(This was originally posted on March 27, 2020)
I feel like the COVID-19 unexpectedly launched churches into outer space. It’s been a disorienting ride, and we are struggling to adapt to the weightlessness of social distance. While we orbit in our new reality for the next several weeks, church leaders should begin thinking about how to reenter the normal atmosphere of ministry.
This short article explains why the time of re-entry into earth’s atmosphere is the most dangerous hour for spaceflights. Suffice it to say, there are many variables and many opportunities for disaster. I think the church will face a similar danger when we attempt re-entry into the atmosphere of normalcy after the COVID-19 crisis.
What are some dangers to prepare for now while we orbit and wait for re-entry? I’m thinking through four statements that may either be said to us or that we will say. I do not have many answers yet, but I invite you to think through the statements with me.
1. “Online was just fine!” As soon as churches got wind of government restrictions on public gatherings, there was a mad rush to figure out live streaming. Churches that typically would have ignored the priority of an online ministry (or even scoffed at it) were now jumping in with both feet, trying to figure it out during the plunge into darkness.
I understand why churches did this. Our church has had live streaming for several years now, so I’m not against the tool. What I do think we should be cautious about, however, is trying to replicate what we do each Sunday for a livestream and calling it a church gathering.
No matter what you do this Sunday during your livestream, it isn’t church. The church is a gathering of people for edification, encouragement, and the ordinances. We cannot replicate that online. Nor should we try. Perhaps God is giving us time away from the church so we can learn to love it more. Lament strengthens love.
So, my advice is to be careful about calling livestream events “church services.” Doing so may cue some to say, when on the other side of COVID-19 meeting restrictions, “Online was just fine.”
2. “Safety is our priority.” I understand prioritizing health and safety. Furthermore, we particularly need to protect the most vulnerable of our society. But should safety be our first priority? When churches get the all-clear signal to meet again, some will be fearful of meeting. How will we lovingly shepherd them through that fear? What can we be doing now to make that future conversation easier?
I am also thinking through the greater danger of unwittingly fostering an unwillingness to take risks for the gospel. Our society elevated safety and security to an unhealthy level before COVID-19. It will only be worse after COVID-19. Too many in our churches are willing to follow Jesus as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. But we know that Jesus said those are not true disciples. A disciple is someone who isn’t afraid of bearing a cross. We must begin thinking through the balance of safety and the call to take risks for the gospel.
3. “I’m loving my neighbor by staying away from him/her.” The hardest habits to break are the ones that are most unhealthy. COVID-19 forced an unhealthy habit upon us. We are calling this habit “social distancing.”
I firmly agree that social distancing is needed while we attempt to stop the spread of this lethal virus. But social distancing is like powerful pain killers. They are required for the crisis, but are highly addictive and can be devastating if used too much and for too long.
Christians are called to gather together and reach out in love. We are called to be like the Good Samaritan and risk uncleanliness, safety, and health to help others. Jesus wasn’t afraid of lepers, and our calling is to visit the sick, not just the healthy.
As we think through the church’s re-entry into our normal atmosphere, we will have to lovingly push against the habit of social distancing. How can we be encouraging connectivity and serving others now so that practice isn’t lost to social distancing?
4. “We spent too much energy on enduring and not on repenting, learning, and worshipping.” This last statement is one that I hope I don’t make after COVID-19. The concern for my soul and my church is that we will have spent so much time and energy on enduring the trial that we didn’t spend enough time repenting of sin, learning about the Bible and other people, and worshipping God.
We need to encourage repentance, learning, and worship through the COVID-19 crisis. Sir Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Never waste a good crisis.” I hope our churches do not waste this crisis. I hope I don’t waste this crisis.
We are going through strange and challenging times. But let’s not be so focused on today that we fail to prepare ourselves, our families, and our churches for the potential dangers than lie ahead of us. The re-entry will be difficult – probably more complicated than we expect. Let’s begin now to pray for wisdom for when we get to the other side of this health crisis.