the channels through which the gospel most easily flows. There is a lot to unpack here.
With this collection of articles, our friends over at UBA Houston are attempting not to prescribe a particular program or method, but to encourage leaders to constantly reevaluate their circumstances through a healthy theological framework as new information becomes available.
This past weekend, UBA churches met in person and met online. UBA churches streamed their services exclusively, and some streamed their services while also welcoming people in person and limiting the group size. The staff of UBA will not criticize the decision of pastors and leaders in how they choose to lead their congregations, though we will recommend what we feel are best practices. In light of those recommendations, we get questions and some are best answered publicly.
SHOULD THE CHURCH COMPLY WITH THESE RESTRICTIONS?
Some of these questions go together: “Is the government telling me to shut down my church? Haven’t they heard of the First Amendment? The CDC says social gatherings should be limited to less than ten people- a worship service isn’t a social gathering so does it apply to churches?”
I’m (Josh) not a constitutional scholar or a lawyer, and while I’ve watched enough West Wing to want a swing at that pitch, I don’t have to. This is an opportunity to be both good neighbors and good citizens. The best medical minds in the world tell us that gatherings of any size put people at risk of a potentially life threatening disease, and our national and regional governmental authorities are asking us not to do that.
It seems pretty clear from Scripture that we have a neighborly response according to Jesus (Mark 12:31) and a civic responsibility to comply with this request (Romans 13). If you want to argue with the restrictions from a legal basis, that’s your prerogative, but the sociological basis for complying with them is also found in scripture: But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer 29:7).
By now, you’re probably saturated by news filled with terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.” There is good science behind these terms and the medical community seems united behind them. Why then, does the church wrestle with keeping the doors open for weekday programming or struggle to suspend weekend services? Some of the reasons are tied to bad theology. Some of the reasons are tied to a genuine sense of ministry to the community but a locked-in methodology that cannot adapt to current circumstances [call us, we can help].
Some of the reasons come out of the heartbreaking reality that the community in which they serve barely have homes to go home to, and thus the church remains the only place of solace they have. Our only caution is that churches carefully and prayerfully determine to what—if any—extent they need their facilities open these days. Churches must be very careful to distinguish where they are best equipped to serve and in which context they actually serve, lest a martyr complex baptized in the words of Matthew 25 accidentally cause more sickness rather than healing.
We received one more question that deserves a public answer: “Shouldn’t the church be open to receive those seeking answers in this troubling time?” I (Josh) did a quick poll of churches who were open to receiving walk-in visitors this past Sunday because I was curious how many people from the general public would be seeking out a church to find solace and answers. There was a higher likelihood of visitors in Hispanic and African American churches, but in general, the chance of a visitor coming was very low.
The public doesn’t seem to be seeking out a large mass gathering right now, probably because they are listening to the best medical advice out there that says to avoid such places (on top of the general spiritual apathy our country is already experiencing). Not to mention that generationally speaking, Boomers are most likely to stroll into your church unannounced, while GenX, Millennials, and GenZ will all find you online first.
MAKING DECISIONS WITH YOUR VALUES
Last week, many churches made announcements that they were having their normal in-person worship services up through Wednesday only to change those plans on Thursday and Friday. That’s simply the way it goes sometimes—you make the best call with the best information you have at the time, and you modify it if better information comes along. It’s only natural that in those circumstances, there is some second-guessing that comes along with those decisions. I know many leaders who went to bed Sunday night planning on making more informed, contemplative decisions this week.
I know I did. Last week, I (Josh) asked UBA staff to begin preparations for working remotely, using our building sparingly, and having it open to small groups only. By the end of Monday, it was determined that UBA staff will be working exclusively by remote until the end of April and that the building will be closed to all groups during that same time. Lacking what other information we may have wanted, we resorted to our values. We value our team, and we value every person who comes to our facility. Since we could not guarantee that our facility would always meet the CDC guidelines for disinfection, that ruled out groups coming and possibly being exposed to unnecessary risk. In the absence of information, resort to your values.
There have been many questions about suspending in-person Sunday gatherings that we cannot answer. We don’t know when the restrictions might end. We don’t always understand the realities of the homelife that people seek to escape by going to church. We don’t know how different cultures handle social distance or how different generations handle technological shifts. We don’t know how churches are going to pay their expenses without the weekly tithes and offerings being collected in person [though I have some ideas on that one].
But when in doubt, we resort to our values, values grounded in important themes in Scripture concerning his church and its mission. We value faith in a God who promised he would never leave us or forsake us. He promised he would take care of our needs, so let us take him at his word.
We value loving people because the God we love said that is part of loving him. And part of loving people is keeping people from getting sick. I’m (Josh) not going to call out people’s faith and ask them to do something that doctors tell us is bad for them any more than I would push someone off a cliff and pray God would save them from gravity.
We don’t know much, but we know that a God who can work through tribal people, enslaved people, nomadic people, persecuted people, dispersed people, and complacent people can surely work through a temporarily sequestered people with WIFI.
GUIDELINES FOR GROUPS OF LESS THAN 10:
I (Josh) have a PhD, but I’m not a doctor. I would urge everyone to remember that they are also not doctors either—unless they graduated from medical school. So I offer the following guidelines with some trepidation. In the event that your family gathers with another family (and maybe connects to two other families via video chat), I figured some guidance is better than none.
I suggest this full article by Andy Crouch, and in it, he relays CDC guidelines for small groups meeting in homes. Gathering groups of people is safest when those people have been isolated for a period of 14 days and have shown no symptoms of sickness of any kind. So in a perfect world, if Family A and Family B had hunkered down separately for 14 days without developing symptoms,, these two families should be able to hang out with little to worry about. Groups of less than ten people can meet together with minimal risk to public health, provided that:
- no one present is sick or has any reason to think they have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus),
- shared surfaces are disinfected before and after the meeting,
- everyone washes their hands thoroughly (more than 20 seconds) upon arrival and upon returning to their home,
- food and drink are served individually, and
- as much distance as possible is maintained between members of different households and their belongings.
It’s Houston, and we’re in that brief time of year when eating outdoors is an enjoyable thing to do. Well ventilated spaces are an even better setting for getting together under these circumstances, and who in Houston ever needs a reason to have another family over for a backyard barbeque?
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Union Baptist Association’s site.,
Published March 20, 2020