By Rev. Seth Hix,
CBFNC Associate Coordinator
Much has been written recently about church life and ministry as we begin to move into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, CBFNC Executive Coordinator Larry Hovis shared some important considerations for “When and How Can We Resume our Church Gatherings?” CBFNC has planned a new virtual roundtable series, “What’s Next,” and will produce Tip Sheets on a variety of practical issues about reopening the physical church doors.
When and How questions have tangible and concrete, though complicated, answers. However, before our minds are completely consumed with how to sanitize our facilities and pass the peace with appropriate physical distance, might we also consider an equally important and less tangible question: why?
Before moving forward, perhaps it is prudent to revisit the “why” that was at the heart of the extraordinary decision to close the physical church doors in March. When churches began to close, church websites and Facebook pages included phrases like, “out of an abundance of caution” and “out of love and care for our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable among us” and “our commitment to be responsible community leaders” as some of the reasons to suspend physical gatherings. Let’s consider each of these.
An Abundance of Caution
We must first acknowledge that fear and anxiety are interwoven into all aspects of quarantine life. The physical and mental health of our families, along with employment and school, are just some of the concerns we all have. For church leaders, fear is not limited to physical safety. There are real concerns about offerings and church budgets. There is anxiety around losing connection with our congregations. There is fear about the sustainability of treasured ministries.
An ever-present anxiety seems to hover over the future of our churches. No one knows what our churches will look like in six months or a year. Yet, we are called to live by faith, not fear.
So how does our faith inform our decisions moving forward?
We certainly want to remain attentive to the guidelines from local, state and federal government. Yet, permission from officials does not mean it is advisable for congregations to resume services immediately. And we should not assume that opening the church doors will instantly result in increased engagement, offerings or large crowds. Each congregation must consider a variety of factors unique to your local community to determine when it is safe and prudent to convene gatherings of any size.
Love and Care for (each other) and Our Neighbors
Senior adults, many with underlying health conditions, are the largest demographic for most of our congregations. In fact, many of our most faithful members who rarely miss a Sunday fit into the high-risk category. How does this impact the decision to open our facilities for large gatherings?
Maybe loving our neighbors means continuing to find ways to deepen connections and build disciples creatively through separation?
The most meaningful byproduct of COVID-19 worship for me has been the displacement of the proclamation of the gospel from the pulpit. The story of God’s people has gained new energy as church leaders preach and teach and pray and sing from their living rooms, backyards, front porches and sidewalks. The church at work in the world is a powerful image. While we are all eager to physically reunite with our beloved community, perhaps it is an act of love to allow our recent learnings to shape our future. After all, many of our neighbors have not been inside our churches for some time! We’ve opened ourselves up to moving the center of Christian discipleship and spiritual growth outside of the church walls. Let’s not be so quick to bring it back inside!
How can we offer the most impactful discipleship and worship? Is it through physically distanced in-person meetings? Does the new capacity that we’ve created and refined over the past seven weeks inform how (and when) we move forward?
Responsible Community Leadership
What is the responsibility of the church in the community? Do our churches show leadership in the community? Are we paying attention to the public witness our actions may/may not proclaim? What does the Church have to offer the community in the midst of a global pandemic?
Maybe these 40+ days of wandering in the socially-distanced wilderness can remind us of the Church’s unique gifts. CBFNC congregations have done an incredible job of adapting to these new challenges. After all, this is not the Church’s first crisis! In fact, much of congregational ministry centers on times of personal and communal crisis. Some might even consider us crisis management experts!
In this pandemic, we offer God’s abundance to a world consumed with scarcity; an abundance of love and care; an abundance of grace for those who are struggling; and an abundance of resources. Pastoral and lay leaders have a unique set of theological and experiential tools to share a bold witness in the face of immense challenges presented by COVID-19.
What if the Church is relearning that our best public witness isn’t on Sunday morning in our sanctuary, but when we are dispersed in the community? What if the church became the leading voice in adapting the lessons learned in this liminal space into a new paradigm of ministry with and in the world?
We have already witnessed the resiliency of God’s people in this unprecedented crisis. And I for one am eager to see the creativity and ingenuity of God’s people moving forward. As your congregation considers when and how to open, I hope that you will also take time to ask why.
What is motivating our decisions? How can we faithfully be God’s people in an unsettled time? Are our decisions based on a return to normalcy or a call to be the most effective community of believers?
There are no easy answers. But as people of faith, we should consider questions of safety, effectiveness, capacity and public witness before ever resuming in-person meetings. As Baptists, each congregation has the freedom and responsibility to create its own path forward. In every decision let us earnestly look for the movement of God’s Spirit.